Posted on Monday 17 December 2012 by Ulster Business
Directors Robin Brown and Harry Girvan
It's a fact that the team behind Belfast-based Connect Telecom are well aware of. But going backwards is not on the agenda for the dynamic young business – quite the opposite.
Connect offers the complete range of telecoms solutions across mobiles, systems, data services and landlines to businesses of all sizes.
The company, started in 2005 by directors with considerable telecoms industry experience, has managed to grow consistently through the recession and is now at the point where it has had to double the size of its headquarters on the Lisburn Road to house new customer service staff.
Those additional staff are needed not just because of its expanding customer base in Northern Ireland, but also because Connect has made an ambitious move to branch out into the Republic of Ireland and Wales.
Since the company last graced the cover of Ulster Business 18 months ago it has enhanced its status as a BT National partner in the UK by also becoming a Gold partner for Vodafone in both the UK and Ireland.
In recognition of these achievements, and its future growth potential, Connect Telecom director Matthew Brown was named as one of the 2012 finalists in the prestigious Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year competition, a programme for the most innovative and entrepreneurial businesses on the island of Ireland.
Fellow directors Robin Brown and Harry Girvan told Ulster Business that while the company's progression has been rapid it has retained its focus on high quality customer service, developing strong partnerships and employing experienced industry professionals.
"A lot has happened in the last 18 months but it is all in line with what we laid out in our growth plans. We've expanded our customer service team and invested heavily in our systems.
There are still challenges for the business and we have to work hard to develop it. But we're not done yet by any stretch of the imagination," says Robin.
Harry adds: "We want to continue to grow and expand and grab market share where we can. We're doubling the size of the offices to allow for the customer service and telesales team to support the increased business we're bringing through. It will also support the expansion into other markets."
Having developed attractive cross-border packages several years ago, Connect Telecom already had significant business in the Republic of Ireland, but the business has now established a full time presence in Dublin.
It has also taken the bold step of expanding into Wales, and Harry believes there will be further scope to extend its business across Great Britain in coming years.
"We're the only company that can provide BT services across the whole of the UK and the only company that can provide Vodafone across the UK and the Republic of Ireland. That widens our customer base and who we have access to," he explains.
Robin adds: "Wales and the Republic are the growth areas for us and there is still continued growth potential for us in Northern Ireland. We've taken on some quality people here too over the last six months, strengthening the team we have in place."
Connect was directed to the potential of Wales by its partner Vodafone and spent a lot of time researching the market before pressing ahead. If the move proves successful, as early signs indicate it will be, the company's management team expects to make similar forays into geographical areas where Vodafone feels it is under-represented and where Connect could gain traction quickly.
In Wales the firm has brought in two new staff members with 30 years of communications experience between them.
Harry believes that Connect's ability to hire people who have backgrounds working for BT and the main mobile networks is testament to the reputation it has built up in the industry.
"To be in the position where we're taking on people who have worked directly for the networks lays down a real marker. That's a big move for someone to make and it says a lot about where we are, the structure that we have, and the investment that we've made in systems and up-skilling our team," says Harry.
Another indication of the company's rising stock can be found in former InterTradeIreland chief executive Liam Nellis joining Connect Telecom as a non-Executive board member.
Mr Nellis has also recently agreed to chair the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year alumni body, which numbers over 300 of the island's top business people.
Connect hopes to be able to leverage his extensive contact base and tap into his knowledge of business, particularly South of the border.
"It is significant because he is someone who is so well known and so well respected in the business community. He had a number of opportunities and the fact that he was happy to come and work with us and was interested by the challenges of a growing business says a lot for our success and how we have grown over the last couple of years," comments Robin.
The Connect Telecom team expects continued growth to come on the back of increased convergence.
A buzz word in the telecoms industry for over a decade, the dream that was unified communications is now a reality thanks to super-fast broadband and the rise of smart-phones and tablet devices.
The merging of productivity tools, mobility and PC-based communications is changing the dynamic in which businesses engage internally and externally, heavily influenced by the combination of consumer technology with corporate IT and user demand for that technology. It is a trend that plays well with the increasing number of local businesses operating in different jurisdictions.
"Convergence has been talked about since I started in the industry ten years ago, but now unified comms is here. 02890 or 0845 can be anywhere, whether you are in Moira or Moscow," explained Harry.
While unified communications has huge benefits across all business sectors and sizes of company, the technology aspect can be daunting. High level businesses or government departments often have in-house expertise, but the small business – for example a painter decorator with five vans on the road – can miss out.
Connect see it as a key part of their role to "demystify" the whole communications process for those with no IT division.
"For us it is not about the technology it is about how we can make it work for their business," said Robin.
"A lot of companies get wrapped up in the technology side of it and all the different acronyms. The angle we take on it is what it can do for your business. You've mentioned to me that you have an issue with X, Y, Z – this will resolve that problem and here is how," he adds.
The company has provided solutions that can be used in real-time, in the field and integrated into the systems of numerous types of businesses.
One example of Connect showing innovation in this area was its development of a digital solution that allowed Airporter – who provide ten bus connections daily to the Belfast Airports – to speed up the laborious, time consuming process of recording safety checks required by the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency (VOSA) through a smart phone and tablet app.
"The great thing is that everyone uses comms. Even companies that think they don't use technology in reality will have a website, broadband and smart phones, maybe tablets. Even a small business in quarrying or concrete, or whatever it may be, still has a need. A lot of small businesses still use a disparate number of providers and that isn't driving best value or efficiencies," said Robin.
Harry adds: "We take the time to understand a business that might not have an enormous profile. We still provide that same level of expertise that allows their communications to drive greater efficiencies in their business."
While Connect's business is not about selling technology, rather selling a service, it stays ahead of the trends in hardware and customer habits.
Behind the face-to-face engagement with clients, the company uses CRM software such as Salesforce, marketing automation software, Marketo, Vodafone One Net Express and Microsoft Office 365 to help it manage customer information, generate leads and handle queries on a consistent basis.
A quick look at its Twitter and Facebook pages shows its in-house tech experts are also constantly providing up to date information on the latest trends and technology and assessing the latest kit. The company is Apple iPhone and iPad accredited, and has Blackberry accreditation from RIM.
"We're ahead of the curve in terms of understanding what product set is out there. Now you go to any meeting and everyone has a tablet, which they wouldn't have even 18 months ago," notes Harry.
"The next big thing is 4G, which will be in Northern Ireland by next year. It will change how things work and what people will be able to do with their mobile provision," Robin predicts.
With the right expertise on board and confidence that any client who has put their communications provision in its hands will receive good service, Harry Girvan and Robin Brown believe Connect Telecom is on course for a successful 2013, both in Belfast and further afield.
"If I look at how the telecoms industry has changed even in the past 18 months, it has reinforced that our vision was right of where we wanted the business to be. It's an evolving industry and we like to stay ahead of the game," Harry said.
The final word goes to Robin: "Long term we want to be a lead partner for Vodafone and for BT. It's a big ambition but ultimately there is no reason why we would not be a communications provider of choice across the UK and Ireland."