Belfast Telegraph

'Granny was always opening a business... maybe that's rubbed off on me and the rest of the family'

The Big Interview: Tommy O'Hagan

By John Mulgrew

Tommy O'Hagan started his telecoms business with two people in a small office at the age of just 25. Now B4B Telecoms, has a workforce of 35, with plans to increase its headcount by 50% in the next two years.

"I would see us growing 50% in 18 to 24 months. We are very much in supporting customers from legacy (connections), copper, to new systems," says Tommy.

The business covers a range of areas, from telecoms to networks, along with hardware for its customers.

Tommy formed the firm in his native Armagh back in 2011. He's now sales director, alongside managing director Dominic Kearns.

Now, the company works in installing and maintaining internet and phone services to high-profile customers such as Danske Bank and Hughes Insurance.

"With SMEs, we have customers such as Neueda, down to the refurbishment of the new House bar (on Botanic Avenue in Belfast)," says Tommy. "That's all the technology refit, phones, wi-fi and cabling."

It also has major hospitality clients. "We also do work for the Granny Annies group and we support all the Wine Inns group."

He says the business has grown its customer base across hospitality and retail over the last 18 months.

"Networks would look at building out broadband. Last year we did 10 enterprise parks, and took on a few hundred customers," he explains.

After it was set up in Armagh, the firm moved to Belfast. It then merged with firm iBub and has grown to 35 staff today.

The father-of-two attended St Patrick's Grammar school in Armagh, before studying housing management at Ulster University's Jordanstown campus.

"I came out of that in 2007, just when the property crash happened," he says.

"I got a job with O2 and got moved into their business development.

"In 2011, I started B4B. That was in Armagh, and then I moved the business to Belfast.

"When I look back now, I was just 25. It seemed like a natural progress."

Tommy's entrepreneurial spirit came from his grandmother, as well as other members of the family.

"Most of the family work for themselves in some capacity," he says.

"My granny was always opening shops or B&Bs, and maybe that has come through the rest of us."

Tommy is now balancing the needs of his young family with the stresses and strains of his senior role with an ever-expanding business.

He lives with his wife Grainne, who works at Thompson Aero, and their daughters Eireann (2) and Eabha, who is nine months.

"It is work or it's the kids. It's straight home and the girls are jumping into your arms when you arrive," he says.

Tommy's the youngest of two boys and his brother Paddy works in IT for Belfast company Neueda.

His mum Ellen is a retired teacher, while dad Patsy is a lorry driver.

Speaking about the business, Tommy explains: "We are growing a lot into the retail space, with cloud wi-fi systems, and we are seeing a lot more in security, GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) compliance and cyber security - working with our partners to offer this to customers.

"With compliance it's supporting our customers through that. It's also the introduction of merchant devices to our client base, and bringing that full end-to-end managed solution, dealing with one company.

"From 2011, it was very focused on traditional copper based phone lines and broadband. Now, it has moved into a service business, providing the end-to-end for the customer.

"That's the installation, project management, the billing and the aftercare."

Speaking about Brexit, while the firm hasn't taken any steps in setting up an office in the Republic, or elsewhere, to maintain a footing in the EU, Tommy says that there are both problems and potential gains for the UK's exit.

"We are in a double stalemate. We have no certainty around Brexit. It will be really bad or the best opportunity yet," he says.

"As a gateway to Europe and the UK, there could be a real opportunity for us, or it could be really poor for us, and we get difficulties in trading with the Republic of Ireland. That's the first.

"Second, is locally, here, where we don't have decisions being made... it really is a case of uncertain times.

"It's a cliche, but businesses don't like uncertainty."

And asked about looking to the Republic for expansion opportunities, or elsewhere, for another base, Tommy adds: "I suppose, it's always at the back of my mind, even if Brexit wasn't happening. We have grown a lot more into the border counties.

"We have a geographically spread workforce... as far as a second office, we haven't made that leap yet."

Aside from connecting and maintaining networks, the company also provides a range of hardware to its customers in the corporate sector.

"That would be the supply of goods like headsets," Tommy says.

"We now have 35 staff and have just moved to new offices on the Boucher Road.

"We have grown up from a two-man office, seven years ago, to 35 now.

"I was there at the start of the business with B4B. I was at a bit of everything. It was really a starting point.

"There were a few years of growth, with the company getting bigger.

"The role of sales director came naturally to me. It's where I excel," he explains.

The company has picked up a range of new customers in the last year, including the luxury Lough Erne resort in Fermanagh - which hosted the G8 summit of world leaders in 2013.

"We've just picked up Lough Erne and are doing the telephony," Tommy says.

Asked what it's like as a smaller business competing with telecoms giants such as BT and Vodafone, Tommy says it's about "boots on the ground and the local voice".

"It's knowing who your account manager is from one year to the next," he says.

"We have a very fixed staff and loyal customer base.

"That has bred the success itself and they have brought new customers to us."

The company also employs subcontractors for bigger schemes, such as network roll-outs.

"We might have 10-15 people in, doing various things, such as the products we are working on.

"It's a competitive marketplace. There is a transformation from legacy, to modern VOIP solutions."

VOIP, or voice over internet protocol, is essentially moving from an office having dozens of separate phone lines and connections, to one system which uses the web to make and receive calls, while still using a traditional phone handset.

"We are lucky as we started this process with our customers about five years ago," Tommy says.

"We have been taking customers through this journey in the last 12 months.

"We have been at it for a long time now, and we are experts in that space.

"Sector wise, it is very busy and competitive. The sector is moving away from traditional copper-based phone lines to IP telecoms.

"Over the next few years, the whole market is moving away (from traditional lines).

"It reduces revenue, but not always the margins.

"From a provider perspective, the model transcends to other offers, such as email and cloud wi-fi - so it has helped us to grow our revenue."

Belfast Telegraph

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