Stories of Growth

Eamon Donnelly, Uform: “A-star results”

As part of our Stories of Growth series, we interview the co-founder of a family-owned kitchen component manufacturer in Northern Ireland.

5 March 2023

In 2019, BGF completed a multi-million-pound investment into Uform, a Northern Irish kitchen component manufacturer and supplier. We exited our investment in Uform in 2022, following a deal with Cardinal Capital. During our investment period, Uform grew 40% year-on-year. The exit generated a more than 2x money multiple on our initial investment.

Eamon Donnelly founded Uform, in Toomebridge, County Antrim, alongside his father and brother. Read Eamon’s story below or watch his video interview, as he explains the importance of values in business, and how his upbringing shaped the person he is today.

When I was a teenager, my father self-built a house on a small farm. My brother Paul and I worked a lot of late nights on that house with my mum and dad’s families, who were mostly tradesmen.

One day, the guy who supplied us the kitchen asked my father to help grow his business. My father said he had too much on, “but there’s a young fella over there who could help sell your kitchens”. He was pointing at me.

Two months later, I started working for 10% commission. Selling kitchens became a drug. I loved every bit of it from meeting people to problem solving.

“Selling kitchens became a drug”

That experience taught my family the skills we needed to start Uform in 1993. At first, there were just four of us: I was finance, sales and marketing; my father was front of house and sales; Paul was in manufacturing; and my other brother, Seamus, worked part-time – now, he’s an area sales manager. That carried through till dad passed away with cancer eight years ago.

He was a great man with great values and they ring true today – openness, honesty, showing respect, working as part of a team, and taking responsibility.

We started out selling oak timber doors for kitchens and grew from there. Today, we employ 415 people at facilities in Co. Antrim and Co. Donegal and deliver more than 1,500 kitchens a week to customers across the UK and Ireland. Our secret sauce is that we all share the same values – from the person who sands the wood to the top managing director.

An energy about them

In 2016, I was a finalist in EY’s Entrepreneur of the Year programme. That brought us kudos. We had enjoyed double-digit growth for many years and had seen other businesses in our sector acquired by private equity. We were approached a couple of times by the big accountancy firms. “There’s lots of interest in Uform,” they said. “Will you sell?”

In 2017, that conversation became more real. We brought EY on board to create a prospectus. Suddenly, we had lots of private equity firms and trade buyers interested. I met a lot of people, who – how do I put this? – weren’t aligned to our culture. Speaking plainly, they were not a good cultural fit for the organisation.

BGF came in with a different set of values. I still remember Paddy Graham, BGF’s head of Scotland and Northern Ireland, coming to see us in our boardroom. He was incredibly emphatic about wanting to invest in us.

BGF fitted our culture. There was an energy about them. They invested in 2019 and since then we’ve grown 40% a year, significantly expanding our market share in the UK, Northern Irish and Republic of Ireland markets.

Path to exit

The key reasons for taking investment were to improve corporate governance and assist with strategic planning. It was always a family business and we knew it could become better. Since BGF came on board, we have built a top team that’s second to none.

We also invested in our production facilities and new state-of-the-art equipment, as well as expanded the product range.

In 2022, the time was right to take the business to the next stage. Cardinal Ireland Partners, an Irish private equity fund, provided funding to increase capacity at our facilities. The deal allowed BGF to exit its investment, however BGF has reinvested alongside Cardinal and will stay on as a minority shareholder. Myself and my brother Paul remain on the board as significant shareholders.

Eamon Donnelly on-site at U-form's manufacturing facilities

Never taken for granted

The deal is a cause for celebration, but because of my background, I don’t like to take anything for granted. We grew up in a social housing estate in the mid-sixties. My mum was a housewife and my father, when he wasn’t building houses, was a labourer in a concrete factory. Later, he rose to be a production manager, while also double jobbing for increased income.

Mum suffered from poor health throughout most of her life. As youngsters, we had a lot of love and attention, but had to fend for ourselves very early. Personally, I had lots of jobs, from gathering bottles to part-time jobs in construction, labouring, cutting lawns.

The thing about growing up with very little is that the vulnerability never leaves you. You never feel completely secure, however much is in your bank account. On the other hand, I believe our upbringing gave us the strength to succeed in tough times.

For example, in the 2008 recession, working capital became a nightmare. We had to re-mortgage our homes and put everything we had into the business. While it was terrifying, I believed that if we worked hard, we could get through it – and we did.

Deliver in unexpected ways

If I could do it all again, I would invest sooner in better people with better capability, rather than penny pinch. There’s an ‘agricultural’ mentality in the construction sector. People think small. I always say: recruit A-star people, pay A-star wages and expect A-star results.

My other advice is to benchmark who you are in your sector. You need a clear strategy, where everyone is aligned and focused on the core channels to market within your sector. It’s always important to plant a tree in the field you know it can thrive in. In other words, stay true to your core competence. It’s not good enough to deliver on customer expectations, you have to deliver in unexpected ways – and always fully understand your value proposition.

Now that we have completed the deal, I want to enjoy life, but I’m not ready to slow down. Obviously, I’ll still be involved in Uform as part of the board, with a focus on strategic development and product innovation. Ours is a fast-changing sector – it’s crucial to stay in fashion.

Outside of the business, my passions include the outdoors, shooting wildfowl, travel and prestige cars. My son also has a love of classic cars – maybe that’s something we can explore together. But, for sure, we’ll still be passionate about the future of Uform, with our partners Cardinal and BGF involved.

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