Belfast Telegraph

Meet the man helping Mivan weather the financial storm

The big interview

By Margaret Canning

It's rebirth enabled it to secure a £2.5m deal to fit-out the inside of luxury train the Belmond Grand Hibernian, Ireland's answer to the Orient Express. But in January 2014 things looked bleak for Antrim joinery firm Mivan.

The economic downturn had been a cruel time for many Northern Ireland companies and led to the loss of many of our big names.

But the re-emergence of a new Mivan, now led by Neil Ward, has proved that insolvency isn't always the end of the line - if your brand name and reputation are strong enough.

It had become one of the most familiar companies in Northern Ireland and made its mark on the global industry through top-end projects such as Disneyland Paris, The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and the Scottish Parliament.

Mivan's name was a byword for luxury and grandeur - so much so that it carried out work on the palaces of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

But difficulties came in the crash, and in 2014, Mivan Ltd went into administration with secured debt of £9.8m. It looked like it would go the way of other once-mighty names in construction, such as Patton, which crumbled in 2013, and Carvill Group, which went out of business in 2011.

But last year, its brand and assets were bought over by MJM Group, a Newry-based firm with interests ranging from ship fit-out to property development. Under the new ownership, it has won deals worth £25m this year. And in its results for 2015, Mivan Marine reported turnover of £12m and pre-tax profits of £0.9m.

Chief executive Neil Ward, who joined the company 18 months ago after eight years with Creagh Concrete, said: "It's now well over a year since the administration and there was plenty of optimism and potential for growth. There was a willingness to shake off any uncertainty and a hunger to secure sales and orders. There's been a real passion to rebuild the brand and presence and push the message to the market. We are succeeding and even exceeding our expectations a little bit. We're working to ensure there is employee engagement, that we're getting good orders and disciplines in the business."

Orders don't come any more prestigious than Mivan's work earlier this year on the Belmond Grand Hibernian. It is the luxury train company's first Irish project... and with a ticket for a two-night excursion from Dublin to Northern Ireland's main tourist attractions an eye-watering £2,600, Mivan had to work extremely hard within just a five-month period to come up with the required luxury finish.

Belmond hasn't replied to requests for information on ticket sales for its Northern Ireland trip, but there's no doubt that working on the project is a feather in the cap for Mivan.

It earned Mivan the title of Hospitality Fit-Out Project of the Year at the Irish Fit-Out Awards. "No other manufacturer could have taken that project in that turnaround, when you think about what's required to work on ten, 27m-long train carriages," said Neil. "We had to learn all about rail requirements... I remember having a conversation about G-forces and thinking to myself, the last time I had that conversation was when I was seven."

As to whether more luxury train deals could beckon, "it is quite a small market". "There are limited opportunities for that type of repeat business but if there is, we expect to be in there."

Mivan's job was to strip back disused Irish Rail carriages to their steel frame and build everything from there in.

"Everything was designed bespoke and no two items could be repeated anywhere in the carriages. We manufactured all the joinery - and pretty much everything from the steel exterior and in was manufactured and designed by Mivan," said Neil.

The company's registered name Mivan Marine is a reminder that its core work is in fitting out ships.

"Overseas is a very big part of the business but the challenges which come with that can be pretty random," said Neil.

"We came up against Hurricane Matthew when we were scheduled to do a big piece of work in the Bahamas. All materials and the workforce had been dispatched but then Hurricane Matthew happened and blew it entirely off course. There is still a lack of clarity as to when it can now happen. We can deliver a very good and successful product but only when a dockside is fully functional."

Earlier this year the company won Invest NI funding of £500,000, which has enabled it to take on 65 new staff. That will bring its direct workforce to 225.

Mivan has a long history of globetrotting and Neil sees a willingness to travel as deep within the company's DNA, whether for ships in the Bahamas or office fit-outs in London.

"We're all easyJet jockeys," he said. "Overall, a lot of our work is off-island and we have to follow where the work is.

"Of course, that means challenges for our workforce but we are respectful of those." He's resigned to the state of the Northern Ireland market. "I see plenty of hope that local markets will bounce back but that's not where we concentrate our efforts. The sectors we are in are not big enough and not likely to be big enough to grow the business to where we want it to become."

Those targets are ambitious. "I think in three-year terms as anything above that is pure speculation," said Neil. "We'd like to be making £40m in sales at the end of our current three-year plan."

Neil, a trained accountant, has three children and is the son of a farmer.

He was brought up in Lavey in south Derry and now lives in Crumlin. He's enjoying his career in construction but acknowledges the recession was tough. "Seeing people lead and take a company through hard times does give you a boost in terms of what you're capable of doing." And he takes a long-term view on what the impact of Brexit will be. "It could have 1,000 impacts, positives and negatives, but really, I'll not know for 20 years. Even now, we don't know when Brexit will actually happen... It's still a kaleidoscope of variables.

"For me, Brexit is a bit like the weather. I'll rarely comment on the weather. If you're prepared for it - like the weather - it will become something you deal with, manage and get on with."

He says it's unlikely the election of Donald Trump as US President will bring any benefits though it has work in the Bahamas and Central and South American countries like Panama and Ecuador.

Neil says the integration of Mivan into MJM, led by Brian McConville - this year's Businessperson of the Year in the Belfast Telegraph Business Awards - has been positive. "There has been quite a bit of cooperation and collaboration between us and that's been phenomenally useful," he added.

'Mivan's history means the bar for success is very high'

Q: What's the best piece of business (or life) advice you've ever been given?

A: I was once told that "cash flow is more important that your mother", which is both wrong and right.

Q: What piece of advice would you pass on to someone starting out in business?

A: Respect your mother and keep some cash handy.

Q: What was your best business decision?

A: I haven't made that one yet.

Q: If you weren't doing this job, what would be your other career?

A: Anything that allows omeone else to do the last 5% - I am great at starting things, terrible at finishing them.

Q: What was your last holiday? Where are you going next?

A: Last holiday - Galway Oyster festival. No idea where next just yet.

Q: What is your favourite sport and team?

A: I enjoy listening to sport, but would only watch an odd match. It was great to see Ireland's rugby team start their unbeaten winning streak against New Zealand (above) and a decent hurling match cannot be beaten.

Q: And have you ever played any sports?

A: I was awful and was rightly substituted for my younger brother in under-12 hurling.

Q: If you enjoy reading, can you recommend a book?

A: Anything by Bill Bryson.

Q: How would you describe your early life?

A: Run, run, fall, cry, eat, run repeat.

Q: Have you any economic predictions?

A: I have a thousand of them, all confusingly contradictory.

Q: How would you assess your time in business with Mivan?

A: It has been very interesting and quite challenging. The business has a great brand and its history means there is a high bar of achievement to aspire to.

Q: How do you sum up working in the fit-out sector?

A: The sector is changing constantly and competition is getting stronger. It is a challenge to keep adapting to the market and to look for new markets or sectors in which Mivan gets a chance to use all our talents.

Belfast Telegraph