Surviving the storms: a story of Roscommon resilience
(As published in the Roscommon Herald, Tuesday 15 September 2020)
It may be that you’ve seen the Halcyon Group vans buzzing around Roscommon Town. Perhaps you’ve noticed the offices on Racecourse Road across from the NDLS, set back a little and somewhat inconspicuous, identified only by the navy-and-gold Halcyon sign and sometimes a logoed van or two parked outside. Roscommon townsfolk wouldn’t have much cause to know the Halcyon Group, unless they have a business that has need of its specialised services. And yet, this is the headquarters of an award-winning company that employs some 600 full- and part-time staff, with regional offices across Ireland and the UK. Born in Roscommon Town in 2004, Halcyon has been here these past 16 years, quietly weathering the financial storms that have faced Ireland’s businesses. This is its story…
Early years as a contract cleaning company
The Halcyon Group is owned by Peter Kirwan, Managing Director and the business brains behind its success. When it started 16 years ago, Halcyon was exclusively a contract cleaner of commercial premises from retail stores to crime scenes. This was the backbone of the business… until the 2007 crash. Then, Halcyon, like so many other businesses in Ireland, had to do a major rethink in order to survive.
“At the time the company was highly reliant on the banking sector,” recalls Mr Kirwan. “So, I had to make the extraordinarily difficult decision to hand back €3 million worth of contracts to our clients. Funding was about to close down because the banks were calling in their overdraft facilities and they weren’t offering any further advances. We literally gave up those clients.”
By way of example, Mr Kirwan explained, “A client paying a million a year would suddenly want to go from 30 days to 90 days on their invoice. Our payroll might be €100 000 a month, which would mean we’d have to carry a debt of €300 000. You multiply that out by three or four clients and we’d have been carrying a debit of €1.3-million in unpaid wages that we could likely never see.”
“Overnight we halved the size of the company. That was tough and a very worrying time for us and for everyone else. Nobody predicted the recession would go on for so many years. I think in many ways Ireland is still trying to recover from that blow.”
Building a diverse group of hygiene services
In the years following 2008, he looked at building a suite of service offerings that he hoped would future-proof the company against another big recession. Diversification was key. Recognising the untapped potential in the greater hygiene-services market, he began to steer the company towards highly-specialised cleaning services that require TR19 certification for fire safety and insurance, such as grease-extraction and air-conditioning systems.
Halcyon substantially expanded its hygiene and cleaning services, also adding two innovative offerings: floor refinishing and oil filtration. The intention is that Halcyon drives the green agenda in the cleaning-services industry. With an ever-increasing demand on plant-based oil as fuel for many industries, stretching the life of cooking oil is one of the ways Halcyon can contribute through its oil-filtration system. The group is also playing its part in reducing plastic waste by refinishing Polyflor and Marmoleum floors and renovates 2.8 million square feet of flooring for Smyths Toys Superstores alone, to name just one client. This results in up to 92% reduction in carbon footprint versus replacing floors.
Halcyon boasts a prestigious and broad client base across manufacturing, pharma, retail, hospitality, healthcare, the defence force and more. The group has at least one specialist offering for every business, which makes for a robust business model. When one industry has struggled, the company has been able to fill the shortfall with revenue from other sectors.
The advent of Covid-19 infection control cleaning
“No matter what you think is coming, it’s a constantly evolving marketplace,” said Mr Kirwan. “When the financial crisis ended in 2008, we thought we had learned every lesson possible. And we thought that in our lifetime we wouldn’t have to go through that type of situation again. And then along came Covid-19 and smashed apart every company’s business plans.”
That deathly pause in March this year, when all the world came to a standstill and businesses and workers held their breath, was when Halcyon reinvented itself again. “It was an opportunity to sit down and rewrite our business plan, to look at who we were as a company, what we meant to the locality, our culture, our strategy.” Like every other business that wasn’t in grocery retail or manufacturing PPE, the question was, will the company survive?
Challenges of working through Coronavirus lockdown
Halcyon was fortunate in that it could operate throughout the lockdown because many of its services are essential to fire-safety certification and insurance requirements. “We had to take into account that we were sending our guys out to work and they were nervous, they had families and we were sending them into unpredictable environments and areas of the country that had high cases of Covid-19. It was a very challenging and worrying time for us all. We didn’t want our own staff getting sick,” said Mr Kirwan.
Once the country started opening up again, another issue became apparent: “Trying to persuade our regular cleaning operatives to go back to work once the country reopened was a huge challenge. Communication became the key,” said Linda Meakin, Halcyon’s Head of Sales, who was running the logistics during this time. “The Pandemic Unemployment Payment was initially more of a disincentive for part-time workers who might have been receiving more money by not working than they would usually earn. And, of course, people were very anxious … about going outside their front door, let alone going to work,” she added.
Since March, Halcyon has been busier than ever. “This is simply for the reason that when Covid-19 came into play, all of a sudden hygiene – something we’d been preaching for 16 years – took centre-stage in every discussion. So it’s become extremely important for businesses to be certified as clean, certified as fire safe,” said Mr Kirwan, adding that the pandemic has opened up a big and important debate on the hygiene of premises and the certification that they require.
“Nobody knows the future of Coronavirus. Once a vaccine becomes available will the marketplace for disinfectants die a death? Does the marketplace need a champion that will keep it alive? Will businesses have to be certified to be hygienically clean by an independent body? Will this crisis create practices that will be used going forward? We don’t know, but the whole debate is now open,” said Mr Kirwan.
Educating customers: what a decontamination clean really is
He feels people do need to become more aware of what decontamination cleaning actually is: “The pandemic is opening up a whole new marketplace of rogue traders that are travelling the length and breadth of the country offering ‘disinfection’ to clients. If they cannot clean every single last inch of a premises by using new technology and be able to back up the work with the correct indemnity insurance, then they shouldn’t even be in there.”
Halcyon uses Formula 429 fogging for a Covid-19 decontamination. Powerful fogging machines blast a fine mist into the air, ensuring the hospital-grade disinfectant settles on every surface. Formula 429 is proven effective against bacteria, moulds, fungi and viruses including coronaviruses and has a log-kill rate of 6, twice as powerful as bleach. The group’s Professional Indemnity Insurance allows it to certify the cleaning work that it does, safeguarding customers against legal liability.