Belfast Telegraph

Driven by ambition... and a taste for success

By Paul Gosling

Small Business Can talks to two firms - one embryonic, one firmly established - about their determination to break new ground in the year ahead

Next Level - Fleet Financial

Fleet Financial has grown substantially since it was formed in 1996. Five people were involved in the Belfast company when it was formed by senior managers who had run the contract car management operation for Charles Hurst. Today Fleet Financial has 25 staff.

The trigger for the formation of Fleet Financial had been the takeover of Charles Hurst by the Lookers group, which, the founders of Fleet Financial believed, would not retain some large contract management clients.

That created an opportunity for senior staff to start their own business, which they have done very successfully.

Today Fleet Financial operates not only in Northern Ireland, but also in the Republic and in Great Britain.

It is responsible for around 3,200 cars provided to commercial clients - over 700 of them in Great Britain, about 200 in the Republic and the rest in Northern Ireland.

The company was formed with the backing of £60,000 in share capital and support from Lombard, which agreed to provide the financing for contract clients.

"Since then we have been a local success story," said Philip Miley, the company's sales and marketing director.

"The business has grown, year on year. We would be recognised in Northern Ireland as the market leader in contract hire."

When asked the factors behind the success, Miley listed several. "We have a good team of people," he said.

"There is continued and consistent innovation. But our main USP is the extra comfort and standard - we provide a high level of customer service.

"We are in a service sector. In our industry, price is important. You have to be competitive.

"But the real test in our sector is what happens when something goes wrong.

"We get our customer back on the road quickly and we have the structure to do that."

Fleet Financial boasts of having the full range of business clients - from traders who run two vans, to major plcs with large fleets.

Recent contract wins include providing all the vehicles in Northern Ireland for Sky and winning a large contract with the drinks business, C&C Group.

"That was a big win for us," said Miley.

As part of its commitment to service innovation, Fleet Financial has won praise from customers for two recent developments.

One of these is the online 'Fleet Navigator' function, which allows fleet managers to monitor the state of their fleet, its size, maintenance history and other details.

The second new innovation is moving beyond the restrictions of the standard four-year lease term, to offer short-term lease arrangements for as little as a month.

"It is short term hire for our clients," said Miley.

Fleet Financial has ambitions for annualised 8 to 10% growth, which is focused entirely on Great Britain. "Growth in Great Britain has been on the back of Northern Ireland based businesses," Miley said.

"That made clear to us we could compete in Great Britain.

"Our strategy for the next level is Great Britain mainly." That strategy will include taking on staff there for the first time.

The key factor in fulfiling the strategy will be the determination of the company's staff to succeed, said Miley.

"We are very passionate about what we do," he said. "We are very proud of what we have achieved. The thing that excites us is the potential out there."

Start Up - Baja Taqueria

It is often the spirit of determination that marks out a small business entrepreneur. That is certainly the case with Doris Seggie, an Arizona woman who came to live in Belfast after her mother-in-law, who lives here, was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease.

Doris was a high flier in the US, with a doctorate in organisational leadership. But that was not enough to get her a job in recession-hit Belfast. So her response was to set-up in business for herself.

"A friend told me about the 'Go for It!' programme with Invest NI," said Doris. "My friend said if you have a good enough business plan, Invest NI might finance your business idea.

"It was always my ambition to set-up a taco shop, so I wrote a business plan. I submitted that to my bank, which rejected it. So I went to Invest NI and they financed my business."

Tacos and burritos are common foods in Mexico and in the American states bordering Mexico. However, it is only Mexicans, Americans and people who have travelled widely who will have previously come across authentic tacos, suggested Doris.

The type Doris prepares and sells are in the style of the tacos produced in Arizona and California, in the area of the Baja desert, where wraps usually contain meat and fish. Her taco wraps are gluten free - an important selling point.

At Doris's Baja Taqueria, the tacos are sold with options of beef, chicken, pork, salmon and shrimp fillings, though they are also available with vegetarian, vegan and gluten free fillings.

Doris launched her business in October last year and took the decision to start small. "I looked for premises on busy roads in the student areas. But the rents and the rates would kill you. The rates, especially. For a new business there is uncertainty and not a lot of people know what a taco is. So my idea was to start small."

The business is for the moment therefore trading only from St George's Market in Belfast and, at present, only on Saturdays. "It's just me. I do all the cooking and the preparing. I do it all myself" said Doris. That includes booking a stall every week.

"I would like to have a permanent stall, but I am number 21 on the (waiting) list for a stall," she said. "So there's two years to wait! Expansion is going to be gradual.

"If business picks up I could probably trade on Friday as well," she said. "I like the idea of starting small in St George's Market."

Doris says that hers is the only authentic taqueria trading anywhere in Ireland. But she is confident that once people try the product it won't be a case of 'taco and leave it'.