‘If politicians are brave enough, Brexit could be a sea change and a fantastic opportunity for us’
You might be forgiven for thinking that all businesspeople in the border city of Newry, Co Down, are feeling extremely rattled by last week’s UK vote to leave the European Union.
It’s a location dependent on cross-border trade and the freedom of movement of workers, goods and services across the border.
But Paul McKenna, the managing director of Newry-based fit-out firm mac-interiors — which carries out most of its work in the Republic — is calm and collected. Around 90% of its business is conducted in euros, from supply chain to payments to sub-contractors — so a weakening sterling has worked in its favour.
And the 49-year-old tells us he voted Leave, on the basis that he likes to “challenge the norm”.
After working for dominant fit-out company Structure Tone, he decided to shake things up in 2002 by setting up his own business.
It’s now a major player in the sector, with three companies in total with turnover of around £100m and pre-tax profits of £4m. The company’s Republic of Ireland focus came about after it realised that Belfast represented only 10% of the commercial office market on the island. The company avoids public sector work — which still dominates the market on this side of the border. When the recession hit in 2008 and 2009, it diversified into carrying out more work in Europe, including completing Intel’s headquarters in Munich.
But it has been able to swing more work in Belfast, carrying out work for Davy Private Clients, Citibank, Diageo and Grant Thornton. It’s also tendering for work in City Quays, and hopeful of securing major fit-out deals for River House in Belfast’s High Street. And in the Republic, it’s worked on offices for blue chips and tech stars such as Abbvie, IBM, 3 Ireland, HubSpot and Hewlett-Packard.
Paul spent much of his early years in Coventry in the West Midlands after his Co Armagh-born father and his mother, who was from Donegal, moved there in the early Sixties.
“My father was an engineer who worked for British Leyland. He and my mother went over there as young people and were typical of many from Ireland in the late Fifties and early Sixties,” he said.
“There were limited opportunities here, and as the Sixties went on, you were facing into the Troubles. So a lot of young men left Northern Ireland and went to England. It was the end of the Industrial Revolution and motorways were being built and cars were being manufactured in England. There was a lot of manufacturing, and so a lot of job opportunities.”
By then, Paul was one of four children, with two sisters and a brother. But the family faced upheaval when Paul’s father was left a small farm at the homestead in Derrynoose, near Keady and a move home beckoned.
Relocating to rural Co Armagh came as a shock.
“I was used to being able to step out my front door and visit the shops or a cinema — all the things we now have in larger towns — to basically complete isolation in rural Ireland. It was so different then to how it is now.”
So history repeated itself, with Paul again moving to England. “In fairness, there had been a lot of emigration from Keady to London, mainly in the building trade.
“I got a scholarship from Bovis, a major UK construction company, and studied construction engineering at Coventry University.”
After graduation, he moved to London. “I worked for big fit-out specialists in central London and was project manager on Canary Wharf Tower/One Canada Square, a really iconic building — as well as Broadgate Phase 11, the big steel arch over Liverpool Street Station.”
Fit-out fast became the aspect of construction which attracted him most. “It was the speed to the market that I liked, how quickly you can transform an office space when you have the right management skills, drive, determination and planning put into space.
“We are classed as a building category, but we make serious transformations in weeks rather than months — while building takes a lot longer.”
The idea of starting his business started to percolate after a few years in Structure Tone. “At that point, we were answerable to a board in the US with really, very little interest in us. We were just a regional office in a $3bn-a- year company. It had clients that were huge multi-nationals back in the States and Ireland was just a small office.”
He realised he could do the same kind of work for multi-nationals by having his own business. “I took great pride in working for Structuretone and it’s a name that carried real presence in the industry. When I went out on my own, I wanted to mirror that and be the best of the best.”
One of his first employees was Ronan McGovern, then a star of the Down GAA team — who insisted he’d only work for the company if it was based in Northern Ireland.
Building up the company has taken a lot of dedication. “My wife would say I don’t have any time off from work because it’s what I am and it’s what the business is. My close mates are involved in the business and I have a handful of mates not related to mac itself. I wouldn’t say it takes over, but you do breathe it.”
There may be a boom in new inward investment in the Republic as investors spooked by the vote up sticks from London and establish themselves in EU member states — as Morgan Stanley has threatened to do.
But he says there’s a lack of office space in Dublin to accommodate them. “If Brexit went ahead and Morgan Stanley moved, they would need 450,000 sq ft — that’s every available sq ft in Dublin at the moment.”
But acknowledges he didn’t feel that the final verdict of last week’s vote would be Leave.
“I don’t know if my own personal feeling was they were going to leave. Older people had enough of being controlled and immigration outside in London was a huge issue.
“But the Remain people presented their campaign as more of an investment and monetary problem. It’s a worrying time.
“The other thing for the UK is that Great Britain is an island, and the rest of Europe is a mainland with shared borders. It’s a lot easier for the rest of the UK to control their own borders. Personally, I think it’s a good thing. It’ll wake up the government in the UK. They have lost the common touch and the connection with people.
“It was very brash of David Cameron to come out and call this and expect a landslide. He hadn’t read the feeling and how concerned the general public is. That’s going to be his legacy.”
But he’s hopeful that the all-island economy can continue. “That will take mutual agreement between Stormont and London, and a decision to tighten-up airport and port controls rather than policing the north/south border.”
And even if he voted out himself, he’s not sure that a full Brexit will ever happen.
“In reality, my own personal feelings are that there could be a renegotiation on the whole thing. I don’t think the nuclear button will be pushed.”
The father of four now lives on the Dublin Road in Newry. He has four children, aged 5, 10, 18 and 27, and is married to Liz. The eldest, Kirsty, is a chartered surveyor in London.
He thinks that the levels of professional expertise among companies in Newry will be able to adapt to a new order in business.
There will be some uncertainty for Northern Ireland’s ability to attract inward investment. But Paul says he dares to hope that Northern Ireland could negotiate a special status within the EU. “There is going to be a huge amount of uncertainty but if politicians here are brave enough to negotiate, there could be a sea change and a fantastic opportunity.
“I voted Leave because I would always challenge the norm.
“At mac-interiors we haven’t just done what everyone else has done, and we still think we can do things better and always continue to improve.”