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Riding the Tiger: removals in Northern Ireland

Nov 12, 2012
Feature: Northern Ireland
Riding the Tiger: How the demise of the Celtic Tiger might have been the saviour of the Northern Irish moving industry

Campbell McGimpsey is the Managing Director of McGimpsey Bros in Bangor, County Down, in Northern Ireland.  He said that the recession has been very tough for his company but, to some extent, it has benefitted from the end of the Celtic Tiger era. 

McGimpsey Bros. is a long established company that operates a full removals service: local within Ireland, the UK and Europe, deep sea, art and antiques, private and corporate. Whereas some smaller, newer companies might have feared for their survival during the recession, for the more established players it’s been more a case of hunkering down, rigging for heavy weather, cutting costs as much as is practical and riding out the storm until business improves.

This was the approach McGimpsey Bros. took and it has served it well.  It’s now a little leaner than a few years ago but has managed to retain many of its skilled people.  “The first quarter of this year was one of the worst we have had,” explained Campbell, “but since April things have really picked up.  We are now much further ahead than we expected even taking into account the natural summer boost.”

During the really difficult times the business was supported to some degree by theexodus from the South after the heady days of the Celtic Tiger subsided.  McGimpsey Bros. still regularly has three or four vehicles working south of the border every week.

The Celtic Tiger was the name given to the period in the late 1990s when investors poured into Ireland to cash in on the low corporation tax rates.  The bubble burst in 2001 but there was something of a resurgence in 2004 when the country opened up its doors to workers from elsewhere in Europe.  “During that time a good joiner, for example, could earn around £350/week in Belfast,” explained Campbell.  “100 miles to the south, in Dublin, he could earn up to £1,000/week.” 

But it couldn’t, and didn’t last.  When the crash came it hit Ireland very hard. “Last year we did a two-day exhibition in Dublin organised by Australian companies who were looking for staff: there were 600 people there all paying the 10 euro entrance fee. This year, at the same event, there were around 15,000 people. They had to close the doors.  It just showed the reality of the massive volume of people who just want out.”

Up to 75,000 Irish citizens are predicted to emigrate from Ireland in 2012 with many choosing to look towards other European countries, Australia and the Middle East for work. “I recently read that over 1,000 people a week are leaving the South of Ireland,” said Campbell. “Sadly, the country just seems to be dying on its feet.”

Having said that, the North recognises that the low corporation tax rates in the South has created less than a level playing field and there is a strong body of opinion that the corporation tax rates in the North should be lowered too.  “If we really want companies to come into Northern Ireland and set up their businesses we will have to lower the rates to draw these companies in.  If not, any company in its right mind will go to the South.  A recent government report estimated that a reduction in the corporation tax rate in Northern Ireland would result in the creation of approximately 58,000 new jobs. I think the problem is highlighted here because we have a border with another European country.  But I think there is a good argument for the UK too to have reduced rates to stimulate economic activity.”

McGimpsey on BAR

For many years the Northern Ireland Area of BAR was not functioning to its full potential.  However, a few years ago BAR headquarters held a very successful meeting in Northern Ireland which seems to have had the desired effect of stimulating some activity.  “Since then we have been running regular Area meetings and also making sure we have someone attend all the National Council meetings,” said Campbell.

Campbell is also a supporter of improved standards within the Association and feels that the majority of members will support paying increased fees - as long as BAR continues to widen the gap and standards between BAR companies and non-BAR companies.  “As an Area we are generally in agreement, because it’s going to bring the Association more up market - something of real quality, something we can really sell and something which is a strong brand and easily recognisable to the members of the public.  We have got to absorb that.  Something similar happened when FIDI brought in FAIM but we still ended up with something of quality.  People won’t want it while the recession is still on but it has to be the way the BAR moves forward.  There will be increased costs but I think it will be a positive move.”

Northern Ireland has suffered in the recession in the same way as the UK.  But, ironically, it might just be the demise of the Irish prosperity that has kept the industry buoyant during the darkest days of the downturn.  It appears now that the sun is just beginning to rise again.


                                         Above and left: McGimpsey Bros' self storage facility and right, reception area


Stena Line
The one and only from Liverpool - Belfast

Movers wishing to make the sea crossing between Liverpool/Heysham/Birkenhead and Belfast have little choice of carrier.  Stena is the only shipping line providing a suitable service.  There is one other line – Seatruck – that runs into Warrenpoint (40 mins or so from Belfast) but its service is purely for unaccompanied freight, so unless companies can arrange for a driver available to collect the vehicle at destination, it’s not much use to movers.  Each vessel does have space for up to 12 drivers but there is no room for crew; not much use for a mover.

