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Biggest issue facing Northern Ireland construction is 'lack of new workers in the industry'

John Mulgrew speaks to Hagan Homes managing director Jamesy Hagan about weathering the storm of a recession and making tough choices to make sure the family firm stays afloat

The hardest part of trying to weather a global financial storm and the collapse of the housing market is being forced to cut staff who have helped mentor you over the years, according to Jamesy Hagan.

He's the managing director of Hagan Homes, a family run property company which managed to survive and thrive following the chaos of the recession.

It was formed in 1988 by his father James and uncle Nigel, and was formerly Hagan and Simpson.

Jamesy (34) took over at the helm of the Ballyclare firm in 2008, just as the market crashed.

"The world just ended in one way. It happened so quick.

"We adapted and still got things built. We cut prices, and we didn't sit and wait for the market to change.

"We went from selling 275 houses a year to selling 90. During that time we had to lay off a lot of staff.

"The hard bit was making them redundant, and a lot had been with us for a long time ... that was the hardest bit.

"One brought me up on the site, worked with me for years and we had to let him go."

Hagan Homes now turns over around £20m a year, has a direct workforce of eight, and now relies on between 200 to 300 subcontractors to do much of the building work. It currently has 11 sites across Northern Ireland, including those in Antrim, Ballyclare, Templepatrick and Belfast.

Jamesy is a keen rugby player, playing for an amateur squad in Carrick. And he's also partial to rally driving.

That's something which was passed down from his father, a man who owns one of former Formula One world champion James Hunt's racing cars.

He grew up on his father's building sites, so it's inevitable he would follow suit and join the family business.

Jamesy has one younger brother, Stephen - an actor who has starred alongside Jimmy Nesbitt in the Sky series Lucky Man.

"I grew up for first five years in Doagh, then moved to Greenisland, before going to school in Carrickfergus," Jamesy said.

The company boss attended Carrickfergus Grammar, before studying property management in Glasgow.

"I always worked on the sites, even at the age of five. It's always something I wanted to do. I never imagined I'd do anything else."

Jamesy started with Hagan Homes, as a foreman, in 2004.

"In October I came back as a foreman in Bangor, Glastry Gardens, which was about 30 homes. I was dropped in at the deep end. It was a struggle. Dad had good foremen working at the time, and I was able to draw on their experiences."

He then became contracts manager, in charge of all the company's housing developments.

"The contracts manager left, so I was in at the deep end once again."

Aside from his time in house-building, Jamesy spent six months travelling, visiting Thailand and Australia with friends, before returning to Northern Ireland and taking over at the helm of the company.

Good foundation: Jamesy Hagan and wife Sarah on their wedding day
Good foundation: Jamesy Hagan and wife Sarah on their wedding day

"It was a bit of him (my father) wanting to do a bit less and me wanting me do more.

"I went away travelling, and he said, I want you to come in and run the business."

But Jamesy walked into the top job in 2008, just as markets began collapsing and the price of homes across Northern Ireland and further afield collapsed by up to 60%.

"2007 to 2008 was our best year ever, with 275 completions across Northern Ireland."

But the company went from selling 275 houses a year to just 90 during 2009 and 2010.

"The market just slowed. But we took pride in that we never had to close up any sites.

"We had the cash and finished off everything we built.

"Everything we sold looked dear a year later."

During the recession and with a massive drop in house prices, and tighter bank lending, Northern Ireland was left with unfinished developments.

It's something which Hagan Homes took advantage of, and used to help weather the crisis.

"In 2010 to 2011, we had hit the bottom ... it might drop a bit, but not get much worse.

"We started to buy land. The first site we bought was in 2012/13 and we have bought land each year. We were lucky as we had the cash. Others had to get bank funding to finish the buildings, and the banks wouldn't lend.

"We have bought a lot of stuff which has been half built. Turning it around and finishing it off is very rewarding."

Hagan Homes now has 10 housing developments on the go, including Ballyveigh in Antrim, a £30m scheme, and Ilford Park in Belfast. "I think prices and demand have started to level out. I think there is a shortage of new build homes. It seems to be ticking along and rising slightly.

"I think there's no better time to buy."

But he doesn't want to see a return to boom and bust, and wants gradual and sustained growth in the market of around 2% to 3%.

The vote for Brexit has also impacted the business, as it has with many others, with costs going up due to currency fluctuation.

"We reckon costs have gone up 10% since the vote.

"At the end of the day, I still want the margin on the house.

"But you can't just put the price up. It's about getting that balance."

But there's a bigger problem facing the sector here - and it's a lack of young people getting into the construction sector, according to Jamesy. "There is no workforce - so many people in construction have gotten out of it, and the average age on our sites would be around 50."

Jamesy is now having to share his work time with his new baby daughter, Ramona.

He's been married to wife Sarah for five years, who works in marketing and social media for the firm.

"You have different priorities. Just trying to get the work and home balance right. It feels different."

Looking ahead, while he wants the company to prosper, Jamesy says he doesn't want it to grow much bigger that its current size.

"I would like to keep the company at 200 houses a year. It's manageable and I have a good standard of life."

'I'm very optimistic, I always try to look for the positives'

Q. What's the best piece of business (or life) advice you've ever been given?

A. When I first started In the business my father said: "I won't be annoyed if you make mistakes just don't make the same mistake twice".

Q. What piece of advice would you pass on to someone starting out in business? 

A. Some decision is better than no decision.

Q. What was your best business decision? 

A. Sub-contracting all the building work out and becoming a developer rather than a builder.

Q. If you weren't doing this job, what would be your other career? 

A. I have never imagined doing anything else as I've been around building all my adult life.

Q. What was your last holiday? Where are you going next?

A. My last holiday was to Spain and I hope to go to Las Vegas next to see the Carl Frampton fight.

Q. What are your hobbies/interest?

A. Rugby, motorsport and horses.

Q. What is your favourite sport and team? 

A. Football and Northern Ireland.

Q. And have you ever played any sports?

A. I play rugby for Carrick rugby club.

Q. If you enjoy reading, can you recommend a book? 

A. I only read when I'm on holidays and only autobiographies. One of my favourites is Mr Nice by Howard Marks.

Q. How would you describe your early life?

A. I had a fantastic childhood thanks to my mum and dad.

Q. Have you any economic predictions?

A. I am a very optimistic person so I always try to look for the positives. Brexit has and will continue to have its challenges but in the long run hopefully it will be better for the economy.

Q How would you assess your time in business with your company?

A. After starting in the business just before the recession I have steered the company through one of the most challenging times and now into one of its most successful periods.

Q. How do you sum up working in the home and building sector?

A. It is one of the most rewarding jobs seeing a development through from green field to completed development.

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