Paul Rothwell, managing director of Sliderobes, and Sean McLaughlin of Kraken Fish and Chips, on how they’ve responded to lockdown’s challenges.
Set up in 1983, Sliderobes has become something of a household name in Northern Ireland and Britain for its fitted storage solutions.
Originally owned by Mick McAleese, the company was bought by former Ormeau Bakery and Podium for Sport chief Paul Rothwell and his business partner Mervyn McCall in 2016. Since then the company has evolved into even more of an innovator in its field.
The pandemic has also fast-tracked IT plans, allowing it to assess customers' homes, despite the restrictions of lockdown, and offer indivdual storage solutions remotely.
Paul, who was also an engineer at Michelin during the early part of his working life, says the team at the firm has been instrumental in taking the business through one of its most challenging times.
"All our sites totally closed for eight weeks and we started bringing people back in over June.
"Today we are offering showroom by appointment only, which gives customers the space they need," Paul says.
"I will say, in all of my working career I've never had as good a team around me as I do now. They inspire me and we learn from each other and that has been behind the continued success at the business during this period.
"What we're going through now, there is nothing I can compare it to, and I remember when we had the first of our Zoom calls to one of our teams in England at the beginning of lockdown and I was asked: 'Why are you so calm?' I thought there are so many times in my career when I've wondered how I'm going to get out of this or that.
"No matter what the climate, there was always an obstacle and a problem. But there was also always a solution, and the benefit of age is that I am 100% confident that there is always a way out and we'll find it. If you keep positive and be prepared to be bold and pivot your thinking you can find a way."
And with that mindset plans at Sliderobes were fast-tracked and leads and orders soon came flowing in.
Sliderobes is a franchise with 11 sites, one of which is in Belfast, two in the Republic and eight are located in England.
Paul says he has done a lot of restructuring since the takeover, with modernisation of some sites and the closure of under-performing stores.
He also acquired a site in Maidstone in Kent and is working on the takeover of another two English stores.
"We've also invested a lot in our people, but also our technology," Paul adds.
"We've been stepping up and have implemented a new showroom style, which will run throughout our other sites too.
"On the technology side of things, some solutions are visible to customers. In terms of our new software we're able to go to a customer's home and look at a room and design our storage offering on CAD software, which allows them to see a photo realistic three-dimensional view of what the room would look like. It also allows us to add and take out features, change colours, and when we confirm a design, behind the scenes the software will tell us exact dimensions and information on every nut and bolt needed for that design.
"It's really great for the customers to have that visualisation but it's also a time and cost saving piece of technology that presents much fewer opportunities for error for us."
Paul says the new CAD software was always in the pipeline but the pandemic created an opportunity to bring innovations forward. "If lockdown hadn't happened, it would've taken two years to get this up and running," he says.
Today the firm is also offering virtual visits to customers throughout the UK and Ireland. A customer can save time and see a finished installation without leaving the home.
"That's something that would've taken much longer to catch on with customers," Paul says. "But I believe the use of Zoom and other conference-style call programmes during lockdown has made everyone more comfortable working and living that way, which is really beneficial for us."
Looking at the uptake in business since the stores reopened, Paul says interest is much higher compared to the same period last year.
He continues: "People have become hugely aware of the sanctuary of their own home. What they took for granted they are now grateful for.
"We have found that people can't spend money on holidays and they're rethinking the look of their homes.
"For us that has been converted into a lot of interest and it's quite noticeable through higher average sales and people spending considerably more than they used to and that is very definitely down to people appreciating their home more.
"We're also seeing a lot more people working from home and I see that being a thing of the future, so demand for home office solutions has accelerated." And aesthetics are a big priority with customers too, prompting Paul to invest in an interior designer.
"We hired a really good interior designer to work with us on the product development side of the business, so today it's not just about a joiner, and this is important because aesthetics in your bedroom and other rooms in the home is vital for wellbeing."
Looking to the future, plans have shifted and targets have been reset, Paul adds.
"This year's rules or even last week's rules might not apply anymore and that's the advice I give to those I mentor through Invest NI.
"What we all had in place might no longer apply so we need to start from scratch and rethink forward two years, no further, and if we can prepare for that rather than obsess over today's problem there is a way out."
Necessity is the mother of invention, as the saying goes. And the necessity of surviving the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown has led to many businesses having to invent new routes to market.
