'Cruise liners are big hotels at the end of the day, and I saw this as an opportunity to grow our business'
Ship fit-out firm McCue Marine boss Stephen Mills tells John Mulgrew about his roots in east Belfast and creating a business that’s aiming for a turnover in the region of £30m
Stephen Mills grew up in the shadow of the world's most famous cranes in east Belfast, so perhaps it's not surprising he found his way into fitting out some of the world's biggest cruise ships.
And in the space of two short years McCue Marine has worked on vessels such as the Queen Mary 2, with scope to grow turnover to around £30m.
Mr Mills heads up the firm, the marine off-shoot to Carrickfergus firm McCue Crafted Fit.
He's aiming to grow the business by around 20% each year over the next five years, buoyed by further work for big-name operators such as Cunard.
And he began his foray into that line of work thanks to a long career at Antrim fit-out firm Mivan.
Now living in Dromore, Co Down, the 54-year-old started off as a bricklayer in Belfast.
He said: "I did civil engineering at the University of Ulster. I was always interested in ships as well, being from east Belfast.
"It was something I was very interested in."
Work then took him to the Cumbrian coast and to one of the UK's most controversial nuclear power plants - Sellafield.
"I worked there for four years. It was a beautiful part of the country to work," he added.
"My part of the business was making sure of safety, and reprocessing the fuel, to make sure it was stored in a safe manner."
Mr Mills then returned to Northern Ireland in the 1980s to have a family. He's married to Gloria, a physio for the Belfast Trust, and has two grown-up children.
Daughter Emma (25) works for professional services firm EY while son Nathan (27) has just started a job with a new American start-up company.
"I decided to move back to Northern Ireland for education and the lifestyle."
Then, in 1985 he saw an advert for an estimator with Mivan.
"It looked to be a very dynamic company doing lots of exports. That's when I joined the marine division of Mivan. I started pricing ships, and then moved into a development role. My background wasn't in sales," he said.
"But they then moved me into technical sales, and after being there for 10 years I was made business development director."
Carrickfergus-based McCue upgraded the 2,620 passenger ship the Queen Mary's shopping areas, Queen's Grill and Princess Grill restaurants, along with other sections.
The work was completed at the dry-dock at Blohm & Voss Shipyard in Hamburg, Germany, alongside firms SMC Design and Harding Retail.
The refit is the largest overhaul ever taken by the ship's owner, Cunard.
Over the last 20 years Stephen has built a network of relationships with cruise lines, shipyards, suppliers, sub-contractors and labour to ensure projects are delivered on time and to budget.
The firm's marine arm grew from McCue Crafted Fit, which has been operating for more than 60 years, and is headed by managing director Les McCracken.
"Les's ambition was to get McCue into the fit-out market for cruise ships. It was a completely new area," Mr Mills explained. "Cruise ships are big hotels at the end of the day. I saw it as a great opportunity, using my knowledge and getting McCue into a new sector, and setting up, effectively a new business in the company."
McCue Marine taps into the existing workforce in Carrickfergus, alongside sub-contractors.
There are currently around 120 employed.
It's landed three major cruise ship projects to date.
But it's a competitive industry to get into, with firms from across Europe vying for work.
"We were getting McCue into the marine market... it was a bit of a challenge," Mr Mills said.
"The marine fit-out market is quite closed, and firms are quite cautious about letting people into the marketplace.
"McCue have done a lot of five-star hotels around the UK, so that was a good starting base."
McCue Marine began to grow, following a visit to a major trade show in Miami. That gave the team a chance to look at existing contracts, and to "get the McCue name about".
"Within six months we were able to secure two projects on Thomson Cruises. One was in Gibraltar and the other one was in Cyprus," he said.
Work is also varied, from basic ship interiors to grand dining areas.
"It's going into the public areas in the ship - carpets, ceilings, wall panelling, the furniture and bars. One of the big assets that McCue has is we have our own joinery facility. It keeps costs down, and you can guarantee the quality," he explained.
