There are few businesses which have benefitted from the dark days of our troubled past, but Core Systems can count itself as one of them. David Elliot spoke to Patricia O'Hagan to find out about a company taking the prison sector by storm
There can be nothing as frustrating as having good news which you can’t share. During the boom times, dinner parties up and down the country were used as a pulpit by even the most closely guarded who couldn’t help advertise the soaring value of their properties.
The downturn in the property market has put a stop to that but you get the picture: we’re wired to share our good fortune.
Imagine then how it was for Core Systems, a company which has been hitting a number of very successful milestones in a sector where publicity wasn’t advisable. The sector in question is security, in |particular security in prisons, an area of the Northern Ireland economy where suppliers have traditionally been reticent to stick their head above the parapet.
The core of Core Systems’ business (it had to be said) is software development, within which it’s managed to carve a niche for itself in identity management and biometrics. For the prisons and other secure institutions it supplies, that means controlling access and tracking movement of people throughout the facility. For instance, doorway access can be controlled by means of everything from swipe cards to hand, fingerprint or iris recognition systems.
Core Systems’ supplies the software which operates the hardware and connects it to the customer’s internal computer system. Which system is used depends on the level of security, with swipe cards at the lower end of both |the price and security scale and iris recognition, as used at some airports, at the top of both.
Core Systems’ expertise has won it contracts with all the prisons in Northern Ireland along with a number in the Republic, but it wasn’t until the company decided to come out from behind its self-imposed veil of secrecy that it realised it could compete on a global scale. After keeping quiet about its achievements, the sense of relief must have been enormous.
“We took a decision three years ago to talk about what we do,” Patricia O’Hagan, Core Systems’ managing director told Business Month in an interview at the company’s Belfast headquarters.
“We looked outside our own environment to North America and benchmarked where we were.
“As a result we found out that what we’ve been doing is really ahead of the game. There’s huge potential in that region and we’ve made a point of honing our products specifically for it.”
Patricia, who’s been with the company for 12 years, isn’t over egging the pudding when she refers to the US market. Just look at the figures: in Northern Ireland there are about 1,510 prisoners while in the US there are 2.3 million. Breaking in to just a fraction of that market would mean the world for a company such as Core and could put its current £1m turnover in the shade within a short space of time. Plus, there are more than 95,000 prisoners in England, Scotland and Wales.
That’s not to say the company has found itself teetering on the verge of global success overnight.
Core Systems was started in 1994 and spent many years working in the more mainstream side of software development before it found itself getting |involved in the security arena.
Like so many firms in Northern Ireland, its first business in the sector came more by having good contacts than design after a friend recommended the company for a contract linked to the prison service’s photography system.
This initial contact with the service’s research and development department proved invaluable and was the catalyst for a close relationship which encouraged Core to develop its identity recognition software. And, much like Northern Ireland surgeons who developed particular specialities in dealing with shattered knee caps and bullet wounds during |the worst of the Troubles, the company found that the challenges it was forced to address in prisons during the most difficult years in Northern Ireland’s past have meant it now has an offering streets ahead of the nearest competitor on the world stage.
Since this realisation sunk in, Patricia has been making regular trips to the US, getting to know the key people in the prison service on that side of the pond and showing off the company’s capabilities. Along with the suite of identity recognition products, there’s also an online system which allows prisoners to order from an in-house shop alongside a secure email system, something which has so far been precluded from prisons. And it’s also working with prison librarians on a system which would give prisoners access to Amazon’s Kindle e-reader thereby negating the need for books which are sometimes used to smuggle counterfeit goods and are often vandalised.
These are all exciting innovations but prison governors aren’t likely to fritter away money for that reason alone and, after security, costs will be at the top of their priority list.
“We’re offering savings,” Patricia said. “Obviously the initial capital spend is an issue but once the system’s up and running we can prove a big saving by making a number of processes more efficient.”
The drawn-out process of becoming an approved supplier of the US government has meant no contracts have been signed yet, but, the look in Patricia’s eyes suggests such a breakthrough isn’t far away.
Given the warmth which has flowed from the recent US/NI conference, such a prize would be a fitting and just reward for a company which has found itself at the top of the tree on the world stage.
If the years of fighting in Northern Ireland offer some beneficial by-products then it’s only right we exploit them to make up for the years of economic inertia which went hand in hand with the Troubles.