Belfast Telegraph

Belfast toy business could expand with business loan

by lesley houston

A business loan could help a burgeoning Belfast educational toy company expand into the rest of the UK and Ireland.

The Learning Space NI, which is based in the Fountain Centre in the city centre, was one of three businesses to get their hands on a cash injection from the Northern Ireland Small Business Loan Fund.

The Invest NI-backed fund also announced loans today to boutique candle maker Castle Hill Candles in Portaferry and gym and fitness studio Push Fitness in Enniskillen – bringing its lending to date to over £500,000.

The £5m fund is managed by UCI, a subsidiary of social finance organisation Ulster Community Investment Trust (UCIT) and lends money to growing companies which cannot access funds through normal channels.

Learning Space (Specialised Products Aiding Child Education) NI is an award-winning company that sells educational toys and also kits out mainstream and special schools with everything from furnishings to books, toys and other resources. The company said the funding enabled it to take on two new members of staff – all teachers or childcare professionals.

Owner Lorraine McAleer said that following the acquisition of a warehouse and office, which will help with its growing order book, the fund should help roll out their ambitions of expanding beyond Northern Ireland.

"The support we received has been instrumental in helping to develop our business, fulfilling bigger orders and putting us on track for future expansion."

The company also provides pioneering resources for children with autism, dyslexia and other special needs, following in-depth research carried out by the former teacher before she set up the company nearly six years ago.

Meanwhile in Fermanagh, Push Fitness, which opens in Enniskillen town centre next month, has been grateful for its share of the fund, which has helped it refit a former bakery into a gym.

The gym was conceived by husband and wife Linda and Richard Linton to fill identified demand.

Linda said: "There are none of the big chain gyms in Enniskillen – we really only have hotel gyms and council-run facilities so there is a gap in the market.

"Richard has always worked in the fitness industry and with this gym there'll be much more of a personalised service."

Her husband said: "The planning process necessary to help secure the loan was really helpful – it's given us a structure to plan for growth and the process has been very straightforward."

Connie Mercer, managing director, Castle Hill Candles, said: "Investment from the Small Business Loan Fund has been crucial in helping us to develop our new product ranges and continue to innovate in our designs.

"By 2015, we're hopeful that 60% of our sales will be made up of export to markets such as the Republic of Ireland. We've taken on two new members of staff and plan to grow with a further two each year."

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