The Mover contacted Stena to ask for its comments about the lack of competition on the ‘diagonal’ route.  Strictly speaking the company does not have a monopoly as there are plenty of services out of Dublin across the Irish Sea.  The competitive situation on the route was the subject of a Competition Committee inquiry which reported in June 2011 that Stena would continue to face ‘substantial competition’ because Seatruck was then running a service into Belfast.  Kevin Gilland, Commercial Manager for Seatruck confirmed to The Mover that the company no longer operates into Belfast.  Stena, therefore, is the only practical option for this route.

Fiona Brown from Stena’s PR agency Duffy Rafferty Communications maintained, however, that Stena Line has a number of competitors on the Irish Sea and continues to work hard to maintain a competitive position in the marketplace. Asked how much the rates had increased in the last 12 months she said: “We are unable to comment since the route was owned and operated by another company (DFDS/Norfolkline) and we do not have access to that information.”  Asked to give sample prices for the route she added: “We do not advertise prices but would negotiate with our customers individually. Prices are consistent across customers of a similar size. We are not aware of any pricing issues or concerns of this nature from removal firms.”

Movers in Northern Ireland report that the rates went up by around 10% in December 2011, that bunker surcharges had remained in place, that Stena had not proved to be open to negotiation and there were some difficulties in getting space because the route was so popular.


Just so you know

Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Great Britain is the biggest of the British Isles which also includes Ireland, the Isle of Man and around 6000 smaller islands, some not much bigger than decent-sized rocks.  Scotland and Wales are each part of Great Britain.

Now, that’s cleared that up.


An unorthodox approach: an interview with Dominic Murray of Coastways in Belfast

The last time I interviewed Dominic Murray from Coastways in Belfast was in the spring of 2009 when his company first joined BAR. Today, and despite the difficult trading conditions, his company is thriving – but not necessarily in a traditional way.

Some years ago Dominic decided not to compete for the traditional Northern Ireland – UK traffic.  Since Stenna Line took a monopoly on that route the rates increased to make the journey impractical for normal competition.  Instead he has stepped down from journeying across what must be one of the world’s most expensive waterways, preferring to stick more closely to home and leave the channel to others.

“We decided to restrict ourselves right down to Northern Ireland only,” he said. “Sometimes a run down to Cork or Gallway might be worthwhile but I prefer to let a company from the South do it as a back load.”

Coastways has instead found itself a niche.  It has two major household removal contracts: one for the Northern Ireland Court Service; and one for the Northern Ireland Housing Sector.  Over the years these have proved successful for C
oastways but only because the company has taken an unusual approach to doing the work.

“We use a bedroom rate,” said Dominic.  “We offer a set price for moving two, three and four bedroom homes, with a menu of options.  Sometimes we will win, sometimes we lose.  The crew can be working in a one bedroom flat for the whole day or be out in an hour.” The benefit for the clients is, of course, that they know exactly what each job is going to cost.  “It’s been a big feature for them as it helps them to control their budget. There will always be a day when you get caught with a job that you’ll never make money on.  But overall I think we do better.”

The additional menu includes rates for disconnecting white goods, long carry, high rise buildings, unsocial hours, even rates for intimidation or cases involving domestic violence.  “We have a rate sheet that is one side of an A4 page that will cover everything that we do.”

In a way it’s exploiting the tick box culture that many large businesses and most public sector organisations follow.  And with 65% of the Northern Ireland economy being within the public sector, it seems to have caught on. “We use the MoveMan software with all the rates built in.  We just click on the box and it’s never wrong, there’s never a dispute.  It saves us time and money because our invoices are always right.”

Having proved that the system works it is Dominic’s aim to make more of this type of contract and, as a result, build up his rapidly growing storage business. His new storage facility in Belfast already has 1500 storage containers and he’s planning on expanding it to around 2200 next year.  “I would also like to offer storage facilities to other local moving companies,” said Dominic.  “If they don’t have space themselves they can use our facilities and continue to accept storage work.”

That sort of cooperation between companies is not unusual in Northern Ireland.  Yes everyone competes but to make the best use of resources everyone knows that cooperation is the best way.  “We are always talking to each other about part loads.  There’s no point in two companies running half empty.”

Perhaps as an illustration of that, Dominic has been the Area Secretary for BAR in Northern Ireland for the last three years.  “I’m the Area secretary because I feel that I can help some of my competitors and I am not afraid to do that.  We have a good knowledge of what we do that we can share without competing.”

Although Coastways has taken a somewhat unorthodox approach to developing its business, there is one fact that clearly demonstrates the wisdom of the approach. “The order books are full,” said Dominic.  Well, who would argue with that?

Important changes to the A5 will improve road safety

A £330 million project to dual two stretches of the A5 Western Transport Corridor in Northern Ireland has been given the go ahead.  The green light was recently announced by Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy. 

