Belfast Telegraph

Magnificent seven in running for awards

A clutch of top business leaders are representing the province at this year's prestigious Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Awards. Heather McGarrigle profiles the contenders

A Lively start-up selling globally in its second year, an engineering stalwart diversifying and growing as it enters its third century and a glamorous jewellery retailer that began life as a festival market stall.

These are just some of the firms making up the varied portfolio of businesses led by Northern Ireland's top entrepreneurs.

Creative thinking, integrity and honesty are some of the common threads running through Northern Ireland's most progressive companies. But steely determination, hard graft and genuine passion seem to be the key drivers behind the success of the seven business leaders representing Northern Ireland at this year's Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year awards.

Pete Boyle is one of the finalists in the industry category. He is the founder of hugely successful jewellery retailer Argento, which now has 40 stores throughout the UK and Ireland.

Selling creations from leading European designers, as well as its own in-house brand, Karma, the sleek shops belie their somewhat 'shabby chic' beginnings.

Mr Boyle was a teenager when he began selling mirrors from a stall at Donegal's Ballyshannon Folk Festival. Even when he progressed to selling jewellery, the young businessman led a humble existence, but one that whetted his appetite for self employment.

He said: "To get the fledgling business off the ground, selling jewellery at music festivals, I bought a 1978 Austin Maxi car and travelled 18,000 miles around Ireland sleeping in it every night.

"It was a hard slog, but great fun."

Whilst a student in Belfast, he ran a stall in the city centre and developed a vision of a gallery-style outlet, selling quality contemporary jewellery at lower prices than others in the market.

In 1998 his first shop opened, close to the site of his street stall. He travelled to Mexico personally to source some of his first batch of stock and today gets jewellery directly from local suppliers in two countries, much of it handmade.

More expansion is ahead, with 10 new UK Argento stores opened in 2011 so far.

"Whatever it takes for as long as it takes" is the motto of Derry finalist for the emerging category, Grainne Kelly.

Set up in November 2009, Bubblebum is the world's first inflatable car booster seat for children. It was Ms Kelly's work in the travel industry that alerted her to the problem of families renting cars on holiday and arriving to find pre-booked booster seats not available.

A mother of two boys herself, road safety concern compelled her to find a solution and she invented Bubblebum. The inflatable seat, with its funky colours and funny name, has proven a big hit with kids and adults alike.

Although now selling well and gaining press attention in the US, Grainne had to uproot her family and live in America for a year to crack this lucrative market.

She said: "All the experts thought I was just a wee mummy - what did I know about car safety? Taking the time to work alongside child passenger safety technicians paid off as they now recommend the product.

"We've been in the US market for 12 weeks, but are already talking directly to major suppliers, selling through independent retailers and have been approached by Amazon.

"We were on the cover of USA Today last week and two weeks ago won an innovation award from the Juvenile Product Manufacturers Association."

With a recently launched new version of the product, featuring shoulder seatbelt strap clips and a carry bag, as well as a Bubblebum 'app' game proving popular with young customers, constant innovation seems to be the backbone of this young company.

Equally dynamic is Whale Water System in Bangor - however, this company can trace its history across three centuries.

Formed in 1810 as Munster Simms Engineering, international category finalist Patrick Hurst leads the manufacturing firm today.

During the Second World War, the business made the brass pumps on which today's company was founded. The company employs around 150 and has ambitious plans for further expansion.

A management buy-in brought the firm back into local ownership after 18 years under a variety of shareholders.

Under its new leadership, 15 worldwide design patents have been registered and around 70% of the Whale product offering today is new to the marketplace.

Whale exports to almost 50 countries around the world, catering primarily to the leisure, healthcare and portable toilets markets, specialising in pumps, valves, faucets and plumbing.

Mr Hurst says his work is a huge part of his life: "I don't look at what I do as a 'job', so whether I am in the factory or not, my mind is often thinking about new products, improving customer service or simply improving the working environment for all the employees."

