'I wasn't academic and university seemed alien to me. I just wanted to work and ski...'
Gareth Murphy, owner of the leisure business We Are Vertigo, talks to Emma Deighan about turning play into big business and experiencing personal tragedy
Gareth Murphy, the man behind the We Are Vertigo empire, has a thing about the education system here.
He believes schools "have a responsibility to harness individual talents" instead of imposing the same curriculum for every child.
Its a view he's held since growing up with two older siblings who he describes as incredibly academic. He says he "struggled in a classroom environment" and found the idea of third level education as an option the "most alien thing ever".
"I wanted to go to work and do things. There was a huge amount of pressure when I was at school to go on to university but I thought that idea, when it was an option, was alien. Who would want to do that? I wanted to get out of education and into the working world," he says.
Gareth grew up just a mile from where We Are Vertigo was first set up in Four Winds, south Belfast.
He credits his father Philip and his late mother Evelyn for giving him a work ethic that has made his business one of the most successful in the children's leisure sector here. Philip was a lorry driver while Evelyn was a secretary for a joinery firm.
His brother and sister, who went on to become a doctor and a teacher respectively, were studious and successful, but Gareth says he was different.
"I wanted to ski. I wanted to get out," he says. "I didn't want to be at school. I found myself frustrated that I wasn't as equally academical as my brother and sister.
"The big problem with education is that it treats everyone as the same person. I know there is a kid today in a classroom forced to do something that is alien to him when he could be the next creative genius. Kids shouldn't be treated the same," he says.
And so, instead of taking the conventional university route, Gareth shunned the pressure and took up a job at Knockbracken Ski Centre.
"My family didn't have much money and my mother went to the credit union to get me the funds to go on my first ski trip. That was it, I was bitten by the bug.
"Every penny I got I used to ski at that centre and then I thought if I got a job there I would always be able to do what I love."
Coincidentally, his boss at that ski centre now runs Gareth and his wife Lorna's indoor ski and travel business.
"When my friends went to university I took a bit of a journey. I went to Switzerland to work for four years and during the summers I worked as a life guard in the south of France," continues Gareth.
Upon his return to Belfast Gareth's career veered into sales. His first role was with Cable and Wireless' subsidiary Mercury Communications.
He then became the managing director of the firm's Scotland and Ireland operations after 10 years. At Cable and Wireless he says he had "incredibly good mentors and managers that pulled me out of my comfort zone, promoting me".
After a decade at Mercury Gareth set up his own transformation consultancy in Manchester. The company specialised in managing the performance and growth of its clients. "One of the projects was bringing Convergys to Northern Ireland in 2005," he reveals.
That business saw Gareth fly back and forth until 2010 when his wife Linda, the mother of his two sons, who are now aged 16 and 19, passed away suddenly at the age of 41 from a brain haemorrhage.
It was a tragedy that was to change the course of Gareth's life.
It also brought back the painful memory of losing his mother to the same condition when he was just 19 years old.
"She was 46 and when that kind of thing happens at 19 you have to grow up very quickly," says Gareth.
"When my wife passed away I toyed with the idea of bringing two small children aged 10 and eight to England and in the end I decided to come back home."
A year-and-a-half later Gareth met his wife Lorna and together they founded We Are Vertigo, which was born from a passion to get children active.
"We were very conscious that kids were always on their phones or consoles playing Fifa but not out on the street like they used to be.
"Some things I did realise when I was away was that we had nothing here to bridge that gap between young teens and older children, something that was safe but fun where they can play and get active without knowing it and that's how We Are Vertigo came about," Gareth says.
The launch of Ireland's first ever trampoline park took place in 2013 and became an instant hit with families.
Gareth puts the success of the venue in Newtownbreda Industrial Park down to "being as innovative as possible".
"There were only three in the UK and Ireland and one of the things that we wanted to do, and continue to do is to go big, large scale.
"It's worth going big. We designed our own trampoline park and had a plan in mind. We also knew trampolines would be a fad and have a life cycle and that's why we changed it recently."
Indeed, the trampoline element of the business was ripped out just last month and replaced with the Inflata Park. It was a surprising move given the consistent success and popularity of the original offering.
"People were trying to copy us and we wanted to move away from that but we are always looking to be the first to do knew things. It's such an exciting and fun industry and we have seen a rapid increase in visitors since introducing the Inflata Park. I mean the most comfortable thing would've been to sit back and have Europe's largest trampoline park or we could replace it with something that is going to do even better. The banks couldn't get their heads around that but we knew it was going to be a performer."
The Inflata Park is just one of many recent investments at We Are Vertigo. Since the company was formed it has invested £5m here.
This includes its indoor ski area, indoor sky diving and ninja mastercourse in the Titanic Quarter among other things and Gareth's not done investing.
