Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland construction firm toughs it out to thrive in uncertain world

By Margaret Canning

A construction firm that has outlasted rivals and survived at least two recessions has said there are still "headaches" in the sector. Martin & Hamilton, which is based in Ballymena, said a cautious approach had helped keep it in business for 50 years.

It employs 70 people in the town and has annual sales of around £13m, carrying out a range of work from school projects to hotel builds. In its latest accounts, it had pre-tax profits of around £452,400.

It is also involved in a large number of church restoration projects, including restoring the tower of St Patrick's Church on Donegall Street in Belfast. And it also carried out a major project on the landmark Albert Clock in the city to prevent its famous lean from becoming any more pronounced.

Restoration work accounts for about 25% of company turnover, with the remainder from other parts of the construction sector.

"We have to have a spread, because when one section is buoyant, others are quiet," David Hamilton said.

He said it also carried out large projects for food companies, with an emphasis on the dairy sector.

He added that the company had survived the last economic downturn - mainly because it had not amassed a large bank of property.

Investments in property by other firms, including Patton in Ballymena, eventually contributed to their downfall.

Mr Hamilton added: "If you went back to 2007 before the recession and look at a list of architects, quantity surveyors and builders, that list has been decimated now, and we're the only builder left in Ballymena.

"We would have been cautious and didn't invest in property. We looked at opportunities and analysed them, and bid on five acres which we thought were worth £700,000. We bid £750,000, but it sold for £1.4m."

But he said he did not think the ramifications of the crash were completely over. "I think there's still a tail of that to clear out of the way." And he said low-price tendering remained a problem. "We have contented ourselves to remain at the sides. To push turnover up, we would be buying work at low margins. You have to invest and pay your people properly and have a margin you can weather a rainy day. The tender market is definitely too competitive."

The company is also working on premises belonging to charity Vineyard Compassion in Coleraine, and a conservation project at the Union Theological College in Belfast. It marks its 50th anniversary this week.

Mr Hamilton said: "Our success and longevity is a tribute to our hard working team. Many of our employees have been with us for 25 years and longer."

Belfast Telegraph