Belfast Telegraph

Eamon Donnelly: 'The kitchen is at the very heart of the home so it's crucial that we get it right for the customer'

The Big Interview

Eamon Donnelly in one of Uform’s kitchen displays in Toomebridge, Co Antrim
Eamon Donnelly in one of Uform’s kitchen displays in Toomebridge, Co Antrim
Eamon Donnelly
Eamon in one of Uform’s kitchens
Eamon in one of Uform’s kitchens
Far left: Uform chairman Eamon Donnelly, Uform director Paul Donnelly and Uform managing director Simon Oliphant

By Lisa Smyth

Oakwood Door Designs, also known as Uform, employs more than 300 people and produces doors, lighting and handles for 1,000 kitchens a week.

The business, based in Toomebridge, Co Antrim, has plans to increase turnover by another £25m in the next four years, while growing the market share by up to 15% during the same period.

And at the end of last year, the company's chief executive, Eamon Donnelly, received the highly coveted Lifetime Achievement award at the Ireland Kitchen Trade Awards.

It is clear that Eamon and the teams at Uform and sister company Andoras are doing something right. So, what is the secret to the success?

There isn't just one factor, according to 53-year-old Eamon - it comes as a result of many different components, including building a first-class team, selling a unique product, investment in infrastructure and plenty of good old-fashioned hard work.

However, one of the most important things is putting the customer first. Eamon says: "It is critical that you give the customer a premium buying experience. Our vision as a business is that we are fundamentally easy to do business with.

"We provide the best choice, best quality, best service and best value.

"We have the biggest choice of product in the UK and we have the fastest lead time for orders.

"Day and daily we try to put our customers at the forefront of every single thing we do, it's a very customer-centred business.

"You have to remember that the kitchen is the heart of someone's home, they will have saved a lot of money to make sure it's just right, and we have to deliver that with every kitchen, no matter whose kitchen it is.

"It doesn't matter where they live or whether they're paying £5,000 or £50,000, we want to make sure it is perfect for them."

Oakwood Door Designs Ltd was first established by Eamon, his younger brother Paul and their father Eddie in 1993.

The first new factory was built in Magherafelt and was extended twice, first in 1999 and again in 2001.

The company began exporting to the Republic of Ireland in 1997 and to the rest of the UK in 2003, before rebranding from Oakwood Door Designs Ltd to Uform in July of that year.

July 2005 saw Uform relocate to a new 75,000 sq ft purpose-built factory in Toomebridge, featuring state-of-the-art automated warehousing and production facilities.

A further investment programme of £3m in July 2016 supported the company's growth strategy, incorporating additional warehousing, state-of-the-art paint technology and additional recruitment.

Meanwhile, consumer brand Kitchen Stori was launched in 2007 to promote ranges made available through an approved Kitchen Stori network.

With all that the company has achieved, it is obvious that Eamon's description of himself as "motivated" and "exceptionally driven" is accurate and this undoubtedly comes from his experiences during childhood.

The eldest of four children, he was born and spent the first 15 years of his life living in a social housing estate in Newbridge, Co Londonderry.

He was inspired by his father as he watched how hard he worked to provide for the family.

And from a young age, Eamon was encouraged to develop the same work ethic.

"My school days were the happiest memories of my life," he continues.

"We learnt from a very young age that if we wanted anything in life we had to go and work for it.

"My father worked exceptionally hard, he was a horticulturist by trade - he went to Greenmount, and he loved to garden and was world-class at it, but he worked as a product manager for Macrete Ireland.

"On top of that he would go to Glasgow a couple of times a year and buy homeware goods.

"He would bring them home and store them in the house and go out and sell them on a Thursday and Friday evening and all day Saturday.

"My mum May was ill as well, she had cancer but she made a full recovery and is still with us today, but it meant me and my sister basically brought up the family from a young age. We learnt very quickly how to do the cooking and washing and ironing.

"I also worked in different jobs from a young age, my grandfather had a small holding and I would have worked on that from six years old. I did love school but I spent a lot of time away from it, working over the years."

Eamon left secondary school with four O-levels but was determined his education would not stop there.

"I went to Magherafelt Technical College as it was known then to study business studies," he said.

However, his plans to continue on to university came to an abrupt halt after his father was offered a job selling kitchens.

"He said there was no chance as he was far too old but said I was the young fella for the job," says Eamon.

At the age of 17, Eamon started designing and selling kitchens and quickly discovered an aptitude for it.

"You have to learn how to design a kitchen, but I am a great believer in working hard," continues Eamon.

"Yes, you need a certain amount of luck but the harder you work, the luckier you get. I think I have always understood that you need to listen to people and then deliver what they want, but the job did come naturally to me because I was creative and I wanted to please people."

So, when the time came to choose between a business studies degree or continuing in a career in kitchen design, Eamon chose the latter.

"I think it was a bigger decision for my parents than it was for me because in those days it was quite a big deal for an ordinary family to have a son go to university," adds Eamon.

However, it isn't a move that Eamon regrets. "Within six months I was making very good money, I was able to put a few thousand pounds in the bank account every year," he recalls.

Four years later he decided to fulfil his ambition of becoming his own boss and set up a business selling kitchen doors alongside his father and an acquaintance.

Ultimately, Eddie and Eamon decided to go it alone and Oakwood Door Designs Ltd was established.

And while the business is flourishing, Eamon has experienced setbacks over the years.

"I will never forget in about 2010 or 2011 when the recession was biting hard, the company started to go backwards," he says.

"Our turnover fell from about £12m to £7m over an 18-month period.

"We kept reducing our overheads, but I remember having to go to the staff on a Friday and saying we didn't want to, but we were going to have to go to a 32-hour working week.

"We had a mix of people working for us, single fellas and girls and people with families and we asked them to go away and think about it. They all came back on the Monday and said they would reduce their hours.

"The community where we are is so important to us. I am very thankful that we are a local business and we try to employ as many local people as possible.

"I feel great pride when I see employees buying a new house or a better car; we sponsor the local football team every year.

"We're community people, I've never forgotten where I came from, I'm just a local fella and as much as we look after our employees, they look after us too."

Through it all, Eamon said his wife of 31 years, Rosie, has been his greatest supporter.

"I met her when I was 18 and we got married when I was 22," he says. "She has been through it all with me. I remember before we were even married on our way to discos together and I would be stopping off for a consultation with a customer.

"That wasn't uncommon on a Friday or a Saturday night.

"I worked 18-hour days seven days a week. My wife is wonderful and we have a very close family.

"We have a son and daughter, Ryan, who is 29 and who works for the business already, and Nadine, who’s a teacher.’

"Ryan is getting married on December 27 and then my wife and I are going to New Zealand for a month, which we're really looking forward to.

"Over the years, we have built up a great team and that has enabled me to spend more time away from the business and be able to relax."

Belfast Telegraph