John O’Donoghue – always up for a challenge

By Ilana Koegelenberg

Director and co-founder of BJ Cooling, John O’Donoghue has been around the block many times and today fills his days with a mix of HVAC contracting and amateur photography.

John001O’Donoghue and his son Brendan started BJ Cooling and Heating in 2000. He is proud of the fact that in the 35 years prior to starting this HVAC contracting business, he only moved companies three times.

Getting started

His working career started off in the purchasing department of the then-largest retail chain in South Africa. After eight years, he joined Barlows Manufacturing Co. in 1973. He worked his way up over the next 26 years, eventually running branches all over the country. 

In those days, the national brand air conditioners were imported from Japan, O’Donoghue remembers. “Back then the range consisted of about four window units, three or four consoles (through the wall type), and about three or four split floor systems only. No heat pumps; only electric heating.”

Back then, consoles were apparently the “flavour of the decade”, and just about every office park and hotel development installed these, according to O’Donoghue. There were high volumes, and this made it viable for local manufacturers to produce these.

Today, the industry has changed vastly, he says.

Education matters

O’Donoghue has taken a keen interest in the challenges of employing school leavers and training them in the HVAC&R industry. “This is the most difficult part of running your own business because there is zero success in finding youngsters with a technical aptitude.” He believes that re-establishing technical high schools will go far in alleviating the skills shortage. “More money should be directed at improving basic education and not offer free or subsidised tertiary education.”

O’Donoghue himself attended the Pietermaritzburg Technical High School and believes in the value that such establishments can add.

Moving into Africa

After 10 years at BJ Cooling, and much reading about the economic growth in Zambia, it whetted O’Donoghue’s appetite to set up business in that country. His son Brendan continued with the business in South Africa.

At the age of 66 years, when most people have retired, O’Donoghue set his sights on this challenge. He went about literally knocking on doors and for the three years that he operated in Zambia, he worked around the clock to complete a variety of HVAC&R projects for clients such as Barloworld in Kitwe; Spar; KFC; and the Radisson Hotel in Lusaka.

He then sold the business to the Zambians who had worked for him and today, they continue with a successful business, producing quality work.

On the lighter side …

O’Donoghue’s favourite pastime is his photography hobby. “I am very much an amateur still, and the reason I’m still working at my age is to pay for my holidays with a slant to the photographic side.”

Whether following the Dakar motor races in South America or running up and down the sand dunes of the Atacama Desert in Chile, he’s all about the action when photographing on holiday.


Click here to read the June 2018 issue of RACA Journal

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