Belfast Telegraph

'I knew I couldn't walk away from the business when there were the jobs of 400 people to consider'

The Big Interview

By Margaret Canning

He joined his father's business in the early Seventies and has built Acheson & Glover into a major pre-cast concrete and paving firm, with sales of £35.5m in its most recent accounts.

But chief executive Raymond Acheson (61) is unsentimental about ties of family and business.

He says his father Henry did not force him to join up - and likewise, Raymond says no pressure was applied to his son Stephen, now managing director.

The company started out in Fivemiletown, Co Tyrone in 1960 as Henry - now 86 - went into partnership with Norman Glover to produce agricultural lime.

It's diversified since then and now makes pre-cast concrete, paving for outdoor landscaping and garden and driveway paving. As well as its Fivemiletown headquarters, it has major premises in Ballygawley, a sales office in Birmingham and four showrooms for its outside paving around the province.

It's carried out major school contracts in Great Britain and in the Republic - and laid some of its paving at the East India Dock Station in Canary Wharf, London.

But the beginnings of the business reflected the predominance of agriculture in Northern Ireland.

"Way back then farmers were spreading a lot of lime. It was used to lower the PH balance of the soil to make it more fertile for crops," he said.

"I suppose over the first few years it became fairly successful. From then, we've expanded off into other products as agricultural lime was a limited market."

The latest sales figures for Acheson Holdings Ltd were up from £34.6m a year earlier, while pre-tax profits were steady at £1m. It has nearly 398 staff after a recruitment drive to take on 33 people earlier this year.

Raymond grew up in Cookstown - where the Acheson family are well-known for their sporting interests, including hockey and Formula One. He worked in the business throughout his summer holidays. "Everybody worked in the summer holidays then. I was involved in grinding lime and making blocks and all the various products, and dispatch and all the various things," he said.

"It was a good grounding and gave me a good understanding of the business.

"I think some young people miss out on that now because of the health and safety."

Siblings Aileen and Kenneth - Raymond is the eldest - aren't involved in the business. "My brother Kenneth Acheson got into Formula One back in the Eighties and Nineties but I had to work for a living.

"I had no interest in that. My father raced cars and motorbikes it was his hobby as the man says.

"But I wasn't too worried about the need to go into the family business.

"I went to school and then the University of Ulster in Coleraine but I just gave it up after a year.

"I was studying economics but I just found the whole university life boring.

"I just wasn't interested in the whole thing. I didn't want to be spending time doing nothing.

"So instead, I went into the business."

Raymond worked in various parts of the business, from despatch to product development and management. "It wasn't a big structure back then and you did a bit of everything.

"At that point it was a large block business and just kept developing and growing into paving. We bought over different places and developed more products."

The company has always been intent on growth, he said. "It's been the same all along, trying to grow organically or through acquisition.

"I like to think we work well as a team on the day to day stuff."

The appetite for takeovers led to the company buying a large block manufacturer called P&B Connolly in Dungannon - "they were quite famous".

It also bought a concrete and sand pits business in Magherafelt.

They were still in partnership with the Glover family and remained in partnership with them until 2013.

But the takeover of the pre-cast concrete business of Readymix for £33m in 2007 turned out to be a pivotal moment, and not entirely for the good of Acheson & Glover. It was not until 2014 that the problems came to a head and the A&G holding company went into administration. In its last full accounts for 2012, A&G Group Ltd had net liabilities of just under £31m.

"The recession had hit and we went through tough times. I eventually bought the business back with the support of Bank of Ireland," Raymond said.

"The trading companies (Acheson & Glover Limited and Acheson Glover Precast) traded on and continued as normal but it was the holding company (Acheson & Glover Group Limited) that was affected and went into administration. It took a couple of months to sort out."

But he says it wasn't the prospect of losing the business that his father had built up that drove him.

"I don't think that way. It was just that I thought there was a future for the business. There were 400 employees who had to be looked after. If we walked away what happens to them?

"The easy thing to do was walk away but it wasn't what I wanted to do. The business was fundamentally sound but the acquisition debt was the issue."

In common with many other Northern Ireland firms in construction-related trades, much of its work is now in Great Britain.

But Raymond says that's been the case for many years. "We've been across the water since the early Nineties. Today, I'd reckon around 60 to 70% of our business is across the water. It's still a growing market so it is.

"But Northern Ireland is still very depressed to what it was. The Republic is recovering a bit now but here, there doesn't seem to be any overall plan."

He's sceptical as to whether a cut in corporation tax is the solution. "The idea is good but I'd be a little bit concerned.

"It's a bit like a Christmas present. It looks good, sounds good but then you open the box, and then the question is, what do you do now?

"It's nice in theory but you have to do something with it and make it work. I'm not sure government has its head around the fact that they need to do something with it."

Raymond says he anticipated difficulties for two to three years following the Brexit vote. "We expect it to be quiet over next couple of years. There'll be a bit of a lack of confidence and people won't want to invest."

And an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic was "absolutely essential". "We're all on one island, no matter your politics and we have to able to trade openly," said Raymond.

"People will have enough brains and wit to work it out. There'll be a bit of politics with it, but at the end of the day they'll have to have a deal that works."

He says that the era of checkpoints on the border was "a nightmare" thanks to the time lost - and the need to employ people specifically to look after border crossings.

And with large numbers of people from Poland and Hungary on its books, he says its crucial that Acheson & Glover keeps its EU workforce. "They're all very good workers and we'd miss them if they weren't here."

For now, the company is busy with major school work and housing deals in Great Britain. That work includes work on eight schools for Carillion in GB, and another schools project in Balbriggan, Co Dublin. With school contracts, they typically supply concrete flooring, staircases, paving and external works, shipping through all the major ports on the island.

And Raymond says he is staying put at the helm of the company. "At this point in time I'm totally committed to the business and I enjoy my work and I'm still fit enough.

"As long as I am fit I'll continue until I think I become a burden or don't have the energy levels.

"But I have a good management team around me to tell me when it's time to go."


Belfast Telegraph