'There is a view that we have had a deeper recession than the rest of UK, but people and product still have to travel'
Margaret Canning talks to P&O Ferries Irish Sea sector director Neal Mernock about the importance of the Larne to Cairnryan crossing — and why he won’t be complaining about infrastructure spending
Taking the ferry between his home in the Wirral to work in Liverpool during his youth gave Neal Mernock a foretaste of a major career move in the future.
After working in senior roles in a range of top companies from United Biscuits to Silentnight, he’s now bringing one of Northern Ireland’s best known ferry businesses into a new era.
The 60-year-old Englishman is sector director for the Irish Sea at P&O Ferries — part of global holding company Dubai World.
His role puts him in charge of the routes from Larne to Cairnryan in Scotland and Dublin to Liverpool.
P&O is spending £500,000 on an upgrade of its two ships on the Larne route — the European Highlander and European Causeway — as it gets ready for peak summer season.
The ferry company also owns Larne and Cairnryan ports, giving it an insight into the economic health of Northern Ireland. It’s also updated its website recently, and launched a new TV advertising campaign.
And unlike most business leaders in Northern Ireland who’ve had cause to complain about a lack of infrastructure investment, Mr Mernock is full of praise for the £130m spend on the A8. The new dual carriageway opened last year and has cut the journey from Belfast to Larne to 20 minutes.
Larne to Cairnryan is the fastest-possible crossing to Scotland from Northern Ireland at two hours, and has seven sailings a day, which is more than any other operator.
“We have a mixture of tourists and freight on a day like today, a Tuesday afternoon,” Neal says. “Some of those we class as tourists will be domestic users going back and forward to visit relations, perhaps up to three or four times a year.”
Outside peak tourist season, most customers will be freight — those driving lorries to deliver loads on either side of the Irish Sea. There are freight companies themselves — such as McBurney Transport — and lorries belonging to firms, with Asda and Marks & Spencer particularly frequent customers.
Observing freight customers come and go from the Highlander on a weekday provides a reminder of the strengths of our companies. Concrete pieces from FP McCann in Co Tyrone are on their way across to England for use in a major infrastructure project, for example.
But the major spectator events are an important staple of business for P&O on the Larne route, such as agricultural machinery arriving for the Balmoral Show, golf fans setting off for the Open Championship in Troon, and hordes of bikers revving up to disembark in Larne for the NW200 on the North Coast.
P&O Ferries has been in the business for 50 years, and carries 130,000 tourists and families every year. Neal is confident of the Larne to Cairnryan’s importance to the market. “It’s always been the case that it has been the shortest crossing as it’s between the two closest points.”
Business has been steady. “There is a view that Northern Ireland and Ireland has had a deeper recession than perhaps the UK but product and people still have to travel.”
But he says business has gone up since the work on the A8 was finished last year. “I drove it this morning myself and it’s such a great road. It’s become easier for drivers as it can’t have been easy driving those articulated lorries through roundabouts. The investment in government and the approval to build that road was good news.”
Neal, who is from Birkenhead and now lives in Cheshire, studied civil and structural engineering at the University of Leicester. Since then, he’s had a varied career, working in the fast-moving consumer goods sector for United Biscuits — where he remembers the launch of the Fox’s Classic chocolate-covered biscuit — and bed retailer Silentnight, where he was chief executive. His first taste of ferries came when travelling over the Mersey from his Birkenhead home but it would be some time before he found himself in the sector, joining P&O in 2013.
“I’ve worked in a number of different organisations and that’s been quite a deliberate career path. I’ve always gone for branded businesses looking for a fresh approach, whether in the manufacturing industry making food products or the furniture business.
“There’s definitely a learning curve and I’ve moved around in senior roles three or four times now. And the first 100 days are always critical. You have to learn fast and absorbing information, then applying your own knowledge.
“One of my main beliefs is continuous improvement — driving yourself on the basis that you can continuously improve. It never ends.” He’s a great believer in pulling together in a business, and maintains that “teams are better than people”.
The market is a tough one but he says the route prides itself for its reliability and safety — crucial for all their customers, both freight and tourist.
And P&O has its finger on the pulse of the economy as owner of the two ports. P&O Ferries works with some of Northern Ireland’s biggest manufacturers, such as Moy Park and Michelin. “We know that customers like that have their deadlines and we try and understand their needs. Asda has their Northern Ireland depot in Larne and timings are critical to their fresh and frozen food.
“People want to get off and on the boat as quickly as possible, so for that reason our aim is to ensure a quick and safe turnaround.”
An important aim is to upgrade the facilities on the 10-year-old ships. “The food court is being upgraded to look more like a high street food court. We are doing some work on the Highlander this year — work was done on the other vessel a few years back. We’re modernising the reception areas on each ship, and doing a total refurbishment of the kids’ play area of each ship. And we currently have 400 seats but we want to add 60 more, and we are modernising the seating in the Club Lounge.”
Their website has been smartened up considerably, and make extensive use of the blue, red, white and yellow in the company’s logo. “As an ex-marketeer and an ex-advertising man, when I think about P&O’s brand I think about the colours, so that is used extensively.”
Staff are also getting a new uniform and were consulted by the company tasked with making them about what they’d prefer for their own comfort. A TV ad plays on Northern Ireland tourist journeys — leading Neal to reminisce about a memorable trip through Northern Ireland with a university friend from the province, back in 1975. “It was one of the best holidays of my life.”
There is a new menu on board featuring the produce of local suppliers used, such as Topping Meats in Larne, and featuring dishes like an Ulster Fry and beef and Guinness pie.
And Neal is a major advocate of ferry travel. “If you want to travel at a low cost for a longer stay, you can’t beat ferry travel.” And its importance will remain, whatever outcome of the EU referendum on June 23, Neal maintains.
“Whether the UK stays in or not, products will still need to move and people will still travel. We are watching what happens with interest but of course, companies can’t vote and it’s down to the people. Our business is growing, our performance is improving so our aim to be to continue that momentum.”