‘The grounding you get in a professional organisation is very helpful to a family business experience’
Naoimh McConville tells Margaret Canning about finding her place in the family firm MJM and how it's set its sights on major new markets
Fit-out specialist MJM Group in Newry is seldom out of the headlines for a dizzying array of projects. Naoimh McConville, who at 30 is the eldest of founder Brian McConville's four children, became a director along with brother Conleth nearly five years ago.
But Naoimh, who has been married to Gavin for 18 months, had ploughed her own furrow before joining the family business. After attending Our Lady's Grammar School - where she says she was a quiet, studious pupil - she went on to study business studies at Ulster University, Jordanstown, and a Masters of Science in international business at London Business School, as well as joining accountancy firm EY in Dublin as an audit associate.
Several years of curiosity prompts me to ask - what does MJM stand for? "We've always joked that it stands for McConville's Jolly Men, but really, it's because my dad saw the letters jumbled up in another company's name and thought, I'll use that."
Looking back, "I loved Jordanstown ... it was a four-year degree, with a year out - which I spent in MJM, naturally enough. I went on and did my Masters in London. I really, really wanted to go away after my degree. My two brothers went to Scotland and Bristol so I really wanted to do that, too.
"But after being away and the city lights of London, I did start to think to myself, being back at home isn't so bad."
She's now settled in Ballyward, near Rathfriland, with Gavin, close to where she grew up and where her parents still live. Another brother, Brion, lives in London and works in property, while the family's youngest child, Shorlagh, is studying fashion.
Mother Connie, a teacher by profession, helped build the business alongside Brian but is less involved now.
Naoimh thinks doing her time at EY before returning to the family business has been beneficial. "The grounding that you get in a very professional organisation can be completely different to what you might experience in a family business, which at that point was small. It was a big corporate entity which exposed me to HR processes and apsl systems. It was just great for me for professional development.
"My dad was saying to me that my brother was starting at the same time and I should start, too, so that further down the line you couldn't say that one had put in more time than the other - we would both be equal."
Naoimh started as a cost analyst in the company. Her remit as director includes finance, HR, marketing and communications - "that's where I feel most comfortable".
The company, which has annual sales of £62m and a workforce of 240, has diversified and grown in influence, with Brian one of just two Northern Ireland business leaders joining Prime Minister Theresa May on an international trade mission to China.
But the range of its projects closer to home is also impressive. If it's not snapping up the former Ballykelly Army and RAF base in Co Londonderry, it's buying a key retail park in Newry - to say nothing of two consecutive years of big wins in the Belfast Telegraph Business Awards. One of its biggest moves in the last few years was to buy the brand and assets of one-time rival Mivan, after it went into administration in 2014.
But 2018 has brought some of its biggest news yet. The company has announced it's bringing in key luxury cruise ship The Azamara for refit in Harland & Wolff - a world first as fit-out companies usually travel to cruise ships, instead of a cruise ship coming to the fit-out firm. "The refit will be fully managed by MJM Group at H&W and by taking this project to H&W, we believe it will be a game-changer for the refit market, reviving the sector in Northern Ireland," says Naoimh.
"Azamara will take delivery of the ship this March in the Caribbean. The vessel will then reposition to Belfast for a four-month refit period under the guidance of MJM, where it will become the Azamara Pursuit, the third ship in the company's boutique-ship fleet.
"This is the first time any company within Royal Caribbean Cruises has used a UK shipyard for refit works of this scale and MJM is delighted to have been able to bring the vessel to Belfast for its revitalisation."
And students of MJM history are also aware that their former chief executive, Jonathan Guest, is now a director at H&W.
MJM is hoping that its work on the Ballykelly site will attract Heathrow Airport, which has put the site on a shortlist of possible locations for a hub outside London, in the event that it gets the go-ahead for a third runway.
Further afield, it has secured its first ever drydock works in China. The seven-figure deal with Star Cruises involved carrying out works on five decks of the Star Pisces, including the transformation of casinos, restaurants and shops.
Naoimh says: "MJM Group is currently reviewing other projects in China as it is an emerging market in the cruise industry. We believe China has an untapped potential for us and indeed we are currently reviewing other projects in this market."
But the 2014 purchase of Mivan was the big watershed for the company. There was due diligence to carry out and legacy issues.
"The key strapline for us was not to lose that brand that was what we used to regard as a rival. It was what we wanted to be ... there.
"That was nearly four years ago and it's doing really, really well. They're running their own business by themselves on their own two feet."
One of Mivan's first projects under the MJM umbrella was the fit-out of the luxury Grand Hibernian train - a type of Orient Express which charges around £4,000 for a high-end train holiday in Ireland.
She hasn't been on the train but says shop-floor workers did get the chance to savour their work on board.
And she says that growing up she was always aware of the hard work her parents put in. "My earliest memory was of my dad coming him from the ships, and always bringing me a teddy bear. My dad had an awful lot of travel to do, working in Ireland and France in the 1990s.
"He and my mum used to go back and forward a lot to the US in the late 1990s and early 2000s to break into the cruise industry. My dad was very passionate."
The company also carried out major fit-outs for hotels, working on luxury sites such as Co Kildare's luxury club and spa, the K Club.
"My mum is a teacher and very instrumental in business development, but as the company grew they couldn't both be travelling around the world."
Naoimh has been married to Gavin, who is from Ballyholland in Newry, for a year and a half, though the pair have been together for 13 years. They got married in a ceremony at the family home around 18 months ago.
"We had a lovely day with family and friends and it was quite low-key."
A honeymoon in Barcelona followed but was kept short and sweet as the couple run a shooting activity business called Ballyward Lodge.
And while work brings a certain amount of travel, she's more than settled in Co Down. She also owns a Connemara pony, Millie, and a Labrador called Bella.
And Naoimh savours her role in strategy for the company. "We have all kind of matured so that we work on the business rather than in the business."
It recently bought Newry's Damolly Retail Park, the home of multiples such as Lidl and B&Q.
"That was really as an investment, and I know my dad likes it as it's somewhere he can drive to and look at. It's a tangible thing, and we will be making improvements to it. It's really a long-term investment for us."
Q. What’s the best piece of business (or life) advice that you have ever been given?
A. Ambition is the path to success and persistence is the vehicle you drive in.
Q. What piece of advice would you pass on to someone starting out in business?
A. My advice would be surround yourself with people who push and challenge you — don’t stay static and always be authentic.
Q. What was your last holiday? Where are you going next?
A. New York with my husband just before Christmas — I have nothing booked but am hoping to take a trip with the McConville clan later in the year.
Q. What are your hobbies/interests?
A. Country sports are my passion — horseriding, shooting and being out with my labrador. I enjoy running and hiking also.
Q. What is your favourite sport and team?
A. I am not really an avid sports fan, though I do enjoy the odd rugby match and showjumping event.
Q. And have you ever played any sports?
A. I was more musical as a child but did compete with my horses, showjumping and eventing until I went to university.
Q. If you enjoy reading, can you recommend a book?
A. I am currently reading Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead — a must-read for any professional, in my eyes.
Q. How would you describe your early life?
A. I was very lucky to have a happy and balanced childhood — I was a bit of a tomboy having two brothers so close in age so I was always an ‘outdoors’ kind of girl.
Q. How would you assess your time in business with your company MJM?
A. I have grown so much personally and professionally since I joined full-time in 2013, as has the company.
Seeing the company continue to expand and being part of the future growth plans, is something to be extremely proud of.
As we prepare to mark our 35th year in business this year, the future looks bright and I am passionate to continue the legacy along with my brother.