How company bosses conquered obstacles to success
The founders of MEG Cards and Gifts and Learning Pool tell Lisa Smyth all about the huge drive and determination it takes to succeed
Even as a child, Michael Gray wanted to own his own business. However, it wasn't until the 9/11 terror attacks that he finally found the courage to go it alone and set up MEG Cards and Gifts. The company sells everything from greetings cards to mugs and novelty storage tins bearing distinctive quirky lettering.
The business, based in Coleraine, Co Londonderry, supplies goods to card and gift shops across Northern Ireland through various distribution deals.
It also has an online presence with its website, Excitable Elephant, which sells direct to members of the public.
"I really am one of those people whose dream has come true," said Michael.
"I've always wanted to own my own business, and I remember when I was 15 working out how many sweets I would have to sell to make a market stall profitable."
Michael (47) was living in Oxford and was sales director at one of the most successful card companies in the UK when 9/11 happened.
He described his job at the time as "one of the best in the industry", but the events of 9/11 changed his perspective completely within a matter of hours.
"I would have travelled to New York quite a lot at that time with work, and I knew the Twin Towers very well," he said.
"By the time the second tower had collapsed, I had made up my mind that I wanted to set up my own business - it was a real moment for me and I realised that life is too short."
Given his knowledge and experience of the gift card industry, Michael said he was aware of a gap in the market in Ireland.
His wife, Lisa, was also originally from Derry, so he decided to relocate to Northern Ireland to set up his business.
"I had fallen in love with Ireland over the years and I knew there was a gap in the market there, so it seemed like the obvious choice, although it was scary," he said.
"My wife didn't believe we were going to do it until I sold the house in Oxford.
"I made the decision to set up the business in September and, as my wife is a teacher, we waited until the end of the school year to move, so that happened the following July."
Michael started MEG Cards and Gifts at the kitchen table at his new home in Portstewart, and while he had an abundance of suppliers, he built up his client base from scratch.
"It was really about going out and driving around, looking for shops I wanted to stock and then going in and speaking with the owner or buyer," he explained.
It wasn't long before he won his first contract and the first cheque he received was for £300.
"It was a big moment," he said. "Not only had we moved away from our home to set up a business, but we didn't know anyone either. I have to say I felt at home after two minutes, although my wife said it took her two or three years to feel at home.
"My son was still a baby when we were starting out, so I would get up at 4.30am and feed him and then go out and pack orders and head off, and be home again in the evening."
While he started out in his kitchen, the business quickly moved into the garage and, eventually, Michael found premises at Cloyfin Road in Coleraine seven years ago.
He currently employs two salespeople - one in Belfast and one in Dublin - and a further seven people at the Coleraine base.
Four of them work in the warehouse and three in the office, although he is looking to expand his workforce in the coming year as the business grows.
Michael continued: "I am very lucky that I have a great team around me.
"Prior to setting up my own business, I had run a sales team, so I was aware that one person can mix up and really change the atmosphere in the office or warehouse.
"Also, you want to work with people that you like because you're spending every day with them and you want to enjoy your work."
MEG Cards and Gifts now has an annual turnover of approximately £1m.
But Michael said this was not necessarily part of the plan when he set up the business.
"I never really had any expectations," he explained.
"My wish was always to own my own business and be self-employed, and I have achieved that.
"There have been some very tough times - the recession had a massive impact and I even had to lay someone off - and we got through it with sheer determination and hard work.
"We had to tighten our belts in whatever way we possibly could, but we did come out the other side stronger.
"Now we have Brexit and it's going to have an impact because 30% of our business goes to the Republic.
"Unfortunately, we just don't know yet what kind of impact it is going to have."
Michael added: "Setting up your own business is hard work and long hours, but I was talking to my wife about it and saying to her that if I was still working in the garage I would be happy, and if it grows 10 times bigger I will be happy.
"The most important thing to me is to know that I went for it and I don't have any regrets."
‘We can’t wait to bring our company to America to achieve even more growth’
Learning Pool was established just over a decade ago and already employs 125 people. The Londonderry-based company delivers tailored online learning solutions to more than a million people across the UK.
It was co-founded in 2006 by Paul McElvaney after he spotted a gap in the market.
He said: "I have worked in the technology industry all of my career, working in business development and sales, specifically in the local government market in the UK.
"We responded to a need for online training that we had identified in the market, and we built a small subset of product to go and test the market. It took it from there really.
"The target market we were aiming at was undergoing significant change, and online services and, generally speaking, technology were becoming a more prevalent feature of customers' service delivery."
Mr McElvaney said the aim of the company was to create a low-cost, high-quality product, and the company has gone from strength to strength.
He said building the right team has been crucial to its success.
"It was certainly the biggest long-term challenge," he said.
And Mr McElvaney said they have worked hard to ensure they create the best working environment for staff.
He said: "We have been named on the Sunday Times Best 200 Small Companies to work for over the past two years, which I think is testament to the fact that we have invested heavily in making Learning Pool a great place to work.
"There are lots of reasons why we do that, but the primary reason is because if we have a functioning, well-managed, disciplined and motivated team, we can achieve a lot.
"If you don't have that then you can't achieve that in my experience."
Mr McElvaney said it has also been important to develop the best possible post-sales experience for customers.
"We have had a bit of a stroke of luck in terms of picking up awards over the last year, although I wouldn't say this is something that is hugely important, but it is useful in increasing our profile."
"However, I would like to think we're not obsessed with awards. We are more obsessed with delivering for the customers." He added: "We are a subscription business and renewals are very important to us, and to achieve that we need to do a good job for the customer.
"Our focus is very heavily on exceeding customers' expectations, and that drives 97% of renewal rates across the business.
"One of the traits of Northern Ireland business and Northern Irish people is that they are very customer-focused and just generally helpful.
"It isn't very flamboyant, but customers appreciate having a supplier that they can trust and we are certainly that."
Learning Pool is currently undergoing somewhat of an expansion.
The company has created eight new roles over the past six months, and plans to employ 35 more people across all parts of the business by the end of the current financial year. While they primarily work with UK customers, Mr McElvaney is also hoping to expand the business across the Atlantic.
"We have 400 customers in total at the moment," he explained. "We are in the early stages of working with some blue chip companies in the US, including the likes of Proctor and Gamble, that we have been working on for the last 18 months.
"I think that we are ambitious for growth. Our business plan is to double the size of the company in the next three years, and we will grow where we can to achieve that.
"Going to America will probably give us the chance to grow further.
"There are the usual challenges relating to distance, time zones and all that, but we have had some early success and we will follow that over the next 18 months.
"It is more complicated to do business in the US for various reasons, but most of it is logistical.
"At the moment, we are managing from Northern Ireland, but we will watch the brief whether we take on staff in America."
Learning Pool also took the step of seeking growth investment from a private equity fund, Carlyle Cardinal Ireland, last year.
"That was investment to support the continuing development and growth of the business," said Mr McElvaney.
"Having that investment has allowed us to think much more ambitiously about business."
The private equity fund actually assisted the company in acquiring Mind Click, the firm's biggest UK competitor, in September last year.
"The investment moved Learning Pool from being a home-grown business into one that is more ambitious, with a different layer of governance and oversight," said Mr McElvaney.
As for setting up his own business, Mr McElvaney said it had lived up to his expectations.
"I have the best job in the world, but setting up my business from the kitchen table and growing it to have 120-odd people has been the most challenging thing I have ever done," he explained.