It might be thought that water is self-evidently a healthy drink. But various scares have led to some consumers questioning this.
First there was the Perrier Water crisis, when traces of benzene were found in some bottles. Harmful bacteria entered the tap water supply in various parts of the Republic. And there have been allegations about the health effects of chemicals allegedly released from PET plastics that are commonly used for water bottles and containers.
The combined effect of this has been a stronger interest in filtered water, which removes impurities such as metals and bacteria from tap water and stores this as a cooled supply. As an added bonus, it cuts down the wasteful production of plastic bottles used for the supply of bottled water.
In Northern Ireland, government departments have got the message. Late last year, the Dunmurray-based Hillsdown Water Services won an unexpected and initial order to provide filtering and cooling equipment plus water dispensers in some public sector offices. The service was so popular that a further contract worth £200,000 was awarded to Hillsdown a few weeks later.
That level of interest has been replicated across much of Northern Ireland society. Hospitals, health clubs, call centres, coffee shops and private homes have all commissioned Hillsdown Water to install chilled and filtered water systems. Lots of schools have too – where pupils are also given refillable bottles. This has encouraged children to cut-down their use of sugar-based drink and has led, say some head teachers, to reductions in pupils’ attention loss.
This might sound like overnight success for Hillsdown Water, but it is anything but. The company was established back in the 1980s by wrestling legend Henry ‘Jack Flash’ Shirlow, who was Irish National Champion a record 17 times and retired in 1999 with the unique achivement of having never been defeated.
But Shirlow’s latest success has come late in the career for someone who has done so much. So rather than operate all the contracts through his head office – where he has six staff – Shirlow has entered into partnership with another water supplies professional, Harry Toye, and set-up a second company, Hillsdown International, to sell franchises for the right to supply. Toye will be responsible for the franchise awarding, which is expected to begin this spring – with initial enquiries now coming in.
“The local guy on the ground often knows better than guy at the top,” explains Toye. Specifically, franchise operations can exploit the knowledge of their management to develop strength in niche markets in ways that headquarters offices find difficult, suggests Toye.
But franchises need to operate within a strict discipline. “The key things are standards and training,” says Toye. As a result, he and Shirlow are now finalising a comprehensive standards guide for franchisees. It is an example of the attention to detail that is necessary to get a franchise started and working well – and why Hillsdown has survived so long and so successfully.