The two areas affected are between New Buildings Londonderry, to north of Strabane and from south of Omagh to Ballygawley to Aughnacloy.  The improvements will also help boost industry and commerce, as the road is vital to the Northern Ireland economy.

Tom Wilson, FTA’s General Manager – Ireland said; “With so many junctions and side road accesses onto the existing A5 there has always been the potential for collisions along this route. The dual-carriageway upgrade will help to reduce the number of collisions by providing improved cross sections, forward visibility and alignment as well as reducing long tailbacks of cars following behind slower moving vehicles.”

Wilson continued: “It’s surprising just how many motorists don’t realise that HGVs are legally restricted to a maximum of 40mph along the existing A5 single carriageway – and consequently car drivers often take enormous risks in trying to overtake slower moving goods vehicles and tractors. This work will finally make the A5 a much safer road for all freight transport and other road users as well as having economic and construction industry benefits.”


Relocation in Northern Ireland

Moving is one thing, but relocation services in Northern Ireland is a different matter completely.  Here, Steve Jordan talks to Michele Preshaw, Director of Irish Relocation Services in Belfast.

In the three and a half years since Irish Relocation Services (Irish Relo) opened in Belfast, the business has enjoyed good growth in what is becoming an increasingly buoyant market.  But even when things are going well, it’s an industry that requires its players to keep their eyes firmly on the ball to ensure success.

The company started off in Dublin to provide corporations with comprehensive relocation services and to offer destination services in Ireland to overseas agents and the large relocation management companies.

In 2009 the company expanded into Northern Ireland and owner Patrick Oman chose Michele to head up the operation.  Michele has many years experience in the industry and had worked with Patrick before.  But still, starting a new operation was a challenge particularly as the concept of a moving company, that also provides relocation services, was largely untried in Northern Ireland at the time.  Irish Relo is still the only company in the province to provide both services under one roof.

“When you start a new company it can be a challenge,” said Michele.  “But the personal contacts that we had were very important.  We really couldn’t have done it without them.  I will never forget the people who supported us.”

Personal contacts or not you still have to book your own jobs and make sure that people keep coming back for more.  “The company has grown impressively year on year,” said Michele.  “We are both pleased and pleasantly surprised because people in Northern Ireland are notoriously loyal to traditional things.  We seem to have built a good reputation fairly quickly.”

Relocation includes much more than just moving.  School search, language training, area orientation, housing and tenancy management, and much more all form part of the service.  Belfast was starved of investment during the troubles but, in recent years, has benefitted from an influx of foreign companies taking advantage of the regional business development agency Invest Northern Ireland, part of the Department of Enterprise, there to attract new investment and help new and existing businesses to compete internationally.  This has created a much greater demand for relocation services as international companies set up operations in Northern Ireland.  “There is plenty of investment coming in now from all over the world,” said Michele. “We have noticed a continued rise in this type of business.”

People are leaving too with companies repatriating employees who came over during the boom years and with people looking to find work in the traditional migrant spots of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, etc.  “Our export business has grown as people follow the jobs wherever they are available.”

Any business requires an element of luck especially where timing is concerned.  Although Irish Relo started in Northern Ireland after the boom years, the development of the country, particularly now that the troubles have largely ceased, looks to be very positive.


The Legend of Finn McCool

There was once a giant who lived on the Antrim Coast.  One day a Scottish giant called Fingal started shouting abuse at him across the 10-mile stretch of water that separates Antrim from the Mull of Kintyre.  Finn and Fingal’s shouting escalated into a flurry of rock and mud throwing until, eventually, a causeway was created that allowed the Scottish giant to cross the sea and face his Irish rival in what would, undoubtedly be a mortal battle.

Finn, meanwhile, exhausted from his efforts, went to bed.  But in a clever trick he dressed up as a baby and, when Fingal arrived to confront his nemesis Finn’s wife gently explained that Finn was out but his son was at home – and showed him Finn sleeping soundly in the cot.

The Scottish giant then had second thoughts. If this was the size of the baby, what must Finn be like?  Fingal decided upon discretion in preference to valour and made a run for it pulling up the causeway as he ran, ensuring his own safety.  All that remains are the basalt columns on each side of the water to mark the site forever.  He is said to have fled to a cave on Staffa which is to this day named 'Fingal's Cave'.

It is also said that one of the huge pieces of earth flung by Finn landed in the sea and became the Isle of Man and the hole that it left became Lough Neagh.  For this to be true, however, Finn would have had to have had very long arms (Lough Neagh is about 35 miles away) and been a rotten shot as Man is at least 100 miles to the south-east.

Maybe that’s why the Irish never adopted cricket as the national sport!

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