Posted on Friday 23 April 2010 by Ulster Business


Home-grown business success stories tend to reveal individuals with the ability to adapt to a changing environment as much as those with an eye for the bottom line. Ulster Business found that Ashley McKinley and Jim Hodges, founders of Nichem Group, prove no different, having steered their business toward growing markets. We hear more about the Belfast-based company…

Having your own swimming pool is a luxury many of us would love but few feel we can afford. But local company Nichem Group, through its subsidiary Nichem Pools and Leisure, is proving the private pool is more popular than ever in Northern Ireland and more affordable than you’d think. The fact the business has put in a bumper performance against the current recessionary backdrop says a lot, both about the passion and hard work of Nichem’s personnel and the affordability of some the company’s pools. This latter factor doesn’t mean a concession on quality. In fact, the use of Italian pool manufacturer Proteus’s technology means Nichem can offer an unparalleled level of integrity - in terms of the pool’s construction - and a number of standard features which would be additional costs using other build methods. As opposed to the traditional tile construction, the Proteus pool is made from stainless steel panels or, in some cases, a single stainless steel shell. Advantages include a much faster installation process, a 15-year warranty, less maintenance, the ability to create more complex shapes and overlapping infinity edges. It’s with such attributes that Proteus has been awarded a contract to supply seven of the 12 pools for the 2012 Olympics. Installation for outdoor pools starts from £15,000 while indoor packages begin at £35,000, but the canny pool buyer knows that running costs are as important as the initial outlay. It’s for this reason Nichem can carry out an energy management survey to keep electricity usage to a minimum while also incorporating a number of green features, such as highly efficient insulation, renewable energy water heating and water recycling. “We have surprised a lot of people with the figures,” said Commercial Director Ashley McKinley in an interview with Ulster Business at the company’s headquarters in the Castlereagh Hills. “It’s not as expensive as you’d think to run and needn’t be considered a luxury.” Not that the pools don’t feel like luxury as anyone visiting Nichem’s show pool at the Mill Village development in Comber will testify. The facility here is the Gold Proteus pool package and includes a spa, sauna and gym and shows off Nichem’s attention to detail. “Who else in Northern Ireland has a show pool they can take potential customers to?” said Operations Director Jim Hodges. With most competitors based outside Northern Ireland, the local presence is particularly important to Nichem and helps maintain a high level of customer service, a fact reflected in the large number of word-of-mouth referrals the company receives. Added to this are the ancillary benefits gained from building a swimming pool in a home, not least of which is the fact it will add value but also the fact a pool can be a social hub for all the family. “Family values are changing for the better,” Ashley said. “It’s not about the rat race any more but is about sharing time with your family and a pool provides the ideal place to enjoy being together.” As a result, Nichem’s customers range from young families to retired couples who want to provide a place of enjoyment for their children and grand children, to ‘swimming fanatics’ who realise owning a pool isn’t out of reach. Adapting to change While riding this wave of popularity in the leisure industry has paid dividends, the company hasn’t rested on its laurels and has continued its trend of diversification. For a company which started out trading in chemicals, the move into swimming pools may seem a big jump but made sense given Ashley and Jim were providing chlorine to local pools. And so it is with the company’s other subsidiaries, one of which, TrainDirect, identified a need in the fitness and beauty markets for fast track accredited training courses. Started in 1998, TrainDirect offers a comprehensive range of courses which lead to nationally recognised qualifications, the majority of which are approved by the Qualifications Curriculum Authority and/or are accredited in the National Framework of Qualifications. Awarding bodies include Oxford, Cambridge and RSA, Vocational Training Charitable Trust, Central YMCA Qualifications and City and Guilds. The secret of the company’s success in this area is the intensity of its courses. A fitness instructor or beauty course which would take a year at a college can be compounded into two weeks at TrainDirect but both result in the same qualification. “It’s a fast track career option that results in an almost guaranteed job,” said Ashley. Training needs Another subsidiary identified a need for a portable multi-sports stadium aimed at children and with the help of InvestNI has taken to market. Sportstada consists of a 10-by-five metre structure made up of interlocking plastic panels and can come complete with safety surround nets, viewing steps and flood lights. It allows children to play everything from football to netball to cricket in a safe environment yet is completely mobile, making it perfect for sports clubs and leisure centres. “Sport will change a child’s life for the better,” said Ashley. “Children who play team sport learn so many lessons to help them in later life. We see this product making a difference.” Ashley and Jim have showcased the Sportstada at Manchester United’s ground Old Trafford and have already secured a number of orders while also fielding enquiries from throughout the UK and further afield. As recently as March the two even pitched the item on national television on the Dragons’ Den Sports Relief special and, although not managing to secure investment, came away with excellent exposure for the product and sound advice. Future developments for Sportada include a roof dome and the possibility of changing the stadium into Icestada for ice hockey. So with a number of differing, yet closely linked products under the Nichem Group’s umbrella, it looks like the company will continue to make waves in future while adapting to the changing business environment.


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