He says he wants to grow turnover to around £40m.
"I think we would expect 10 to 20% growth per year for five years, and the ability to deliver £5m to £10m," he added.
Speaking about Brexit, he says the "easiest" solution would have been a Remain vote.
"This is a new challenge for us, and (we can) re-engage with our European customers.
"We have the skills and are very competitive and I don't think they would be putting trade tariffs (in place).
"It would be business are usual. There is a fear of uncertainty and no one knows what will happen to us. But we are remaining very optimistic about moving forward."
He says the company is currently vying for a number of potentially lucrative contracts.
"It's a tendering process, and they generally go with the lowest price," he said.
"As long as we can deliver competitively, then it will push us forward into the European market."
And the deadline and timescale for many of the cruise jobs is tight.
The team had to start and finish work on the Queen Mary in just 25 days.
"We just finished the Queen Mary 2, which was a £2m project over four areas," he said.
"It was done in Hamburg in Germany, and we had 25 days. It was pre-fabricated in advance, and then shipped over.
"We had about 110 workers, which we flew over from Dublin. They were fed and had accommodation on board."
Q. What’s the best piece of business (or life) advice you’ve ever been given?
A. It’s essential to enjoy what you do. If you have a genuine interest in your field, work won’t feel like work, but more like a pursuit of your interests.
Q. What piece of advice would you pass on to someone starting out in business?
A. Surround yourself with brilliant people and delegate where possible, there will be plenty of tasks that fall on the business owner’s shoulders.
Q. What was your best business decision?
A. I’ve really enjoyed the move into McCue Crafted Fit, establishing McCue Marine. It has been an exciting building the brand and drawing from McCue’s history. Some of McCue Crafted Fit’s best-known clients include the Four Seasons Hotel, The Savoy Hotel, Claridges Hotel and The Shangri-La Hotel at The Shard, London, which have been very exciting to work on.
Q. If you weren’t doing this job, what would be your other career?
A. I think I would have liked to be more creative and pursue a career in interior design covering hotels, restaurants and bars.
Q. What was your last holiday? Where are you going next?
A. It sounds a busman’s holiday, but I really enjoy cruise ship vacations. My last was around the Southern Mediterranean and Israel. But the next will be on land — I am planning a road trip around New Zealand.
Q. What are your hobbies/interest?
A. I love to travel, which, thankfully, comes with the territory in this job. In March I was at the international trade show in Florida for the Global Cruise Shipping Show. I jetted off the week before the show to LA, then to Seattle and finally back to Fort Lauderdale and Miami for the second week. It was exhausting, but a lot of fun.
Q. What is your favourite sport and team?
A. After their performance at the Euros, Northern Ireland is among my favourite, we were all captivated by their performance and, of course, the fans! Ireland come a close second.
Q. And have you ever played any sports?
A. I was into football at school and played five-a-side after work to keep fit, but sales means my movements are unpredictable, so that fell by the wayside. Maybe it’s time to take up golf!
Q. If you enjoy reading, can you recommend a book?
A. I’m not a great fiction reader, I prefer to get into autobiographies/biographies of business leaders — the best include Richard Branson, Alan Sugar, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.
Q. How would you describe your early life?
A. Relatively uncomplicated. I think life was more simple for children in my generation!
Q. Have you any economic predictions?
A. No — does anyone? All I know is the value of the pound has fallen dramatically, which hasn’t been good for those of us heading away.
Q. How would you assess your time with McCue?
A. Fun, exciting, demanding. It’s a different scenario to establish the McCue Marine division. It’s genuinely my best role to date.
Q. How do you sum up working in the sector?
A. Northern Ireland’s tourism is booming and I almost want to fast-forward a few years as I think Belfast will look completely different. With our improved rapid transport system and hotels and restaurants, the sector is set to take off. Belfast Harbour is doing a fantastic job of bringing cruise ships to Belfast, I believe we’ve had a record number of cruise visitors this year. It really is wonderful to see such an interest in our city.