Belfast Telegraph

'Dad founded this firm on family values, and by sponsoring cricket we can give something back to the community that has served us well'

Robinson Services prides itself on placing a high value on its staff since growing from a one-man operation into an award-winning cleaning firm that caters for more than 4,000 clients across NI

By Laurence White

Fifty years ago this year James Robinson, who worked shifts at the British Enkalon nylon yard spinning company in Antrim, decided to earn some extra money with a window cleaning round.

He began cleaning the windows of commercial properties in the town centre on his days off and he continued to do the two jobs for the next decade.

By 1978, he felt that British Enkalon was looking a bit insecure - it was to close in 1985, just 22 years after going into production - and he went full-time in the window cleaning job.

He built up a client list of offices, shops and local factories and took on a helper.

It was from those humble beginnings that Robinson Services, now one of the top 50 employers in Northern Ireland with around 1,700 staff and a turnover of £17m, developed.

It provides cleaning, hygiene, laundry, security, specialist and outdoor services to a wide range of public and private clients and is reckoned to be the largest privately owned company in the sector in Northern Ireland.

Today the company is headed by James' son David, who joined the business straight from school in 1985.

He recalls: "At that stage dad had four employees. I was glad to join the company as there were not that many jobs around. It was a very troubled time in Northern Ireland, but it was also a time of opportunity for us. From then, our business began to get some traction".

Clients began asking them to clean carpets and other flooring or furnishings and by 1990 the business was taking on cleaning services in factories and offices. At the same time, the window cleaning business was expanding with banks and building societies using their services.

The client base was also increasing with big companies like Isaac Agnew car sales and W&G Baird, the Antrim-based printing company, signing up.

But the biggest boost for the firm came when it won a contract to provide services to Belfast International Airport. This, says David, gave the company the impetus to expand its horizons well beyond its core clients in Antrim.

During the 1990s, the firm grew rapidly, from 70-80 employees at the start of the decade to 300-400 by the year 2000.

David (49) says that one of the keys to the company's growth and success has been its adherence to family values.

He adds: "People trusted us because of those values. We prided ourselves on fixing any problem that arose very quickly. Being a relatively small company, we had that flexibility.

"But we have always placed a very high value on our employees. I remember when I was young I used to come into our home and find four or five staff sitting around the table getting their lunch which was made by mum.

"She was called Sarah Jane Robinson and our company headquarters is named after her. Sadly she died a few years ago.

"She loved the company when staff dropped into the house at lunchtime and it was no bother for her to make them something to eat.

"She was also in charge of the purse strings in the early days and if we wanted to buy anything for the company, we had to go through her."

David recalls how on occasion the company stepped in to help employees in financial need.

"We would have assisted them with loans or in getting mortgages. We trusted them. Occasionally it went wrong but most times it went well. We always remembered that people were at the core of our business."

Dad James, now aged 87 and in poor health at the moment, also has a building named after him, a way of reminding everyone that it is essentially a family-run business.

Another significant area of expansion for the firm was the winning of contracts to provide services to shopping centres such as Forestside in Belfast, Foyleside in Londonderry and Junction One in Antrim.

That created a new arm for the business, providing retail staff.

In 2008, security was added to the portfolio of services at the request of existing clients.

Two years previously, the company bought over the Waveney Laundry in Ballymena and later invested £2m in creating a new base for the business in Antrim. It now concentrates on laundering bed and table linen for a range of hotels.

David, a father of two, Jack (9) and Lucy (8), is married to Gillian and still lives in the Antrim area. When he was growing up in Muckamore, the local cricket club was the big attraction.

"I remember when I was eight or nine, walking down to the club with my brother. Now that I have children of that age I cannot ever think that I would allow them to walk anywhere on their own, but those were different times and we all felt safer then."

It was his love affair with cricket - he was once captain and wicket-keeper of the 3rd XI and is now a trustee of the Muckamore club - has led to today's sponsorship deal for the Northern Cricket Union's premier and senior leagues.

"As a company we are keen to support community projects such as Antrim Festival.

"We also support local football and rugby teams, but I love cricket because it isn't Orange or Green. Everyone can go along to watch or play without any fear of sectarianism.

"My dad, my brother and I all played cricket as enthusiastic amateurs. It was the thing to do in a village like Muckamore and there was a great community spirit in the club.

"That is why we have sponsored cricket. We got a lot out of it in our lives.

"But I also like all sports because they bring people together and that is a good thing."

He adds: "We also like to sponsor sports teams because they are part of local communities and our staff all live in those communities.

"In a way, we are doing something for them and we are glad to help within reason."

Robinson Services - which is keen to encourage staff by giving awards for outstanding contribution and the company regularly receives recognition in national industry awards - now boasts of having some 4,000 clients, all of them based in Northern Ireland.

Previously, it had expanded to Scotland but sold off that business in recent years to focus on the province.

David says: "Our business is very stable. We are not racing to the top. I am the second generation to run the business and I hope that there will be a third generation to take over from me and more after that. We create a lot of employment and value the people who work for us".

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