Belfast Telegraph

‘Being your own boss has benefits... I’d encourage others to do the same’

Jennifer McKeever, head of Londonderry Chamber of Commerce and chief executive of Airporter
Jennifer McKeever, head of Londonderry Chamber of Commerce and chief executive of Airporter

Jennifer McKeever studied English and history at university. But it was when her parents decided to set up Airporter that she found herself following them into the family firm to take up the role of director.

What was meant to be a temporary job has turned into a lifelong career and Jennifer has played a key role in the company's success.

Set up in 1997, Airporter started out with just two drivers and two vehicles, carrying 5,000 passengers in its first year in business.

It now has 40 members of staff and 20 vehicles, and carried 175,000 people between Northern Ireland's airports in the last year.

The growth of the company is the result of hard work and a willingness to take a risk and make mistakes, according to 45-year-old Jennifer - who was recently named as the 75th president of the Londonderry Chamber of Commerce.

"I was born in Montreal, went to school in Portstewart and spent a few years at Coleraine High School," she said.

"I returned to Canada when I was 14 and completed high school there, before going to university in Ottowa.

Sign In

"It definitely created a sense of resilience in me because moving back and forward across the Atlantic when I was growing up, I had to start over so many times.

"I do feel there is a fear of failure in Northern Ireland, probably because it is quite small and people are concerned what people will think of them and that can hold them back, it makes them less brave.

"I think that if you do something when you are 18, 25, 35, these things very rarely have to be decisions that define your whole life.

"The resilience I have has been a good trait for me when it comes to business."

Moving with the times and keeping up-to-date with digital technology has also been important, particularly as it allows passengers to book tickets 24 hours a day from anywhere in the world.

Currently, 80% of passengers book online and Jennifer hopes this will increase to 100% in the next year.

"It's important to continue to evolve the business," she added. "Young adults now have never known anything other than flight online, I don't think anyone says they are going to ring easyJet to make a booking.

"We launched our online reservation system 10 years ago and our drivers have up to date information on all our passengers.

"We know at any one time how many passengers are on our vehicles and how many seats are available.

"That way we can manage capacity up to the very last minute.

"We use whatever digital technology is available to us because when you have 175,000 passengers you can't manage them and take all the bookings on the phone.

"We also have the facility for our passengers to go online and ask questions and get an immediate answer."

Increasing passenger numbers was achieved by making a number of operational changes, including increasing the frequency of journeys.

"We had to make it so it was impossible to come out of the airport and not see one of our buses," said Jennifer.

"We had reached about 80,000 passengers about six or seven years ago and we were stuck there for a couple of years.

"But since making the changes we have had about 20% growth year on year."

Jennifer said the company has further ambitious expansion plans for the next three years and as part of efforts to continue growth, they have recently acquired new premises in Londonderry. However, Jennifer is concerned about the effect of the current political situation - both the ongoing stalemate at Stormont and Brexit - on the future of the economy in Northern Ireland.

"A third of our passengers begin and finished their journey in Donegal," she said.

"Londonderry is very much a cross-border city, some of our staff cross the border to come and work for us, our passengers cross the border to get to and from business and I do think a hard border will damage trade.

"It will damage our ability to reach customers and anything less than what we have now will damage the economy.

"I am also horrified at how divided our polarised our community has become, more so than it has been for the 20 years I have been here.

"We started the business around the same time as the Good Friday Agreement and there was so much optimism in Northern Ireland, that we had put the dark days behind us.

"It was going to be more entrepreneurial, going to be more global facing and less isolated, it was quite a wonderful time to move here.

"The economy in Northern Ireland has definitely benefited from the political stability and Airporter has as more people come here now.

"I hope that we are able to get that back for the good of the economy and for Northern Ireland as a whole."

Having fallen into the world of business quite by accident, does Jennifer regret her career path?

"I had never had any desire to get into business and I was only meant to come over for a few months.

"I was very, very aware of my shortcomings when I started out and if I had understood how long it does take to set up a successful business there is no way I would have done it. I think that enjoy is the wrong word, but there are great benefits to being your own boss, and it is a life I would encourage anyone to pursue."

Belfast Telegraph