‘I wanted a new, fresh industry which my daughter could run’
Aodh Hannon talks to John Mulgrew about starting out in his father's fruit and veg shop and how he hopes to compete with Translink on one of its busiest routes
Starting off with just one truck more than two decades ago, Aodh Hannon has grown his haulage company Hannon Transport into a £22m business.
And the 46-year-old is not resting on his laurels. Last year, he branched out into the steel sales business, and is already turning over £6m.
But the Co Antrim man's latest and most ambitious venture is taking on public transport giant Translink, with his business Hannon Coach.
Earlier this month, the Belfast Telegraph revealed that the company has submitted an application to the Department for Infrastructure to operate a new Belfast to Londonderry express service.
"I more or less started off with one truck in 1994. I drove the truck myself until I was up to six or eight trucks," he said.
"I went out one day and bought a truck. I started doing a lot of UK business and general haulage business.
"It started picking up, and we then went to a second, and a third (truck)."
The Aghalee man, whose company is still based in the Co Antrim village, then grew the company to around 25 trucks.
"We were doing general European haulage. Anything and everything, and lot of meat and fish."
Then, in 2002, he spotted a gap in the market and saw it as an opportunity to expand the firm.
"There was no regular service between the Netherlands and Ireland. There were just a few Dutch companies with a service twice a week. I went over to Holland and set up an office, offering daily departures for the flower business.
"I was bringing the supply chain, from twice a week, to daily."
As a result of that expansion, and opening up an operation in Co Dublin, Aodh grew the transport firm into a 130 truck business, employing around 285 staff.
"We didn't want to compete on a general level.
"We didn't want to compete with firms like Sawyers and Montgomery Transport."
In February last year, he then diversified into steel, starting up Hannon Steel.
"It came about through a relation of mine in the steel business. I took him on board, and between us we set up a steel company based in Templepatrick.
"My personal input is very little. It pretty much runs itself and ticks over nicely.
"That's built up to a £6m business in just 12 months. We have 16 staff at that business, we have 285 in Hannon Transport, which includes our depots in Holland, Dublin and our Northern Ireland company."
As for expanding the existing businesses, he said: "We aren't going to grow it much more. We want to let it settle, wash its face and then go in the next 12 months' time."
Leaving St Paul's High School in Lurgan in his mid-teens, Aodh went straight into his father Hugh's business - a market gardener, who sold fruit and vegetables on the Boucher Road.
Aodh is one of five children, and has three sisters and a brother.
"I worked with my father, and got to the stage where I started doing a similar job to my father.
"I started almost competing and then decided to do something different, at the age of 22.
"I left with an input into flower and fruit industry. I knew a lot of people in the industry through my background."
Hannon Transport turned over almost £22m last year, according to its latest accounts. But Aodh says it's set to grow that by 20% this year.
"We have grown by almost 20% in the last set of accounts. It's down to hard bloody work. We worked at the flowers and plants industry until it was sewn up.
"Then fruit and veg, and then importing meat. We took it industry by industry, and kept working at it.
"We also had natural growth in the industries. So, it's a lot of natural growth, and extra business. A couple of years ago we also moved into Germany. That also brought us natural growth."
Despite being a cross-border transport company, Aodh says he's not concerned about what impact Brexit will have, until it's determined what the business landscape will look like once the UK leaves the EU.
"I never give it a second thought. The experts don't know what will happen, so there is no chance I will know. You don't fight the devil if you don't need to.
"We will evaluate and then we will act on it. We won't just sit still.
"The big plus is that we control our costs and we know them to a tee. We price our jobs based on costs."
Aodh's latest venture, Hannon Coach, is a business which, while predominantly operating private bus and coach services, is also vying for the chance to compete with Translink on its Belfast to Londonderry route.
"I was looking at diversity. My job is done in transport and steel. Holland and Dublin - everything is at full capacity.
"My daughter Victoria (28) has worked for me for the last 10 years, and I thought it was time for her to take a more management role.
"I decided that I was on the lookout for an industry which would be new, fresh and put her in as the face of it."
Hannon Coach already has 22 new coaches and has invested around £4m so far.
"We have already employed 35 staff, and that is just from Christmas.
"We are going to be very aggressive in the industry.
"All we are doing at the moment is private work. We are working for major-sized tour companies and private events companies.
"We aim to be the biggest coach operator in the north of Ireland, apart from Translink.
"(With the Londonderry route) I'm trying to complement what Translink does.
"Improve the service for the people, and get tourists interested in coach travel.
"If a tourist comes off in Belfast, they don't know if they can get a seat on a bus, and can't book online."
He said the company's research had shown that there is demand for the link, which would also stimulate business on Translink's own services.
Aodh is married to Teresa and has three children, Victoria (28) - who is running the new coach business - and 14-year-old twins Jack and Hugh.
He's a keen golfer, as well as following football and gaelic.
He added: "I sponsor the local gaelic and soccer team and I do play a bit of golf, and I do follow football in my spare time."
- Next week, the Big Interview speaks to Mash Direct director Jack Hamilton