Titanic Belfast transformed tourism here but also created a unique calling card for a facades company, writes Margaret Canning
Not many people clock up half a century at the same company, never mind with the undimmed enthusiasm of Spanwall managing director Keith Toner.
Now 67, he’s been with the company through some tumultuous times since joining as a a teenage apprentice — including its near-closure during the economic downturn of the late 2000s.
But it’s now on calmer waters thanks to a litany of contract wins and investment last year from private equity company Cordovan Capital, now majority shareholders.
Keith says there are few new building projects in Northern Ireland which the architectural facades company, which is based in Carryduff and employs 40 people, isn’t involved in.
“We just finished the Royal Jubilee Maternity Hospital there, Queen’s Students Union, and we’ve been two years on the new Ulster University. Then we’ve also worked on office buildings like the Paper Exchange and Olympic House.”
Across the border, Spanwall has worked on the Google building in Dublin, and both the old and new Central Bank of Ireland buildings in Dublin at Dame Street Plaza and Dublin Landings.
“I couldn’t be more excited for the company but I only wish I was a bit younger so that I could enjoy it all as it grows,” Keith says.
“But the company is on a strong footing at the minute and turnover is going up month on month.
“We’re roughly sitting on target now. Last year we did about £3.5m and this year we’re on our target — touching wood — of around £5m to £6m, with an ambition of going to £10m in the next three to four years.”
Yet, it could all have been very different, as the company has been reminded during 2022, the 10th anniversary of the opening of the Titanic Belfast tourist attraction.
Spanwall won the deal to create the distinctive fin-like cladding on the front of the building, which has helped place it among the world’s most recognisable tourist attractions.
The project made the difference between survival and collapse for the business, and Keith doesn’t play down its significance.
“It’s a massive calling card for us. It really took us from nearly being closed to getting us back on our feet again.
“At that time, the crash had happened and we were struggling for work but we got through it simply because of the Titanic building.
“It also gave us a real selling point throughout the world. It gave us a lot of credibility that we had the ability to even produce something like that.”
The company had already produced a portfolio of impressive international work, including the World Cargo Centre at Heathrow, a cricket stadium at Barbados, and the Ministry of Education and Higher Education in Qatar.
“But when the crash happened, everything had slowed down in the construction industry and everything was getting very, very difficult before it came along.
“We closed down an operation we had in Leeds. We’d retrenched so much the next thing would have happened here was that we could have made the factory workers and the management team redundant.
“But that didn’t happen because of Titanic. It secured all our futures and on we went.
“It was like a phoenix from the ashes kind of thing for this company and set us on the world stage, and helped us be recognised throughout Ireland.
“After that, Dublin started to take off and we were getting a lot of queries from there, and Limerick or Cork, and we started producing panelling for various places in London.”
Spanwall is on a roll, and according to Keith, has no competitor in the same field in Ireland, north or south. Competition is tougher in England, he says, where the company is now rebuilding a team.
But recruitment is a challenge these days, with around a dozen roles to fill. “We’re looking for a new person in the south, one in and around London and a lot of people around Belfast.
“But we have a big problem getting them. There seems to be a shortage of people, I don’t know where they went. Maybe people are looking for more of a work/life balance, I’m not sure.
“We revised all our salaries upwards to try and attract the best. Don’t get me wrong, it is working, but we still have a lot of crucial roles here to fulfil in our buying, estimating and sales departments.”
He adds: “Our estimators’ salaries would have gone up an extra 12.5% to 15%, but that’s across the board and just means we have to quote that bit more for what we do but it doesn’t seem to be deterring anybody at the moment.”
But the support of Cordovan Capital helped put the company on a positive footing, and it recently announced a new investment of £1.5m.
Now new directors have arrived, include David Clark, who’s joined as manufacturing director from McAvoy in Co Tyrone.
“He’s taken it on with great vigour. We have revamped the whole workshop, we’ve invested more in people, in staff and the workshop itself, we’ve new machinery in place and a new unit to extend the factory, so we’re revamping the whole inside of the factory.
“All this is made by hard work and things like the introduction of David.”
Modernisation had been overdue, Keith says. “The original shareholding was getting older, as I am, and we recognised that we had to bring in new talent.
“I’m not being critical but they would have intended to hold back and to maintain, “what we have we hold”.
“But the company founders, Eric Bell, Norman Bell and Tony Reid, still have their shareholding and take an interest in the day to day.”
Keith joined the company aged 17 and witnessing many transformations for the company, including a period making corrugated iron for farm sheds.
“I got an opportunity as an apprentice at first and then had more opportunities like a seat on the board through to managing director. That took me from the shop floor through all the managerial roles to where I am today.”
He has no plans to retire in the short-term.
“I’m 68, currently I’m in good health, according to the doctor I was in with yesterday, and I intend to say as long as I’m in good health and of sound mind.
“I would maybe be standing back a wee bit and let David take a wee bit more of a decision-making role.”
He says the company’s sales director Philip West is even more experienced, at the age of 68, while co-founder Tony Reid continues to work as a consultant into his mid-70s.
It’s not immune from the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine as it has has pushed up the price of aluminium.
“It’s doubled in price, and that’s left it difficult for us on projects we had booked.
“We’re in discussions with some companies because of the impact it has on the work we can do for the money that we’ve quoted.
“In some cases we may suffer, and our margin may not be where we wanted.”
Nonetheless, he’s still optimistic, and is hopeful they’ll get invited to tender for work on a new children’s hospital at the Royal.
There are other headwinds facing the company. While its electricity costs are fixed until next spring, it is affected by the UK government’s new ban on the use of cheaper red diesel in certain industries.
“We are looking at electric forklifts because we’ve gone from being able to use red diesel to having to use white, and that’s brought the price of using forklifts up.The price of haulage is jumping as well because it’s hard to predict the haulage companies’ surcharge on diesel rates.
“It’s uncertain times that way but we’re managing our way through it.”