Entrepreneurs go about their business with the bright idea
Northern Ireland's most innovative companies have been selected for the final of Ireland's top business competition. Margaret Canning reports
What do cartoons and mashed vegetables – not to mention dramatic tales of survival through the worst of the downturn – have in common?
They are among the products and stories of an impressive team of entrepreneurs from all over Northern Ireland who have been shortlisted in Ireland's top business competition.
For almost two decades, the international Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year competition has highlighted the achievements of entrepreneurs around the world who have used their bright business ideas to generate wealth, create employment and make a contribution to the lives of those around them.
The competition has long been a fixture of Irish business life – and three years ago, Co Down's Brian Conlon, the founder of financial software firm First Derivatives, won the title of Ireland Entrepreneur of the Year.
Mr Conlon's achievement shone a light on the competition for his fellow Northern Ireland business people, and the scheme continues to attract Northern Ireland's brightest and best.
Colin Williams, the founder of Belfast-based animation company Sixteen South, joins Martin Hamilton of Co Down firm Mash Direct and five others who have been selected by Ernst & Young to proceed to the Ireland final later this year.
This year's other Northern Ireland contenders – who join 17 competitors from the Republic in the Ireland heat – are Mark Godfrey and Simon Cole of software company Automated Intelligence, Eleanor McAvoy of Budget Energy, Peter Dixon of Kellen Investments, the trading name of Phoenix Natural Gas, and Seamus McKeague of Creagh Concrete Products.
Ernst & Young's Frank O'Keeffe, the partner in charge of the programme, said: "The 24 selected finalists are significantly contributing to the creation of new jobs and opportunities in today's challenging business environment, advancing innovation and creating value in Ireland and globally.
"We would like to wholeheartedly welcome the six Northern Ireland finalists to our unique community of leading entrepreneurs and look forward to supporting, celebrating and challenging them throughout this year."
The winner of the Ireland Entrepreneur competition will be announced at a gala awards ceremony in October.
Londonderry-based Budget Energy is Northern Ireland's only independent supplier of retail, pre-paid electricity. Eleanor McEvoy founded the company in 2011. The firm's tag line is that it offers "the same electricity, only cheaper" and plans to bring its formula to the Republic's energy market before the end of the year
After securing a licence to operate in December 2010, it began supplying electricity in July the following year. It now supplies both domestic and commercial customers, and has around 30,000 customers in Northern Ireland.
The company says it provides "value for money" electricity through competitive pricing and lower overheads. It employs over 50 staff but hopes to have double that number by next year.
It has negotiated agreements to buy energy from anaerobic digesters and wind farmers. The company hopes to pursue green energy and to reach a threshold of 20% renewable energy by the end of this year.
MASH DIRECT LIMITED
Founder and MD Martin Hamilton had been growing and selling vegetables for more than 20 years when he concluded many customers wanted the convenience of pre-prepared vegetables.
He diversified and transformed his wholesale farming business into Mash Direct in Co Down.
Now a market leader, it produces dishes from mashed potato and champ to ready-meals.
It uses steam cooking to retain the taste, texture and nutritional benefits of the vegetables in 32 products, 21 gluten-free.
The customer portfolio is split between food service, industrial ingredient manufacture and retail which, alone, represents 75% of the company's total turnover.
In the last year it has begun supplying Budgens and Ocado.
Sales have grown to over £7m in five years, helping it become an £11m firm employing 121 staff.
Construction on a new 25,000 sq m factory has begun, which will increase capacity by 50% and lead to 33% increase in staff.
KELLEN INVESTMENTS LTD
Kellen Investments, which trades as Phoenix Natural Gas, is the pre-eminent natural gas business in Northern Ireland. Since 1996, Phoenix has been successful in establishing natural gas as a brand new product to an existing market. Phoenix developed the supply systems which brought natural gas to greater Belfast – though the supply arm has been sold. Last week, Phoenix was sold to Australian fund Hastings – though Phoenix has emphasised that the sale will not affect its day-to-day operations. Around 3,000 people are employed in the wider local natural gas industry, including within gas installation firms, product retailers, manufacturers, distributors, merchants and training centres all operating under the Phoenix banner.
Around 250 staff are employed directly by Phoenix.
Phoenix aims to grow its customers in Belfast from around 50% to the 85% levels seen in Great Britain (85%) as well as potential opportunities for expansion into new licensed areas.
Company name: Sixteen South
Colin Williams is the founder and creative director of Sixteen South Television, a children's television production company making programmes for broadcasters across the globe, including the BBC, Nickelodeon, US cable giant Sprout and ABC Australia.
Sixteen South is based in Belfast where it has produced all its work since being founded in 2008.
That includes more than 200 episodes of premium children's television including Sesame Tree, Big City Park, Big and Small, Pajanimals and Driftwood Bay. It has also worked with the most respected names in kids' TV around the world, including Sesame Workshop and The Jim Henson Company.
Sixteen South's shows have won around a dozen creative plaudits, including an IFTA, a BAFTA and a nomination for two EMMY awards, which saw them compete with shows of the calibre of Sesame Street.
Mr William is also visiting professor at University of Ulster's School of Art, where he is working to bring international attention to the school.
COMPANY: Creagh Concrete Products
Creagh Concrete was set up in 1974 in Creagh, Toomebridge to manufacture concrete blocks, and has grown into one of the biggest concrete manufacturers and contractors in Ireland and the UK.
Mr McKeague joined Creagh in 1982 and became a part-owner with three of his brothers in 1986, with a turnover of £1m a year. By 2007, the turnover was £55m. In the last four to five years traditional markets have shrank by 75% in Ireland and 50% in the UK. In 2008, Creagh down-sized its workforce from 530 in May 2008 to 240 in May 2009.
Soon afterwards a strategy was implemented to double the size of the business within five years. Around 80% of business is now in England and Scotland and just 20% in Ireland. It has now grown market share from under 10% in the UK during 2007 to over 30% in 2012. There are now 550 direct employees.
The company also plans to build an anaerobic digestion facility in Ardboe and three wind turbines in Draperstown.
MARK GODFREY AND SIMON COLE
Automated Intelligence (AI) is a software firm in Belfast with a new approach to managing corporate information and data.
AI drives data value by providing software to reduce costs and improve management, efficiencies and compliance.
Mark Godfrey and Simon Cole set up the firm three years ago.
At that point they had no staff, no product, no customers, no office and an unknown brand. Before AI, companies used complex systems for their documents, information and records – before it came along with a vision of reinvigorating the market.
After just one year, it secured one of the largest central government departments in the UK as its first customer. Since then, the company has grown to a profitable business with an extensive product range and customer list including the British Red Cross and HM Treasury.
Revenues have doubled year on year and it employs more than 30 staff.