"Our ideas keep us awake. We're always thinking what can we do next and we're lucky to have great relationships with suppliers who will build us things that haven't been built before. We have big plans to try and grow the business and we are looking at different locations, further afield. We want to do it all and better. We have a format that works," he adds.
Gareth says his passion for activities, as inspired by his father who was a former scout leader, coupled with over a decade of business and sales experience is what has made the business so successful. But despite his love of fun he never got to experience the adrenalin rush of his former trampoline park nor has he undertaken the challenging Ninja Warrior Course. And he admits, his children don't have free run of the venues.
"Whenever the kids were small they had to earn credits to do that stuff. I never once got on the trampolines and as they were ripping them out in January it occurred to me that I hadn't."
He has, however, tested out the Inflata Park on its launch night.
Elsewhere Gareth gets his kicks from regular ski trips with the firm's travel arm. He's heading to Pamporovo in Bulgaria next month and he has a passion for rugby, both playing and watching.
"At 45 years of age I play mixed ability rugby for the Malone Tornadoes," he says.
"Half of the team are ex-rugby players and the other half are young adults with Down's syndrome or learning difficulties. This is a full contact, all-inclusive game and taking part in that is great. We have a great time."
Gareth's quest for fun is an infectious one and as a result has encouraged his son to pursue a similar path.
He says his 19-year-old son already works in the business and was one of the youngest ski instructors in Austria. His youngest child is also working at We Are Vertigo part-time.
He looks at it as a gift that was also passed on to him from his father, back in the days when they explored the great outdoors as part of the Scouts.
"My father was an avid Scout leader and adventurer and he is part of all this. He gave me a good upbringing and took me out and I'm trying to do the same today with other kids by giving them a fun way to have an active lifestyle."
'My childhood was full of outdoor adventure'
Q. What's the best piece of business or life advice you've ever been given?
A. If you spend your time doing something you love, then you will never have to work a day in your life. We absolutely love what we do at We Are Vertigo, and, although it can be challenging at times, we wouldn't change it for the world.
Q. What piece of advice would you pass on to someone starting out in business?
A. To always trust your gut. I would also advise anyone who is in the process of starting out on a new business venture to refrain from seeking too much counsel from their friends and family. The people who are closest to us are conditioned to be protective, which can result in them being risk-averse. Instead, take advice from those who have previously taken a leap of faith and have seen it pay off. Finally, ensure your business plan is robust and execute it with laser focus.
Q. What was your best business decision?
A. Opening We Are Vertigo in 2011. We initially opened the business with a mobile zip line at our Newtownbreda facility and have continued to adapt and evolve our leisure offering over the last nine years with innovative concepts NI has never experienced until now.
Q. If you weren't doing this job, what would you do?
A. Probably teaching people how to ski in Wengen, or else I would still be in London with my previous business.
Q. Where did you holiday last, and where are you going next?
A. I was skiing in Megeve, France last week with friends. We have another ski holiday planned in March for some of our We Are Vertigo management team and customers. I think it's incredibly important to reward your employees to ensure they always feel valued - they work extremely hard and the last year has been exceptionally busy.
Q. What are your hobbies/interests?
A. I love skiing. My second passion would be rugby; at 45 years of age I'm still playing the sport at Malone RFC as part of a mixed ability rugby team.
Q. What is your favourite sport and team?
A. I am a big fan of rugby and a keen supporter of both the Ulster and Ireland teams. I can be known for shouting loudly at the TV when a match is on, but I do try to get to as many matches as possible.
Q. And have you ever played any sports, and do you still?
A. I still play rugby at Malone RFC - not as frequently as I'd like to and a little slower than my earlier years. I also completed my first triathlon last year and thoroughly enjoyed it.
Q. If you enjoy reading, can you recommend a book?
A. Anything related to business interests me. I recently read 'Business for Punks: Break All the Rules - The BrewDog Way' by James Watt, the co-founder of BrewDog, one of the world's fastest-growing drinks brands. It is an inspiring, fascinating story based on the ethos of 'putting everything on the line for what you believe in'. This really resonated with me and helped me to prioritise what I needed to do in order to create growth within my own business, which has been reflected through the significant expansion.
Q. How would you describe your early life?
A. I had a very enjoyable childhood, which was full of adventure. My dad was a scout leader so our weekends would have been jam-packed with camping, climbing and various other outdoor pursuits that always had an element of excitement and a little risk involved. Embracing the great outdoors was instilled in me from an early age.
Q. Have you any economic predictions?
A As a business owner in Northern Ireland, I really hope that even after Brexit we can establish a unique position as a country that will give us the opportunity to be seen as an attractive location for both tourism and investment.