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Big interview: Gavin Annon on having RUC contract during Drumcree dispute

The Big Interview: Gavin Annon, Mount Charles

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Gavin Annon

Gavin Annon

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Gavin Annon, who’s forging a successful career in the family firm Mount Charles

Gavin Annon, who’s forging a successful career in the family firm Mount Charles

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Gavin Annon

Gavin Annon

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Trevor Annon collects a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Aer Lingus Business Awards in 2017, for his contribution to the economy. From left: Chris Annon, Trevor Annon, Cate Annon, Louise Annon and Gavin Annon

Trevor Annon collects a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Aer Lingus Business Awards in 2017, for his contribution to the economy. From left: Chris Annon, Trevor Annon, Cate Annon, Louise Annon and Gavin Annon

A thumbs up from Gavin in the DJ booth

A thumbs up from Gavin in the DJ booth

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Gavin Annon

Gavin Annon didn't want to rise through the ranks at Northern Ireland's biggest catering and outsourcing firm because it was a career in waiting.

Instead, he says he decided to do his own thing before joining the family business. That route included a Business Information Technology degree at Queen's University, a lengthy stint in Tesco where he moved from the checkouts to management and a Chartered Institute for Marketing for professionals post-grad, with a very successful DJing career on the side.

"There was always that end goal that I would be here, but I wanted to prove that I could survive and make my own money because it's very easy to walk into a family company and work your way up. It's too easy," he says.

Today Gavin, father to 18-month-old Conrad, and his wife Lauren are juggling three family businesses with parenthood.

Lauren operates her own company, Mr and Mrs Balloons. And as well as a key role at Mount Charles, Gavin is a successful DJ with a string of residencies at some of Belfast's best-known nightspots.

"You name the bar, I've played there," he says.

"I was 16 when I bought my first decks. I practiced every single day to work it out and now I'm blessed with long-term residencies at Revolucion De Cuba and 21 Social."

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The hobby turned source of income has escalated into something of an entertainment business for Gavin, who now supplies DJs and acoustic singers to a range of venues here.

"That's sort of under the radar but it's an extension of me," he says. "I think it's important to have variety in life and I'm 110% committed to Mount Charles but it's important to have other projects that keep your mind alive and when you have a busy nightclub and every one there has had a great night, that's a real personal achievement."

Gavin, his brother Christopher and sister Louise were raised in Lisburn by Trevor and Kate Annon.

The family home's close proximity to the train station allowed Gavin to venture further than his siblings when making his secondary school choice.

He chose St Malachy's Grammar School in north Belfast where he completed his A-levels.

"I loved it. I just jumped on the train and was in the city yet I wasn't too far away from home," he says.

"We'd walk up to school or if it rained we'd get the bus from the Europa Buscentre."

Mount Charles, his father Trevor's 30-year-old business, always played a massive role in Gavin's childhood.

From an early age he was expected to knuckle down and help out with catering contracts, which included wiping down tables at one of Ireland's largest foodcourts to being on-site at contentious events for one of the company's clients, the RUC.

"Our first involvement was going around the contract catering sites on a Saturday.

"We would have helped clear tables, dad would have a cup tea with clients and make sure we were doing everything that we promised we would," recalls Gavin.

"I remember, way back in the day, working at Sprucefield. The foodcourt was the largest in Ireland and was located where the ladies clothing section is now at M&S.

"Christopher cleared the tables and I helped serve. This was a 500-seater facility and it was a major stopping point for people going to Dublin. It was somewhere where they could get something to eat that was a bit more wholesome."

Gavin was just 11 when he helped out at that foodcourt. But more contentious work was to come. "We had the account for the RUC and it was a really sensitive one. We worked for them during the Drumcree dispute and we had to serve the officers. We worked 20-hour days.

"None of our vans were allowed to be branded, there were no badges, no names and that was really daunting to do during your early teens but I was proud to be part of it.

