Alan Lowry took over a business in administration and turned it in to a global distributor of street furniture in a matter of years. Environmental Street Furniture, based in Newtownabbey, designs, sources and manufactures a range of products from litter bins and traffic bollards to railings and bicycle sheds.
he firm counts some of the best-known theme parks in the world as customers and 45-year-old Alan hopes the company will have a turnover of £4m within the next five years.
“We started from absolutely nothing, with no suppliers, no customers, no product base, so we have worked very hard to build that up from nothing to where we are today,” he said.
Alan and his wife of 24 years, Caroline, bought the company in 2012 when it went into administration.
He had worked for the firm since 1999 and was confident he had the knowledge, contacts and experience to buy it and make it work.
It was a risk, but one that has paid off.
“I don’t remember our first contract, but I know it was worth £2,000. However, we now handle contracts worth hundreds of thousands of pounds,” said Alan.
“In the beginning, we weren’t in a position to handle orders of that size, but we have built ourselves up to the point where we can do that.”
It is little wonder, therefore, that the firm is an all-Ireland finalist in the Best Business Start-up category of the Ulster Bank Business Achievers Awards this week.
However, the path to success has not been smooth — but Alan believes family support, a team passionate about the work they do and his faith has helped them achieve their goals to date.
He explained: “My wife has been very supportive and the staff are not nine to five, they do whatever it takes to succeed.
“I also have a very strong faith, I certainly don’t believe this is all down to me, but that God directed us.
“For years, I had talked about starting up my own business and I believe that He probably got fed up waiting for me to do it and so He put this path in front of us and set us in the right direction.
“It was about six weeks from losing my job to getting the new business up and running.
“At the beginning, there were five of us and everyone really bought into the concept.
“I think one of the biggest issues in the beginning, and this was naivety on my part, was the relationships we had with companies that had not been paid by the previous company.
“I hadn’t allowed for that and I spent six to nine months building bridges.
“It didn’t matter where they were in the world, I made sure that I took the time to travel to them and meet them personally to talk through the issues, to explain my business plan and how we were going to do things. I like to think that we have now managed to prove ourselves to those companies.”
As well as dedicating time to developing strong business contacts, Alan said they worked to increase the products they design and manufacture.
“Street furniture can be quite seasonal, so you have period of the year where organisations spend a lot of money, for example, when they are coming to the end of the financial year, and then there are also some really quiet months,” he said.
“Another issue with street furniture is that the design is quite generic.
“You might ship a product a product overseas and then the next thing it is being copied in India or China and that is the end of it, as there is no way of protecting your intellectual property.
“We needed to expand our product portfolio and so we started to look at integrated products.
“This includes supplying the technology and building that into the street furniture, an example of this would be building solar powered mobile phone chargers into street furniture.
“We have worked with Queen’s University and developed solar powered bins, which light up at night time for advertising purposes.
“We have also been working to develop a mobile phone charger in a bench and there will even be an app for people to find where the benches are — it will even tell them what the temperature is at the bench.
“A company at Canary Wharf is developing that separately.
“We’re all about collaborating and bringing our expertise to the table. We realise that, as a company, we are not able to do everything.”
Looking to the future, they are dedicating a large proportion of resources to networking and building contacts.
“Growth areas are the United Arab Emirates and also some of the major theme parks in Orlando, which is opening up a whole new direction for us,” Alan said.
“We’re investing so much money this year, particularly in product developing and
“In fact, we are probably spending in the region of £50,000 this year on exhibiting, you see nothing directly from that, apart from a list of contacts and business cards.
“It is scary because you paying a lot of money out without an obvious return.
“It is crucial for the success of the business, you’re never going to grow if you just stand still.”