Two of the other finalists are focused on making a difference as well as making a profit.

Mairead Mackle set up Homecare Independent Living in 1995 with her husband, Gerald, to allow people to receive health and social care, housing and support services in their own homes. She is listed in the industry category.

Providing independent living for elderly, disabled or vulnerable people is at the heart of the company and it has recently introduced innovations such as Rapid Response, which aims to counteract bed blocking in hospitals.

Ms Mackle said: "Government cutbacks, limited resources and increased fuel costs are all big challenges we face to stay ahead in a changing climate."

However, growth continues and the company has plans to develop an eco-friendly retirement village.

Texthelp Systems, led by chief executive Mark McCusker - an international category finalist - designs and develops software to help struggling readers and writers.

The software is targeted at education, education publishing and corporate sectors and within those communities it specifically helps dyslexic, English language learners, mildly visually impaired and functionally illiterate users.

Based in Antrim, the company sells its products into a number of global markets, including North America where it has offices based in Boston, employing 40 staff.

Mr McCusker became the chief executive of Texthelp Systems in September 1998, at a time when the company had just six employees - it now has 108. He says the company is "proud" to produce software which changes the lives of its users.

Texthelp is now moving into non-English speaking markets, specifically targeting the technology assisted language learning market in South America and the Far East.

The remaining two Northern Ireland finalists say their people are the keys to their success.

Adrian McCutcheon, also in the international award category, is managing director of Tyrone materials handling firm Telestack Ltd.

Established in 2001, Adrian, together with business partner, Malachy Gribben, completed a management buy-in of the firm.

Three-year turnover growth results represented an annual growth rate of 42% and growth in excess of 30% is anticipated for 2011/2012.

The company employs 62 at its Omagh base.

Brian McConville, another international finalist, established his Newry-based joinery business in 1983 and says "sheer hard work" and good staff relations have kept the firm growing.

Operating from Newry, and with offices in the UK, France and Poland, MJM Group employs over 120 staff and turnover has grown "significantly" in the last three years. Mr McConville describes the business's core values as "quality of service, value for money, and personal involvement".

These seven were selected after a period of judging and interviews.

Last year's winner: Brian Conlon

The founder and managing director of the Newry-based financial software firm First Derivatives won the international category in 21's awards, before being named Entrepreneur of the Year.

Since winning the award, the firm has gone from strength to strength.

The company increased staff levels to over 55 from 385, and in March secured a £4.3m funding commitment from Invest NI for the creation of 359 new jobs.

In May, the AIM stock market listed company announced a massive 44% yearly rise in revenues to almost £37m.

Pre-tax profits had increased by 15.1% to £6.5m in the 12 months to the end of February 211.

Software sales increased by 14.3% to £12.5m from £6.1m and consultancy sales increased by 25.2% to £24.2m.

The Irish finalists


Ciaran Mulligan & Rowan Devereux - Blue Insurance

Conor McCarthy - Dublin Aerospace

Denis McCarthy - Annadale Technologies

Grainne Kelly - BubbleBum UK Ltd

Ian Barrett & Ronan Ginnell - Joule

John O'Dea - Crospon

Norman Crowley - Crowley Carbon

Tom Morrisroe - The Now Factory Industry

Domini & Peaches Kemp - Itsa... Ltd

John O'Donoghue - Noonan

Justin Keatinge - Version 1

Justin Quinn - Centre for English Studies

Mairead Mackle - Homecare Independent Living

Paul Hourican - PFH Technologies

Peter Boyle - Argento

Raymond Coyle - Largo Foods International

Adrian McCutcheon - Telestack Limited

Brendan P. Farrell - XSP

Brian McConville - MJM Group Marine

Joe Hogan & Niall Norton - Openet

John Dunne & Tom Farrell - Intune Networks Ltd

Mark McCusker - Texthelp Systems Limited

Miceal Sammon - Sammon Group Education

Patrick Hurst - Whale Water Systems