McNicholl Hughes is a Dunmurry-based shop fitting company that in October celebrates its 10th year in operation. For managing director Mark Hughes and fellow director Eugene McNicholl, starting the firm was an obvious next step as they were well established in their trade.
“Eugene and I are both chartered quantity surveyors by profession,” explains Mark. “We worked for others and decided we could give it a go ourselves. We both had various contacts when we started and we were able to use those. “
A decade on and their decision has been fully vindicated – the firm prospered during the boom and continues to do well even in today’s leaner times. The firm has a regular staff of around 15, with others engaged on sub-contract for individual shop fittings. At the peak of the property boom, the firm’s turnover approached £4m a year. “We had a number of good years and we re-invested in the business,” says Mark. “That means we are not reliant on the banks.”
Despite the downturn, business is holding up well. “We are still reasonably busy,” Mark explains. “We are happy enough with progress. The big bulk of our work is fitting out shops for retailers. A lot of our clients are high street retailers: Costa, Specsavers and Barratt Shoes are all big customers.”
Even in a recession, retailers of this size still take on new retail units and refit existing units, providing continued work for McNicholl Hughes. And the firm has built-up a strong presence in the Republic. “We are working for Costa there at the moment on one of our biggest ever contracts, fitting out six cafes in new service stations on motorways,” says Hughes. Another current contract is for a new Domino’s pizza outlet.
“It’s high stakes at times,” continues Mark. “We provide a quality product and have a good relationship with our clients. It’s a stressful process – retailers are very demanding clients. But, generally speaking, there are no problems and shops always open on time.”
Although the firm does the fitting-out of stores, it is not generally leading on either design or the manufacture of equipment. “Larger retailers have in-house design departments,” explains Mark. McNicholl Hughes works closely with a supplier that manufactures counters and other equipment to clients’ instructions.
Maintaining a flow of contracts is fundamental to a business in McNicholl Hughes’ sector – each contract is completed on average in three weeks, when those on site work 12 to 14 hour days. Creating that contract flow requires a high level of expertise amongst the marketing staff, backed by a very impressive website.
“We have a business development department that spend all their time developing new leads,” says Mark. “That is no different than three years ago when the industry was booming: there is now a smaller amount of work to go round. But we have made good new contacts and have been able to hang onto clients. We are confident we will get more contracts from them as the economy gets better.”
The firm is not content simply to grow with the economy. “We had been growing – and significantly so,” recalls Mark. “We want to grow our work in the Republic and Great Britain and we are getting support with that from Invest NI. We are keen to push this. But everything is hard at the moment. It’s the kind of business that if you are not moving forward you are moving back. You are always looking for more.”