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Industry honours Co Armagh businessman who founded company during Troubles

By Margaret Canning

Published 27/05/2016

From left: Rory Best, Seamus McCann, Rhona Quinn of QMAC Construction, and Patricia McCann. Back (left to right), Kieran McClelland, Peter Rafferty and Melvin Millar.
From left: Rory Best, Seamus McCann, Rhona Quinn of QMAC Construction, and Patricia McCann. Back (left to right), Kieran McClelland, Peter Rafferty and Melvin Millar.
Seamus McCann, founder of Armatile, and his wife Pat.

The Co Armagh businessman behind £7m turnover business Armatile has received a lifetime achievement award for his work in the tile industry.

Seamus McCann (75), who grew up in a family of 10 children in Loughgall, set up the business which became Armatile in his blacksmith father's shed.

It has grown it into a major enterprise with five showrooms and nearly 100 employees.

As well as the retail showrooms, it manufactures decorative ceramic and porcelain tiles, which are exported to interior design projects in markets including USA, Canada, Russia, Switzerland and France.

Mr McCann was presented with the lifetime achievement gong at The Tile Association Awards in Birmingham this month, and was praised for spotting the potential for tiles to add detail and style to the decor of a home.

He was also praised for having the tenacity to establish and build a company during the Troubles.

And the company also won the 'best use of a tile in a commercial contract' award in recognition of its work on the restoration of St Patrick's Church in Donaghmore, Co Tyrone.

Yesterday Mr McCann celebrated with colleagues - and brand ambassador, Ulster and Ireland rugby captain Rory Best - at company headquarters on Loughgall Road in Armagh.

The Armatile chairman told the Belfast Telegraph that he had thirsted after running his own business as a book-keeping student in Portadown Technical College, where his classmates included Gloria Hunniford.

"I always wanted to have my own business and be hands-on, working with practical things rather than things in theory."

He came across a business selling carpet tiles and decided it looked like an attractive business proposition.

Mr McCann started selling carpet tiles from his father's shed, before opening his first shop in Armagh's English Street in 1976.

But he said there had been some challenging times in the business as the Troubles continued.

On a pratical level, English Street couldn't be accessed directly due to security checkpoints around the town.

But there were even more dramatic consequences when running a business in the Troubles.

"My shop in Armagh was bombed a number of times but that was just the world we lived in then, and we got on with it.

"I remember one time the shop was bombed and destroyed on a Friday so we worked all day Saturday and Sunday clearing up the shop and we were opened again on Monday."

A second shop followed in Newry's Merchant Quay and a third in Boucher Crescent off Boucher Road.

He said he'd maintained a successful independent retail business - despite the competition of the big UK multiples - by offering a personal service.

"Of our five showrooms, I suppose three are fairly upmarket and two are competing with Topps Tiles and B&Q."

The company also started to travel to Spain, Italy and Turkey to buy tiles and was able to exploit a new trend for mosaic tiling.

"By doing things like that we were able to compete with some of the bigger guys. I suppose we've just been able to be more fleet of foot."

And he is still closely involved with the company, which is now based at Station Industrial Estate on Loughgall Road in Armagh.

"I'll come in every day and torture people for a couple of hours and go away again - and then come back and see how they've coped with all the trouble I've caused them.

"All in all, I've got a good team - managing director Paul Quinn, my accountant Conor Moore, factory manager Sean White and my contracts manager Peter Rafferty."

Two of his three sons work in the business - Christopher, who's retail director, and James, who works in a showroom.

Another son, Darran, is a published author who teaches creative writing and is married to Jackie McCann, a former BBC NI weather presenter. His daughter Jacqueline works in publishing.

At the Tile Association Awards, Mr McCann deserved recognition for the "humility and foresight" in the industry.

He attributed his success to the support of his wife of 51 years, Pat, who's also worked in the business.

And while Seamus is still closely involved with the company, he's also spending a little bit more time on the golf course, as well as supporting Armagh's GAA team ("for my sins") and Ulster Rugby.

He also has nine grandchildren, ranging in age from 14 to 14 months, to help keep he and his wife occupied.

Overall, Mr McCann said he had no regrets about leaving accountancy.

"It's all about coming into work and getting a buzz from what you do," he added.

Belfast Telegraph

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