Posted on Wednesday 3 October 2018 by Ulster Business

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Eugene McKeever of McKeever Hotel Group, Bank of Ireland's Gavin Kennedy, Bridgene McKeever of McKeever Hotel Group alongside Eamon McCay, Frylite, and Brian Connolly, Pinnacle

Bank of Ireland UK has been backing Northern Ireland businesses across the generations. Ulster Business speaks to Gavin Kennedy, head of business banking NI and some of those burgeoning firms it has developed strong relationships with over the decades

Long-term support is very much at the heart of the decades of partnership between Bank of Ireland and its business customers.

And whether it’s offering a wide range of financial assistance, growth support or general advice, the bank has formed life-long partnerships with companies from right across the sectors, and from the large to the very small.

It’s been there for three of its longest-running customers – with a combined almost 100-year history – from the start, and played a key role as a partner in each of their own growth stories.

Gavin Kennedy, head of business banking NI at Bank of Ireland UK, told Ulster Business:

“We base our business on a relationship management model – we spend a lot of time with the businesses, we know the owners and their management teams, their growth objectives and ambitions and understand the businesses.

“That enables us to provide the right suite of products – challenging business plans, providing funding and help. There’s also the chance to introduce them to potential customers, signpost to expert advice, and become a partner to that customer, rather than just be a funder. It’s very much a partnership approach.

“We provide lending facilities to business from the very small micro firm, right through their life-cycle, their growth phase, and scaling up to small and medium-sized businesses.”

And for Gavin, it’s all about offering a range of services and assistance “under one roof”.

“We have the ability to lend up to £20m for business customers. There is the consistency to our approach, and that’s really important in the Northern Ireland market.”

Partnership is a phrase that continues to raise its head in Bank of Ireland, regarding both its relationships with business customers, and the longevity and generational nature of the companies it’s developed long-term relationships with.

“We would have many instances where a mother and father have built a business, and now the second generation is taking on the management,” Gavin said. “We are involved across both generations, and we are very privileged to be part of that family and business development.”

“It’s in our interest that the company continues to grow and thrive and we have been very important in that role.”

Nowhere is that more evident than with the hugely successful family-owned McKeever Hotel Group.

What started out as a family restaurant business in Randalstown, Co Antrim back in 1985, has blossomed into a burgeoning food and hospitality business boasting five hotels across Northern Ireland and Donegal.

And the McKeever Hotel Group is still very much a family affair. In the last 33 years, the breadth of the business has grown to include Corrs Corner in Newtownabbey, the Dunsilly Hotel in Antrim, Ballymena’s the Adair Arms, Dillons in Letterkenny, and its latest hotel, the Dunadry in Antrim.

Today, Eugene McKeever, along with his wife Catherine, daughter Bridgene and son Eddie, run the thriving hotel empire which employs around 300 part-time and full-time staff.

“The family business started in 1985 when my parents opened the first restaurant in Randalstown – my dad was a chef and mum was teaching,” Bridgene, who is marketing director, said.

“They then bought Corrs Corner. That’s when Bank of Ireland really become involved in the company and helped us out.

“We have been supported by Bank of Ireland in a number of ways.”

That includes the multi-million pound funding for the refurbishment of the Dunadry Hotel, in addition to funding support provided for the acquisition in 2017.

“Bank of Ireland has been with the company during its entire history. In 2010, with the Adair Arms, we were one of the few people back then who were buying, due to the recession,” she said.

“There has always been trust and the faith with the bank. My dad has always said – speak to your bank manager, and be honest with them.”

The McKeever Hotel Group’s single biggest investment has been with the 80-bedroom Dunadry.

Gavin says that one of Bank of Ireland’s core objectives is to help “customers to thrive”.

“In doing that, it covers a lot of different things, and it’s not just about being profitable,” he said.

“We specifically tailor our packages to the customer needs. Their success, is our success and we are very privileged to be part of that growth story.”

Eamon McCay started his cooking oil business at a small Strabane premises. He’s now grown Frylite from a small family operation to an Ireland-wide firm with more than 240 staff, boasting a turnover of £35m.

And he’s been helped along the way by Bank of Ireland amid ongoing expansion and growth. It’s a relationship which has so far lasted more than 20 years, and shows no signs of slowing down.

“I started Frylite in 1988, delivering fresh oil and collecting used oil. I combined all of the areas in one,” Eamon says.

And that initial 900 sq ft building has grown to five depots across Ireland, with a further site on the cards for yet more expansion.

“We supply our vegetable oils to hotels, fast food outlets, commercial businesses, bakeries, industrial food service sector… it’s been gradual growth.”

A depot in Galway in 2001 was followed by another two years later in Dublin, with Coleraine and Cork following a short time later. And its Strabane base is now a 25,000 sq ft building on a four-acre site.

Since 1997, Bank of Ireland has provided facilities to the business including invoice discounting, asset finance and term and cash flow ending, and also previously used stockline facility.

Speaking about his strong relationship with Bank of Ireland, Eamon says a commercial finance package ensured the businesses growth.

“The bank have gotten to know the business. I felt like I have had a partner, which is invested in the business. Building good relationships is one of the values,” he said.

But it’s not just about providing help and finance to customers. Bank of Ireland is sponsor of Catalyst Inc’s Invent competition and is also working with organisations such as the NI Chamber and CBI to showcase and help companies improve skills, digital prowess and scale exports.

Another business with a more than two-decade relationship with Bank of Ireland is Pinnacle.

And just some of the Sage Platinum Reseller’s top customers include everyone from the Irish Football Association (IFA) and Ulster Rugby to Titanic Belfast and Mash Direct.

The software partner, which was set up in Belfast in 1993, now boasts a team of more than 130 experienced providers of Sage business management software solutions, IT services and support.

“Going from humble beginnings, the company has grown into a £15m business,” Fran McKee, Pinnacle’s marketing director said.

The firm, which is headed by founder Ken Montgomery, has been supported by Bank of Ireland through its stages of growth, which has included organic expansion and acquisition.

“We have a solid partnership with Bank of Ireland, which has nurtured our business since its inception in 1993.”

The firm offers businesses solutions from simple to more complex business needs with Sage. It now has 11 offices across the UK and Ireland, but according to Fran, there is “massive growth on the agenda”.

“We want to be a £20m business within the next few years and as well as growing our Sage division we want to also grow our IT services offering and with the bank’s support we’ll achieve our growth ambitions.  You can come to us as a one-stop-shop for IT and software requirements.

“Customers today are very focused on providing a good service as well as achieving their growth ambitions, so they want to have the software in place to help them make decisions and run their businesses effectively.”

And Gavin says the key message is that Bank of Ireland is a “proven and consistent funding partner for businesses over a long period of time.”

“We work hard to build a great rapport and great trust with our clients and these long term relationships are testament to that. It is exciting to share the journey of young and small businesses to growth and expansion and we’re keen to help the next generation seize new opportunities for their businesses.” ■


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