"I remember we had mini stations set up at Drumcree and we were really pushing our food offering then."

The RUC was one of many high-profile clients for the business in its early days.

Set up in 1988, Mount Charles came about after Trevor Annon's success working for multinational, English-based catering houses.

Having been part of their success, Trevor wanted to set up a homegrown NI company.

He dipped his toe in the water with the opening of his own cafe in Carryduff called the Copper Kettle.

"He worked for companies like Compass and was being flown back and forth from London, signing contracts, and he saw an opportunity for himself to give it a go and run it locally himself. The cafe gave him the confidence to know he could run something himself and so the company began with no name in an office belonging to a friend in the Botanic area of Belfast.

"It was when he was standing on the street Mount Charles, beside Scalini's Restaurant on Botanic Avenue, when he came up with the name and he knew he had to get business quickly or he wouldn't survive and that's how it all began," says Gavin.

"He thought Mount Charles sounded prestigious and because it was not associated to any service type it worked.

"He got a couple of contracts in his first year, one of which was Friends' School, which we still have today. Another was the Social Security office in Shaftesbury Square and the third was Moy Park, which today is still one of our biggest clients."

The contracts continued to flow, including a package to supply a full range of services to Parliament Buildings in Belfast.

Mount Charles' turnover in year one was £183,000. Today it can boast a £40m turnover, which is on a trajectory to reach £100m by 2025.

Gavin is something of a co-pilot when it comes to meeting the latter target.

His role as marketing director will reinforce the firm's family traditions.

"That's one of the biggest things for me, to maintain our family values, and that's why we win business and why all the staff go through a pretty passionate induction process because we want that to run throughout the company," adds Gavin, who was a key player in bringing the firm to the Republic four years ago, snapping up major contracts.

"Opening an entity in Dublin was always part of the plans for the company," he says. The driving force behind the move was to Brexit-proof business growth too.

"Whatever way Brexit was going to go, we knew we needed a standalone entity down there. We did put that office in place for Brexit protection and set up new arrangements with suppliers and today we have a good army down there and things are going well."

In the Republic, clients include the National Aquatic Centre in Blanchardstown - a visitors' attraction with 1.2 million visitors annually.

Griffith College in Dublin is another and Maynooth University is one of its most recent contracts, worth £11m to the business.

"That's a chunky number for us. There are 14,000 students on-site there and we're the exclusive partner.

"We've completely revolutionised university's existing services."

RTE has been one of its biggest documented contracts in the Republic.

The company secured a seven-year deal with the broadcaster in December.

"Companies in Dublin and in the Ireland marketplace have been through the multinational marketplace and there's no new innovation and creativity there.

"Now those companies are moving their minds towards family-owned companies because we put a lot more creativity into it.

"The feedback from winning RTE was exactly that.

"When we presented it to them, they felt the warmth and the love from a family company and they understood that there needed to be change so we went through a journey of dialogue sessions with them."

Gavin says the Republic marketplace presents the most growth potential for the company, which has more than 400 clients throughout the UK and Ireland.

"It's the land of opportunity," he says. "There's still a sizeable opportunity for us here too but this market isn't growing as fast. If you look at the skyline in Dublin there are 137 cranes and that shows how much growth is going on there. We also find it's about quality rather than cost there."

Mount Charles' service portfolio extends beyond catering contracts. In recent years it has diversified into vending, cleaning and other services.

Gavin doesn't expect to boost turnover to £100m in five years without significant work though. He adds: "It won't come easy nor organically and we have to be wary of that and perhaps acquire a few companies along the way. We are already looking at who's in the South that we can acquire for more market share."

Gavin plans to drive that growth while balancing it all; the DJing, fatherhood and supporting his wife as she runs her own business.

"Lauren is a godsend and the most patient woman I've ever met," he says. "Right now we're able to work it all out and that's the beauty of working for your own business, you can do that."


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