In the last 13 years Co Down man Connaire McGreevy has built his facilities management business CTS Projects into a £20m firm, started a brewery, bought a bar and chaired a football club. He speaks to John Mulgrew about further growth, holding back on GB expansion due to Brexit, and why staying in the EU is the best deal we have
“It’s good for the environment, businesses and people,” Connaire McGreevy tells me.
He’s speaking of course about EU membership, and he’s one of Northern Ireland’s business leaders not concerned with remaining partisan on the matter, as we head into a Christmas General Election and sit with a deal on the table which would likely lead to increased costs and bureaucracy between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
Connaire founded CTS Projects back in 2006, and has developed it into a diverse facilities management business, recently expanding further into the Republic – giving him reach from Donegal to Waterford, and “everything in between”.
“We are an all-island facilities management company with significant growth in the last number of years, particularly in the Republic of Ireland,” he told Ulster Business.
“It has had significant growth in the last number of years, particularly in the Republic of Ireland. We made moves after the Brexit referendum – we needed to diversify with a subsidiary.
“There has been significant growth in the Republic of Ireland, with 50% year-on-year. In business, it’s easy to grow from a base of nothing so we will see that normalise.”
CTS began life refurbishing rundown properties, such as old social housing stock, to get them prepared to accept new tenants. That then grew and developed to include a focus on renewable heating, such as biomass boilers and solar panels – focusing on energy efficiency. Around 80% of its work is with public sector clients, and the remainder with private companies.
Those private sector clients include private office schemes in Belfast, looking after all of the main facilities management.
CTS has grown into a 150-strong full-time workforce, with around 100 additional full-time sub-contractors also working for the business. And it’s on track to hit £20m turnover this year.
But CTS, like many other firms, has actively held back investing in new operations in GB, until there is a clear Brexit outcome.
“Unfortunately we have noticed NI business opportunities have started to stagnate or decline,” he said. “A lack of an Assembly is having an impact on public sector (work) – core maintenance, as opposed to new infrastructure development,” he says. “With private, there has been a downturn.”
But he says since the summer “people seem to have found a new sense of confidence”. He says some of those who were holding back post-referendum appear to have now pushed forward with some investment.
Speaking about which areas the company has grown in to, he said it has developed further into a more diverse building management business.
“We also expanded into fire and security in 2019 – areas such as fire extinguishers, alarms and panels. We have found that energy efficiency and the environmental (focus) is coming to the fore.” That includes areas such as battery energy storage and solar panels for homes.
“We have a lot of public sector clients in housing, education and healthcare. We have had local government in the past, and are actively targeting that area with new innovation.”
Connaire’s own interest in decent beer drew out his entrepreneurship five years ago when he set up Mourne Mountains Brewery in Warrenpoint. On a separate note, he’s also the current chairman of Warrenpoint Town FC.
“(The brewery) was a passion turned into a business,” he says. “It’s exciting stuff, in terms of creating beer and marking five years. It’s still in its infancy and has been impacted by a mushroom of craft breweries.
“I am still optimistic in the market, but I don’t see it growing as fast anymore. Looking at the market across the island, some may close their doors. The scale might not be there, and there are lots of larger breweries and imported beers – the consumer has so much choice. People know what they are looking for.”
An opportunity also came knocking recently which saw Connaire taking on a bar in Warrenpoint, the Ye Old Ship Inn, which he says has a very personal connection.
Connaire’s sister Ciara, who worked with him in CTS Projects and was a former gaelic footballer, passed away suddenly in 2017. Connaire says she had worked in bars over the years, and the idea of taking one on was a conversation which they had.
“There is vertical integration with the bar, as it’s an outlet there for us, with pop-up bars with the brewery.”
But he, like many others in the brewing and distilling industry, says Northern Ireland’s licensing laws “are in the dark ages”. The main concern is that beer producers cannot sell their products to the public during a tour of the brewery, and require a drinks licence to do so.
“We have a number of tourists who arrive at the doors, asking about tours and beer… it’s embarrassing for Northern Ireland. We don’t have the legislation in place. I am passionate about tourism in the area, and we have tourism projects in the mix.”
With Brexit, Connaire believes the current deal from Prime Minister Boris Johnson would create a divergence down the Irish Sea, making all-island business a more attractive and palatable affair for companies here.
“It’s an administrative border – paperwork, time and a cost to business,” he says. “Our plans would be going into GB to set up new company, with a small acquisition and some back office administration support.
“All-island, under the deal it looks like we can have easy access, which is welcome. It’s so connected and any divergence is going to have an impact.”
He said that could have an impact on foreign direct investment (FDI) as companies from outside the UK and Ireland. And Connaire says there is still no clarity of what a potential deal with the EU could look like on the outside.
“It’s a waypoint in that journey and we have to be very cautious,” he said. “I personally feel we get the best deal possible being in the EU. Looking across the world, there are now trading blocs everywhere.
“At this stage, in business circles, a lot of people are holding back investment to see what the trading environment is like. It’s the most uncertain period in my business journey.”