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'No-one in business has ever faced a crisis like it - it's war-time stuff,' says NI Chamber of Commerce head Ian Henry

Ian Henry of Henry Brothers tells Margaret Canning about leading a firm and becoming president of the NI Chamber of Commerce just ahead of lockdown

Ian Henry, managing director of glazing company Windell and director of its parent Henry Brothers, became president of the NI Chamber of Commerce in early March. It was just as the impact of the Covid-19 outbreak in China began to be felt but ahead of its devastating spread here and the ensuing shutdown of the economy.

He’s now grappling with the situation at Chamber president and as the boss of his own Magherafelt-based company. And he is concerned about the mental health implications of the lockdown, including for staff of all companies who are working from home.

“Becoming president at this time has been a bit of a jump in the deep end.

“Certainly lockdown is having a serious impact on business in general and on how business is done. Specifically, you’re having a lot more people working from home, which is totally different from Northern Ireland culture. That was harder to navigate at the start but for us, it’s starting to smooth out and people are managing it better.

“But you need to try and have a home life away from your working life. It’s very bad if you merge the two. You need that separation, to park your work life and come “home” to a normal family situation.

“I know some people struggle with walking out of the office at home, into family life if you don’t have that separation. It’s very easy to drift into communications after hours or at night-time, checking your emails, etc.

“That could cause a wee bit more stress and angst that’s not required at this time.”

At his own business, “we have a lot of staff working from home, in our design team and office staff, at the moment and they all seem to be getting on well”. However, around 60% of staff at the wider Henry Group are furloughed. “You can’t build bricks from home.” And while many people in other parts of the economy have lost their jobs in the crisis, he says furloughing and having no work to go to can also cause issues. “If people are sitting at home getting bored, that causes anxiety and problems so we need to be careful we don’t have mental stress issues going forward.

“Once we used to think we never had time for anything else but work - now we have too much time on our hands. People then think things over too much.”

The Chamber has had an important role. “We’ve pulled together and distributed critical information, and been very responsive and very informative. Even with the start of the furlough scheme, for example, we had a team working to understand how that operated. The Chamber has a critical role to inform members abouve the changing environment.”

Father of two Ian became managing director of Windell, which specialises in security and commmercial glazing, seven years ago but had worked for the family business since leaving school age 15.

Windell was set up 33 years ago, targeting the security market in Northern Ireland before extending into security glazing worldwide. But the history of Henry Brothers goes even further back, to when his father Jim set up H&K Construction, later Henry Brothers, in 1976.

Henry Group is now a major player with around 200 staff and interests from manufacturing to construction and fit out. “Jim Henry, my father, started the company and is now chairman, and David, my brother, is now managing director.

“We strangely enough find it ok working together... There’s a clear understanding of who’s in charge and what the roles and responsibilities are, and what we want to achieve. We get on really well as a family and if there’s issues to be resolved, they’re sorted by majority vote and we move on.”

Ian and wife Valerie, a teacher, have two daughters Katie (14) and Lucia, who’s 12. Some of the third generation is already working in the company but he stresses: “You don’t get the name and title just because you’re born into it. You have to provide your worth to get the title.”

Jim remains “very active”. “He still likes to keep the finger on the pulse -it’s that older generation who always like the communication with the employees and the people he’s built the company around.”

His mother Ray is also the “backbone” of the company, and the family’s strong Christian faith has also been an important factor in its history. He says it’s a challenging time for his company - but it’s been through tough times before. His uncle Harold, who worked at the company, was murdered by the IRA in 1987, and another company director, John Gibson, was murdered six years later. “We have been through quite a lot. We’ve certainly had challenging times through the Troubles, through recession but through it all, we’re a family business. So long as we have a workforce, we’re there to help them, and the backbone is our employees we’re hear to make sure they’re ok and able to carry out their work. We have to all stay safe and well, that’s the main thing in this crisis. You can’t replace lives.”

Looking to the future and the resumption of business: “I think the government is doing the right thing with lockdown and making sure you’ve put all procedures in place and we need to respect that but at same time get ready to move and get ready to run our businesses as soon as restrictions lifted.”

For now, he’s thankful for the furlough scheme. “We would have been looking at a whole different scenario, and a whole lot of people would have been laid-off, which would have been devastating for the company.”

And it’s a very different crisis to the last downturn. “The work didn’t come to a sudden end with the financial crisis before. We were able to work through it though the jobs were lighter on the ground and you had to make sure who you were pricing to.

“But this was a sudden stop and you closed your doors - I don’t think anybody in modern business has had to go through that. It is war-time stuff.”

And he believes we will come back to a different world. “Work and life will be different, whether for six months to a year or longer. We’ll have more remote working, we’ll always be thinking about how may do we have on a site, how many on the floor, how many are eating together.”

There could be added costs if firms have to put on a double-shift or extra management time to make up for rules which may limit the number of people on company premises. And he urged government to push out contracts for private firms to compete for when the lockdown is lifted. “That will show confidence - and confidence will be the big thing here.”

And he says Brexit will be another problem to contend with soon. “We might come out of Covid-19 in tentative form at some point, but then we’ll be straight into the issues around coming out of Europe.”

While recogising the necessity of lockdown, he’s concerned that the countries have faced coronavirus ahead of and already gradually lifted their lockdowns will also have a competitive advantage.

China could be selling back into the world while we remain in lockdown.

“Wee have really good manufacturers who might be losing out because they can’t do business. That’s one thing we’re watching.”

He praises the companies who have successfully reurposed what they do to help in the fight against Covid-19. “I would hope people would remember this and say, here are companies who can do this kind of thing, so why are we always looking to China for the cheapest, cheap isn’t always the best.

“If it’s a couple of pence dearer to buy local, you’re keeping the local area employed and it’s an inward investment.”

But he’s relieved the Execuive has returned. “I have always been one to say in Chamber and outside, that we should have our own government in place, who should run it as we deserve it to be run, and not as a political playing field.

“If anything Covid-19 as shown the parties can work together, and I hope we can keep it moving forward. We don’t need the background to be brought up time and time again in politics and in business, we need to keep moving forward.”

'Construction is tough and enjoyable at the same time'

Q. What’s the best piece of business advice you’ve ever been given?

A. Don’t assume anything.

Q. What has been your best business decision?

A. Joining the family business and working my way up through different roles. I have learned a lot from those I met and worked with along the way.

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

A. I always wanted to own a coffee shop.

Q. What was your last holiday and where would you like to go next, once restrictions are lifted?

A. Our most recent family holiday was driving down the West Coast of America last summer. We had plans to go to Spain this year but it looks like we might have to get the tent out and stay local.

Q. What are your hobbies/interests?

A. I enjoy running, keeping fit and outdoor activities with my family.

Q. How do you sum up working in the construction sector?

A. Interesting - the construction industry is tough but enjoyable at the same time. We have a lot of characters who could teach you a lot.

Belfast Telegraph