Posted on Wednesday 11 April 2012 by Ulster Business

Cover Story- James Conlon

Audio visual specialists Niavac have secured a series of high profile contracts in recent years. Ulster Business spoke with Managing Director James Conlon to find out more about his vision for the business

The MAC and the Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre are set to be two of the jewels in the increasingly impressive crown of Northern Ireland tourism.

So when tenders went out to design and install the interactive audio-visual technology that is key to these high profile projects, it might have been expected that the work would go to a large GB-based firm.

However, both the impressive arts venue and the revamped visitor centre opted instead for a local company – Niavac, based at Prince Regent Road in Belfast.

Niavac Managing Director James Conlon says involvement in these landmark projects provides clear evidence that the company has the technical expertise to compete at the highest level.

“These are two very prestigious jobs which in the past would have been won by London-based designers, technicians/engineers and the whole solution would be provided by someone who had to fly in and out of Northern Ireland,” he told Ulster Business.

“Through successfully winning and delivering these contracts, we have proved that the expertise, engineering resource, design, and customer service are all available here in Northern Ireland. This is an endorsement of our ability to compete with GB firms and win.”

Niavac was formed in 1958 as a supplier of overhead projectors, duplicators and photocopiers.

James, originally from Dungannon, joined as a salesman in 1985 and became a 50% shareholder in the business in the early 1990s. By the end of the decade he had become 100% owner of the company.

It was in the 1990s with the emergence of the internet that Niavac started moving away from being a supply only company to become a professional audio visual installer and integrator.

James changed the business model and staff became proficient in the IT, telecoms and audio visual skills needed to design systems for major clients including schools, hospitals, government institutions, event organisers and businesses.

Recent private sector clients include BE Aerospace, Kilkeel, Willis Insurance and Titanic House, Belfast among others. In the public sector, as well as numerous schools and hospitals, projects have recently been completed for the Public Records Office, Land Registry and OFMDFM. In the arts sector Niavac pre-empted its work with the MAC by completing an integrated AV project for the new Lyric Theatre.

Conlon is keen to attribute the company’s success to the 17 strong-team, which includes the recently appointed Service Delivery Manager David Henry and is led by General Manager Steve Kennedy.

The company have continued to enjoy growth since 2008, when they took up residence in a £2m showroom and expanded their sales staff. With a number of potentially large private sector contracts in the pipeline for the end of the year Niavac expects to recruit a further three new staff bringing its workforce to 20 by the end of 2012.

“A lot has changed in the business from the 90s when I got involved as a shareholder. It is a long way from those old overhead projectors that were the core product then! Now we are dealing with emerging and ever evolving technology so every day is a learning experience,” says James.

“The technologies that are leading the way for our business now are digital signage and interactive displays with touch screen applications; smartboards and video conferencing which is now within the reach of SMEs. Meanwhile the event arm of our business is still buoyant as we provide event solutions to some of Northern Irelands leading award ceremonies, exhibitions and conferences.”

Giant Steps 

Opening this month, the MAC aims to bring together the best local and international talent in music, theatre, dance and art housed in a unique building on Rosemary Street in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter.

Niavac won the contract – valued at over £30,000 – to install a range of interactive elements for the new arts venue, including high definition projector systems, video conferencing and digital signage.

“Our design and installation team worked closely with the MAC to provide the very latest technology with high definition functionality to a range of areas including large screen projectors for the dance and rehearsal studios, LED displays and video conferencing facilities in the corporate boardroom along with digital signage throughout the building to signpost and welcome visitors,” explains James.

“They are a state-of-the-art visual arts centre, communicating in a modern technologically advanced way. What we’ve been able to provide marries very well with their ethos.”

The contract for the Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre – worth in the region of £200,000 – saw Niavac subcontracted to work to a tight timescale by the consultant in charge of the full exhibition build, due to be completed by this summer.

As well as digital signage and interactive touch-screen technology, the company has played a key part in projecting the ‘Power of the Landscape’ showcase – a 10 metre by four metre high image.

“It will be a real ‘wow’ element of the exhibition space,” says general manager Steve Kennedy. “It was a very exciting project and it opens a new market for us. We haven’t had a lot of penetration in the interpretative or museum space before but we’ve already seen three or four projects potentially coming off the back of this and we’d like to do more in this sector.”

Corporate Business

While these two very visible projects will without doubt raise the profile of the company, James is keen to stress this isn’t Niavac’s sole aim.

“These are high profile one off projects and they are fantastic to be involved in, however health, education and smaller private sector work is just as important to us, if not more so because it’s consistent and we can build good working relationships with clients across the years as their AV needs change,” James explains.

Niavac have installed video conferencing technology in the Clark Clinic at the Royal Hospital, to enable faster, collaborative diagnostics for patients, as well as a pilot scheme of electronic patient status boards across Health Trusts to help nurses manage the flow and improve the efficiency of patient care.

With cutbacks to Education and Health budgets in the past year, Niavac is increasingly focused on building awareness of its expertise with its potential corporate customer base.

James believes that several factors are coming together which will increase demand for the technologies it specialises in.

“There are some major organisations in the North – corporate organisations, retailers and manufacturers – who are only beginning to see the potential applications for digital signage to communicate with customers and staff. The MAC is using it to communicate with visitors, clients like Argento are using it to coordinate sales messages in 40 electronic displays across their Irish stores while Diageo use it in their Marshalls Road production site to enhance their internal communication systems,” he says.

“There are also a number of SMEs who could significantly benefit from the efficiency video conferencing offers. There is a perception that it is a significant investment that only large firms can afford but it is not beyond their reach and that message is beginning to filter through,” he adds.

Niavac’s research suggests that larger companies have reported payback on VC within three months, taking into account loss of work time, travel expenses and overnight accommodation, while SMEs have reported 12 months payback.

With more companies trying to expand beyond Northern Ireland into global markets, Conlon says local firms are looking at how video conferencing can help increase productivity and efficiency, and put them ‘in the room,’ with the clients they want to do business with.

“Awareness of the possibilities that new audio visual technology can bring to business will in turn create more demand for our services. That is why contracts like the Giant’s Causeway and the MAC are important – they raise our profile and get business to ask ‘how can my business benefit from this kind of technology?’

“It’s not just a case of employing technology for technology sake. AV that’s designed to meet a client’s needs will save money through greater efficiency and improve how they communicate with their customers to increase sales – and for us, that’s the bottom line.”

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