How joinery firm went from fixing up shops after bomb attacks to being the first name in luxury store design
Oscar de la Renta, Harvey Nichols, Issey Miyake - the roll call of designer clients at fit-out firm Portview sounds more like a celebrity wardrobe than the bread and butter work of a construction firm.
However, under the leadership of managing director Simon Campbell, Portview Fit-Out in east Belfast has cornered the market in fitting out luxury stores for upmarket brands.
It's also currently working on the corporate hospitality sections of the Olympic Stadium in London before it's handed over to West Ham, as well as other capital fit-outs for top-drawer departments stores Selfridges and Harvey Nichols.
The 41-year-old company has also fitted out shops for Butlers Chocolate Cafe and the patisserie the Hummingbird Bakery.
Speak to father-of-three Simon and you'd think he was born to the construction and fit-out trade, but his background is accountancy.
But perhaps the attention to detail that accountancy requires has lent itself well to the fit-out trade.
"In the high-end market, you'd be amazed at the level of detail that people get into," he says.
"A normal person walking into the store would almost never notice.
"If you think of the detail of a high-quality handbag by a designer, that level of quality also needs to be reflected in the environment it's sold in.
"That is very challenging and you have to have the right supply chain, so we have had to evolve and acquire that capability as we went along.
"There is a huge pool of talent in Northern Ireland but we have relationships with other companies from all over the world."
Simon, who grew up in Stranmillis in south Belfast, attended Annadale Grammar - now Wellington College.
There were a few twists of fate following his economics degree at Bristol University before he chose accountancy. "I probably had a dim view of the profession of accountancy as a youthful graduate. I got recruited by Midland Bank to come back to Northern Ireland but decided to defer for a year. I took a year out and went to India, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand and Los Angeles," he says.
"That kind of gap year wasn't as common a thing then and I think I benefited from doing it after being a student.
"When I came back, Midland Bank told me they'd sold the Northern Bank so I couldn't go back to Northern Ireland. I ended up working in Bristol and I was happy enough to do that.
"But soon it felt like the right time to move home. Staying in banking wasn't attractive so I sold my soul and became a chartered accountant and worked my way up."
That entailed three and a half years of study, which he excelled in, winning two separate awards for his results. He trained with accountancy firm Ernst & Young, now EY. "I didn't have a passion to be an auditor or any desire to work my way up through a career in a practice. I got the Belfast Telegraph out to see what vacancies there were, and applied for a job with Deramore Developments, the construction arm of Deramore Property.
"There was later a management buy-out led by managing director Alan Davidson. He lived in a street in Bangor called Portview so that's where the name came from."
Forging work outside of what they'd done in the past for Deramore was an immediate challenge. But as luck would have it, retail was expanding in the period after the buy-out in 1994.
"We picked up the first fit-out for Currys/PC World at Sprucefield even though we didn't have any experience at that point," says Simon.
"It went very well and we formed a long healthy relationship with Dixons Stores Group. But unfortunately, at that stage the Troubles were still going on, so we picked up a lot of reactive maintenance after bomb attacks. We'd be on call at weekends to do boarding up and refits on bomb damaged locations like Lisburn. That was just the background to life.
"But we kind of grew up on the high street, I suppose, working for HMV, Mothercare, the Early Learning Centre and Iceland."
It began to branch out into working in Scotland, though Simon adds: "We've always approached clients on a relationship basis rather than specific geographical locations."
He thinks that client approach has helped it avoid the fate of other fit-out firms such as Patton, the Ballymena-based company which went out of business in 2012 with the loss of 200 jobs.
"Pattons were a big player at the time but they focused on anchor stores," he says.
"We benefited from them paying less attention to 'shops along the mall' so we ended up doing multiple store roll-outs for clients like O2 and Orange, which helped us to expand. But we were making it up as we went along."
It felt like a "vibrant and healthy" sector to work in with a strong entrepreneurial spirit.
And it has forged a strong business in England. "We've shown that you can operate in England from a Northern Ireland base. Initially when we went to London people were very sceptical that we did not have a location there," he says. "But we've proved it can be done - 98% of our work is now outside of Northern Ireland as there's no high-end demand here."
A boom in retail and new shopping centres in the Republic also benefited the company. Its relationships with UK retailers paid off as those companies - including Topshop parent company Arcadia - set up increasing numbers of stores in the Republic.
