'Self-belief and determination have carried us through'
Working Lunch - Joris Minne meets successful engineer Catherine O'Neill, chief executive of Amelio Utlities
Northern Ireland likes to think of itself as a good place for business. We may be a bit behind the times on matters of equality and social reform, and our idea of multiculturalism doesn't go far beyond a mixed (Protestant-Catholic) marriage.
But when you're a woman in your mid-20s employing 50 people and braced for occasional expressions of casual misogyny - which are then not forthcoming - you can tell we are heading in the right direction.
Catherine O'Neill was still a student when she established Amelio Utilities, the drainage engineering firm which operates throughout Ireland and England. It's a young company started by a young woman and she has become, albeit very reluctantly, our poster girl for enterprise.
She is extraordinary not just because of her age and ability but because she is so modest, wise and generous of spirit. Young entrepreneurs were the backbone of Belfast 150 years ago and Catherine is showing the way forward, just as her predecessors did. While she says she's not comfortable with the word, she represents a rare spirit of enterprise. This spirit couples a sense of drive and ambition to a desire to play a role as a mentor to young businesswomen. Therefore you'll find her talking to young business groups and students as well as sitting on boards including Women in Business.
Graduating in 2012, during the ongoing economic downturn, she says most of her class scattered and went abroad. There was no work in Northern Ireland for engineers, and certainly not civil engineers.
Family circumstances and a desire to get her own business going resulted in the creation of her drainage engineering firm, which services local authorities and hospital trusts across the UK as well as Irish Water and Rivers Agency here.
For her, starting up a business in Belfast has been a good experience. "I've had great advice and backing from Invest NI and the framework within which we operate has been generally very supportive," she says.
She cites Work West, her landlords at Work West Enterprise Centre in Glen Road in west Belfast, as a good example of support. "With a monthly lease on office and depot space rather than long term arrangements, we are less exposed," she says.
The hardest part of starting up was getting in front of clients to pitch to them. She applied the simple trick of a forward party consisting of six cupcakes topped with the Amelio brand. The next day she put in a call. By the time the buns had been shared around the office, no one could say no. She makes it sound easy. It wasn't.
"It's not an easy engineering service to sell, particularly when you are up against long-established players with great reputations and large marketing budgets," she says. "But it really is a case of self-belief, determination and persistence carrying us through."
She wears her success very lightly. Currently studying for her accountancy qualifications, something which brings her back to Queen's every Friday and Saturday, Catherine says she wants something to fall back on in case things don't work out. I suggest she might consider instead learning Mandarin or Arabic and take Amelio to international markets.
But caution is best, she says.
It's a rare mix, entrepreneurialism and caution, yet these are probably the two assets which will secure Amelio's successful future.
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