Like countless other companies across Northern Ireland, the rest of the UK and Ireland, and, essentially, the globe, the impact of coronavirus has hit specialist fit-out firm Portview’s top line as trade and business slowed to a crawl amid lockdown.
But the firm’s managing director, Simon Campbell, remains optimistic about how business will once again take off, following the end of the Brexit transition period and once vaccinations are rolled out across the UK.
“In 2019 the company had around £52m turnover… it will be probably £25-26m in 2020,” Simon said. “We have still retained a workforce of around 100 and have just secured large projects.”
That includes a deal to work on a London university’s new College of Fashion as part of a £24m contract, which begins in January.
“That’s much bigger than the PC World/Curry’s work we started out with,” he said.
Portview has pivoted and specialised over the years, initially focused on shop fitting here during the mid 1990s.
After studying in Bristol, Simon was due to come back to Northern Ireland to work for the then Northern Bank, but instead took a year out to travel.
Simon then started work with Midland Bank in Bristol, at its head office in London. “I really enjoyed it and it was great experience, but I always wanted to come back to Northern Ireland.”
He then left banking to one side and became a chartered accountant, working with EY (then known as Ernst & Young). It was then on to a position with Deramore Developments – the property firm founded in Belfast in 1975 which would later become Portview.
“I came in to a very recent management buyout from a successful property group and I was given a lot of freedom and responsible for anything not site-related. The company developed and we began getting in to shop fitting – we did the first Curry’s/PC World in Northern Ireland.”
His role developed further within the company, which was a mixture of construction, fit-out and reactive maintenance, with work across the UK and Ireland.
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. “We acquired a couple of firms in England which turned out not be a clever move,” he said. “That almost put our lights out, but fortunately we were able to shut it down before that happened.
“We had to be come very lean and move strategically to pure shop fitting, away from construction. There is less risk, better margins and cash flow.”
That work included a raft of big name retail – including groups such as Arcadia. But it subsequently pivoted towards high-end work in places such as London. “When the last recession hit we were fortunate to step away from (some of the big high street retailers). We moved to Harrods, Selfridges, Harvey Nichols and Bond Street work.”
The company has also diversified into working on major stadiums, including Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium and Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, along with some high end office work, hotels and restaurants.
“It’s been quite a journey and there is the focus on quality projects – we have learned and developed strong skillsets for complicated projects, and we are respected for that type of work.
“The reputation has grown with people. London is a big place – the fit-out market isn’t massive. We have had to be very proactive about opportunities and moving in to new areas. Never rest on your laurels – you are only as good as your last job.”
As a leader in business, Simon says it’s about relying on people with the right skills. “We work in the construction sector and I’m a trained accountant, and not particularly good with tools.
“Building a strong team and having a strong team ethos. Sticking to your values on how you want to work. By doing that you can build a reputation for what you do.”
And regarding Covid, Simon says it’s been a challenging period for the firm. “The immediate concern was for our staff – making sure people got home safely when lockdown came. The office was able to cope well working from home.
“Lots of time and effort has gone in to safe-working practices. We have been back on site since May. But obviously we limit exposure and travel to the absolutely necessary. It’s going to cast a long shadow into 2021… but I think once Brexit is resolved and the vaccine comes out, there is some optimism.”