Belfast window cleaning business Vertical World reaches new heights
Few people have the nerve to spend their working day hanging from a rope on Belfast’s Harland and Wolff cranes, but John Kelly of Vertical World UK says heights are a doddle compared to making it as a small business owner.
With an annual turnover of £250,000, the rope access company employs an elite team of mountain climbers and technicians who perform maintenance jobs at extreme heights.
Their contracts have included putting up this year’s Christmas lights on the Titanic Museum, adding the yellow paint to Harland & Wolff’s cranes, and cleaning countless windows on Belfast’s tallest buildings.
Before scaling the heights of business, John (54) started as a builder and joiner by trade.
He told the Belfast Telegraph how his love of outdoor pursuits accidentally led him into his current career, his plans to bring his business to offshore wind farms and why he supports Brexit.
“I worked on a job my uncle had done on a big tall building back in the 1990s,” he said. “They had a problem at the top they couldn’t get to. I knew a wee bit about it with my climbing background and I thought, ‘I wouldn’t mind getting into that, I like the look of this’.”
Soon after he got a call from the cleaning company Joseph Hughes, asking if he could help with some hard to reach windows.
“I didn’t really want to but I did it, but then I thought to myself ‘there’s work in this’,” he said.
John set his own window cleaning company up in 1996, the work gradually snowballed and today his team cover most of the buildings in the Titanic Quarter like the Arc Apartments, the Citibank building and others. It’s not a job for the faint-hearted.
“I’ve had people working for me over the years who think they can handle heights, but once they get up there they’re not too happy,” said John.
“If you’re hanging on your rope and it pulls six inches to the side suddenly, you can see their brain start to freeze.”
John employs eight people on a freelance basis, allowing his varied team the freedom they need to take off on climbing expeditions around the world.
“Ricky Bell is the number one climber in Ireland. He’s amazing, I’ve known him since he was very young,” he said.
“Then you have the likes of Johnny Parr, he has his own climbing company and he takes people over to Scotland for climbing trips. They’re all lovely guys, I’m lucky to have them working with me.”
On Brexit, John said: “For small businesses over regulation is huge. I just think Brexit will make us freer to do things. I think we already have higher safety standards than most European countries but hopefully it will cut the red tape down.
“In construction what got me is that other European countries pick and choose what they want to do but we have to follow it to the law.”
John says he hopes to start expanding his business next year, offering training within Northern Ireland as well as bringing his high rope skills to offshore wind farms — something he needed to train as a yachts master for.
“If you want to work on a wind turbine right now, you would almost need to plan it for the next year,” he said.
“But you can’t predict the weather so we’re planning to take people like engineers offshore on short notice. We’ll get you there safely, provide transfer on to the turbine, turbine safety, turbine rescue, maintenance cleaning, cleaning and repairing.”
Having run his own business since the age of 21, John said more needs to be done to give small businesses a helping hand
“Rates are an absolute killer. If they go up the way they’re talking I’d say 20% of small businesses will close next year,” he said.
For John’s storage warehouse at Windmill business park in Saintfield, his annual rates are £7,000.
“That’s before you even clean a window,” he added.
Asked for advice for new business owners, he said: “The word I would give anybody is tenacity.
“Anybody who has a small business needs to have a bucketload of it. You need to have the ability to keep getting up, dust yourself off and find another way and move forward.
“My basic job is really solving people’s problems. People get me in after they’ve been through a long list of people, we get in and say ‘we’ll sort that, no worries’.
“At the end of the day my job gives me a huge amount of satisfaction.”