‘Whatever Brexit turns out to be, we have to be ready to work and succeed’
Brexit Proof Q&A: Trevor Annon, founder and chairman of The Mount Charles Group
Trevor Annon, chairman of The Mount Charles Group: ‘We’re on course to achieve our target of £100 million in revenue by 2025.’ Photograph: Stephen Davison
Trevor Annon is the founder and chairman of Belfast headquartered, The Mount Charles Group, one of Ireland’s largest indigenous catering and business support services providers. The company, which employs more than 2,500 people, recently added RTÉ to a client list in the South that also includes the Abbey Theatre and Custom House.
What was your reaction when you heard the UK had voted to leave the EU?
I always considered it could be a possibility, I knew people had very strong views one way or the other on the EU but particularly on immigration numbers from eastern Europe and I expected the decision to be very close.
How is your business likely to be affected?
It could have a significant impact on the cost and availability of raw materials which would ultimately impact on us and it could seriously limit our ability to recruit and potentially retain staff from European countries. Both of those could be challenges for us.
When did you begin preparing for Brexit and what contingency plans have you put in place so far?
Like many other businesses in Northern Ireland, we have worked very closely with our key business partners such as our major suppliers to ensure we are prepared for Brexit.
We have over 400 clients across the UK and Ireland. To deliver our services, particularly catering services, we work with a number of local suppliers and we have to rely on them to be able to continue to provide us with fresh, quality produce. The question for them is how easy might they be able to continue to do that in the future.
So while we directly may not need to make these type of contingency plans we know that our key suppliers are making them for companies like Mount Charles.
Are you examining new markets/suppliers and, if so, how practical is that?
We’re on course to achieve our target of £100 million in revenue by 2025 and I believe that growing our market share in the Republic will be a major driver for our business so we are focused on our push forward in Ireland. Brexit will not change our focus.
We grew our sales by 30 per cent in the Republic last year and currently provide services to Griffith College Dublin, Public Appointments Service, Ordinance Survey Ireland, Abbey Theatre, National Aquatic Centre and Custom House in Dublin.
But I do appreciate and understand there could be significant logistical challenges posed by Brexit for our suppliers.
Does Brexit present any opportunities for your business?
Thirty years ago I saw an opportunity to set up a local company to take on the big boys. The Mount Charles Group today is the largest family owned, independent catering and business support services organisation in Northern Ireland but I still want the business to grow and develop further.
Whatever Brexit turns out to be, we have to be ready to work and succeed regardless.
When do you expect to be Brexit-ready?
Because we do not manufacture or export we’re not in the same difficult position that some companies now find themselves in Northern Ireland. But like every other company we are watching and waiting so until we discover what Brexit really does mean for us and everyone else I doubt anyone can truly be ready.
What’s your best-/worst-case scenario?
The bottom line for everyone is a deal – we need some kind of arrangement in place that does not disadvantage Northern Ireland businesses. I still believe that there is bound to be some practical arrangement that will preserve the status quo and ensure that there will be free movement of goods and people and hopefully no new tariffs.
One of the major challenges that businesses in Northern Ireland might face in the future is the exit from Northern Ireland of skilled and hardworking workers from eastern Europe depending on what kind of Brexit we end up with.
Are you stockpiling goods/raw materials?
We’re aware some of our suppliers have been stockpiling certain goods but this would not be possible when it comes to fresh produce. Most goods have a shelf life and there is also a question of economics when it comes to stockpiling for many firms and the maximum level of stock that can be held.
Specifically in relation to our catering services we operate across 150 sites. In most instances our menus are prepared one month in advance so it would not be possible to “stockpile” in the traditional sense of the word.
How might the Irish or British governments, or the EU, help ease the pain of Brexit for your company or sector?
I would like governments to support my company. We are a Northern Ireland company operating in the UK and Ireland. We are investing and creating jobs and I would like the UK government to fight my corner and deliver a pro-business Brexit.
How do you think the British government has handled the Brexit negotiations?
I think it has been a total shambles. I am definitely not setting myself up to be any kind of expert on the Brexit negotiations but if you think of the Brexit referendum and the kind of misinformation – for example like the line about the UK “sending £350 million a week to the EU which could be spent on the NHS” – it was very difficult for the UK electorate to make an informed, qualifiable decision on Brexit in the first place.
Looking out five years, how do you think your business will have changed as a result of Brexit?
If a lot of the potential obstacles that we are now facing are put on the table, there could be significant challenges for our industry – particularly for suppliers in relation to raw materials. There is also the question of how Brexit could impact on the labour market.
In relation to Mount Charles we are still going to be the market leader in Northern Ireland after Brexit and we are still going ahead with our plans to expand in the South. We’re not going to change what we are doing.
Would you have liked to see a second referendum on Brexit?
No because the UK referendum decision was to leave the UK, Northern Ireland may have voted to remain in the EU but the overall outcome was to leave and so I believe that decision has to respected.