And it also got involved in working in new shopping centres in the Republic, such as Dundrum Town Centre.
But he was shrewd enough to sense that it the boom in the Republic couldn't last.
"We didn't foresee the world-wide recession but we did think the growth in the south would be a one-off, so we worked very hard to replace the work in the south with work in mainland UK," says Simon. "We appointed a business development manager in England and started our first luxury work on a Morellis ice-cream concession in a Harrods shop in 106 Brompton Road, though it later closed."
His company is part of an industry-wide trend for construction-related companies to pick up a large amount of their work in Great Britain, due to a lack of work at home.
And he feels it's a good thing. "I believe the Northern Ireland story is a selling point rather than a hindrance, and that's because of the type of people we are. We are very conscientious with a good work ethic," he says.
"We do a good job and have a satisfied customer. We don't do it by being contractual but we go the extra mile and do it to build up a long-term relationship so they come back for more.
"For us, our high levels of repeat business have been hugely important. It's a good story to tell."
Recent construction surveys have pointed to a continued pattern of Northern Ireland building relying on work in Great Britain to keep going.
The Federation of Master Builders (FMB) argued that other regions instead of Northern Ireland were seeing the long-term benefits that construction work brings. And there were "social repercussions" such as workers leaving their partners and children behind - or even uprooting them completely.
But Simon feels the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. "I can understand the argument and I think that our move to working in the UK came long before more traditional construction companies had to move because of lack of capital spending here," he says.
"Yes, we have had to strike a balance between people's family life but we also reward them appropriately for working away.
"The shop-fitting industry has always been mobile and it's a way of life. Some people like and enjoy it and relish it and you have to come into it with that mindset."
He hasn't met too many of the designers he's worked for but he did encounter Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger. "We carried out a corporate hospitality project at the Emirates Stadium for Arsene Wenger, and he was on site a few times. That was a very iconic project for us.
"A couple of the directors were having a bet whether we could deliver their brief in the timescale but with our can-do and pragmatic approach, we delivered a fantastic project on time and on budget. Four years on, it's still a benchmark for corporate hospitality.
"We got in there through our relationship with a designer called 20 20, who recommended us after we worked with them before on a cinema project.
"As a designer they say a client should get 60% of their vision from a company like us, but we've been told we deliver 95%."
'Get good people in to do what you are not good at'
Q. What’s the best piece of business (or life) advice you’ve ever been given?
A. It was a story a lecturer once told me in relation to exam technique but which I think applies to many situations. An old bull and a young bull come across a field of cows and in its youthful exuberance the young bull says to the old one: “Let’s run down and have one each.” The old bull replies: “No — let’s walk down and have them all.”
Q. What advice would you pass on to someone starting out in business?
A. Play to your strengths and get good people in to do what you are not good at.
Q. What was your best business decision? What was your worst?
A. Employing some really fantastic people. Employing some lousy people.
Q. If you weren’t doing this job, what would be your other career?
A. A teacher or lecturer as I love learning.
Q. What was your last holiday? Where are you going next?
A. Last holiday was a weekend break to Vilnius in Lithuania. I love to travel and my wife and I have been working our way around European city breaks when we can. Next trip is to watch Norn Iron in France this summer. First part is the die-hards only and the second is with the next generation.
Q. What are your hobbies/interests?
A Travel, languages, politics, art, music, reading, keep fit — I used to be a keen athlete but those days are a fading memory. Kids’ taxi is the major pursuit at present.
Q. What is your favourite band/album or piece of music, and why?
A I have a very wide taste in music from New Order to Bob Dylan, but the one piece I love is Neil Young’s Like a Hurricane from his live album Live Rust. I love live music and can’t wait to see him play Belfast for the first time ever next month.
Q. What is your favourite sport and team? And have you ever played any sports?
A. As I said I used to be a keen cross-country and middle distance runner but I love most sports from football and rugby and I’m an avid follower of the Tour de France. A sorrowful Leeds fan.
Q. If you enjoy reading, can you recommend a book?
A I am reading a brilliant book at the minute — A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James (winner of the Man Booker prize in 2015). It’s set in Jamaica and the US around the time of Bob Marley and the lives of various gang members from Kingston — very different and challenging, but exposes you to things you would have no conception of otherwise. That’s the beauty of reading, as I keep telling my kids.