Changing times need new approaches to markets and products. That is a lesson that has been learnt and applied well by Unicorn Inter Ltd.
Unicorn is an established business, having started in 1991 and with operations both in Banbridge and Dundalk. But when the company realised its customers were beginning to hit hard times, it responded quickly by moving into different markets.
“About two years ago we noticed [customers] were slowing down,” says Jude Torley, who co-founded the company with his father Jim. “Their spending was not as great as it used to be. We also noticed they weren’t recruiting as much as they used to do. There were more empty desks.”
For a company whose business was about fitting-out buildings, these were serious warning signs. Sensibly, the company took them seriously and focused more on new markets.
Reviewing their strategies, the company saw two particular opportunities. One was that with London winning the 2012 Olympics, it meant that many of the larger construction companies would be busy fulfilling related contracts in the capital – this potentially meant that there would be fewer businesses competing for smaller construction contracts, which would become less price sensitive and so offer better rewards.
Secondly, even if the construction sector was slowing-down in the private residential market, the prospects seemed much better in the social housing sector. This proved an astute prediction, as spending on social housing was maintained, and sometimes increased, as the wider economy entered recession.
Recognising a different client market, Unicorn realised it also needed to provide different products and operate in a different way. Much of the spending on social housing was on improving the quality of older properties, including reducing carbon emissions and improving energy efficiency.
To take advantage of these opportunities, Unicorn entered into partnership with ALHCO, a large British company heavily engaged in the maintenance of energy management systems for housing associations and councils in England and Scotland. Together the two companies won contracts to improve the energy efficiency of rented properties, moving also into the residential homes and hospital sectors.
Unicorn is now involved in fulfilling several projects to replace water boilers, install ‘smart meters’ that monitor energy use and supply internal and external insulation boards that not only reduce heating loss, but can also improve the health of social housing tenants by cutting the levels of mould and mildew in properties.
But Unicorn warns that while changing market focus can be successful, it is not easy or cheap. “We had to invest,” says Jude. “We had to put money aside to develop the technology. There is a price to be paid for rebranding and developing the business strategy. We did not expect it to be so costly. We had to learn and understand the new market place. That’s an ongoing process.”
Change goes beyond the focus of the business: it also involves the relative strengths of the business centres. While each unit employs three staff, it was traditionally Dundalk that won most of the work. Now the Banbridge site is the stronger, helped, in part, by the fall in value of sterling against the euro.
“There has been a huge upturn in the Northern economy,” says Torley. “The last year was our best in the North. We wanted to service both communities. Previously it was the South that supported the North. We believe that in the future it will be the North that feeds into the South.”
For Unicorn, two markets have proved better than one – both in terms of product offering and location.