Husband and wife Sean and Geraldine McLaughlin have just opened their eatery Kraken Fish Bar at Lansdowne Crescent in Portrush in an investment of up to £60,000.
The couple, who have three children, had spent around £440,000 in recent years on a revamp of their hotel, The Fullerton Arms in Ballintoy on the north coast.
They had also come up with Kraken Fish & Chips, which traded at festivals and events from a retro Citroen H van nicknamed Jean-Claude.
But the necessity of shutting The Fullerton Arms during lockdown led to a rethink — and resulted in Kraken Fish & Chips winning a larger audience.
“This year was to be the biggest year we’d ever had at The Fullerton Arms in accommodation and payback,” Sean says. “But it was not to be so we had to then diversify and think of something different and look at what was on offer, so this is where we’ve got to.
“We needed to do something so we opened up the vans and did deliveries only, with no contact with customers. It was all online payments and the brand just went on a boom as that was what people were looking for in lockdown.
“People have a love of fish and chips — they were looking for a bit of comfort food, ease of delivery and they didn’t want to have to stand in a queue.
“We took the worry and stress out of waiting outside or waiting at a window or any of that stuff because it was all done online to their specification and allowed them to get it delivered to their door.”
But he says that Kraken’s products, including for the new fish bar, are a cut above — or several cuts above — the typical fish and chip offering.
“It’s more gourmet, and everything that’s served is gluten-free, which allows all the family to come and eat with us rather than one person having to miss out if they happen to be gluten intolerant.
“In the fish bar, we have a sit-in function for high-end menu items like lobster salad, monkfish scampi and moules frites, or our prawn laksa.
“Then there’s a section for sitting outside, and there will be a takeaway function for our Kraken fish suppers, our fish tacos that people know us really well for, and salt and chilli prawns.”
He’s excited about the prospects for the fish bar, and says the venue had been on his and his wife’s mind for some time.
“We live in Portrush, and we have been walking past this sight for quite some time and we have been saying to ourselves, that would make a cracking fish bar for us to open.”
Catering has been his career for a long time. He studied at the Northern Ireland Hotel and Catering College in Portrush, and went on to become general manager at venues from Premier Inns to the Giant’s Causeway visitor centre. He also worked at the Europa Hotel in Belfast.
His father Sean senior is also well-known in the trade, and worked as general manager at the Tullyglass Hotel in Ballymena before opening McLaughlin’s Corner at Kilrea in Co Londonderry.
Sean says: “I have always had a desire to have a fish and chip offering, and the success of the Fullerton Arms helped me to piece it together.
“The idea of the Citroen H van was to bring a type of street food into Northern Ireland which didn’t really exist before. The idea was to go gluten-free but to have a gluten-free batter that would stack up to taste as good as gluten-based, normal batter, which we have done.
“We’ve done significant testing and we use rapeseed oil which makes it a little big healthier but also fresher in taste, and it means that vegetarians and pescatarians can have it as well.”
The unique name for the business “came up in a conversation over a bottle of wine, to be truthful”.
“We had the van, we had the vision. We were sitting there one night and Geraldine said, what is it that you want to do with the food? And I said I just want it to be a really good, cracking fish and chips place, and took it from there, that was where the name came from.”
He commissioned Impact Printing to develop the theme of ‘cracking’, leading to the idea of using the Scandinavian ‘kraken’ sea monster as a play on ‘cracking’. “I asked them could the kraken be holding a knife and fork type of thing and now we have it holding the condiments.”
Over the last few weeks he and Geraldine have had a busy time getting Lansdowne Crescent ready for opening. “We have three kids, Enya (8), Radha (6) and Sean Og, who is two. As I sit here Enya is helping fold boxes and put our branded stickers on them, Rahda gets involved by taste-testing and Sean Og just gets involved by getting in the way!”
The investment in the new business has been significant, including the purchase of some Florigo frying equipment, and commissioning designer Jude Burrows to come up with a nautical theme.
He says the sit-down tables inside are inspired by the hull of a boat. “There’s an affinity with the sea, because where we sit we command some of the best views of the north coast. We’re looking out over the north coast peninsula into the Skerries, off out into Larrybane and Kinbane Head the whole way along the coast.”
He says the help of Ulster Bank has been crucial in expanding the business and concept.
“Our business manager Rhonda is always there to point us in the right direction, and that is how we’ve managed to push this on because I’ve reached out and said, this has taken off more than I expected. She’s very, very supportive in the growth of it and can see that there’s another avenue for it as well.”