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Hair of the dog with Ivan of Mivan

One of Northern Ireland's biggest construction outfits thrives on contracts that are too 'way out' for many firms. Mivan's jobs have included fitting out a palace for Saddam Hussein and building much of Disneyland Paris. Sean Cronin met founder and chief executive, Ivan McCabrey. He's a little out of the ordinary, too

One recent 'way-out' project was to design a replica Titanic for a Japanese businessman, who wanted to use it as a floating hotel.

IT HAD all the makings of one of those days when nothing goes right.

I had driven from Dublin to interview Dr Ivan McCabrey, the founder and chief executive of Mivan, one of Northern Ireland's largest construction companies.

To complicate matters, I first had to stop by Belfast Airport to pick up the photographer, Vincent, who was flying in from Heathrow to take pictures of Mr McCabrey.

Two hours later, I am staring in despair at the screens in the arrivals hall of the airport.

There is no sign of Vincent because his plane is still sitting on the runway at Heathrow.

But eventually he arrives and we drive with some haste to the company's north Belfast offices.

Preoccupied as I am with getting to Mivan as quickly as possible, I fail to notice that Vincent is looking rather pale, suffering, it turns out, from a particularly painful hangover.

Worse still, he is jet-lagged. It emerges that before boarding the plane to Belfast, he had just touched down from a seven-hour flight from Miami, where he had been on holiday.

Vincent's fragile state does not go unnoticed by our host as, belatedly, the interview gets under way.

The soft-spoken Mr McCabrey is telling me about the history of his company and how he got into the construction industry. As he is getting into his stride, he stops mid-sentence, takes a sidewards look at Vincent, and says in an almost sinister sounding Ulster drawl: 'Your friend looks like he is in desperate need of a Budweiser,' before adding matter-of- factly, and with some empathy: 'I know. I've been there. I've been in that body before.'

Ivan, it is clear, doesn't miss a trick.

Admirably, he decides that the interview can wait.

The priority is to get Vincent into the nearest pub for the hair of the dog.

And so the tape recorder is switched off, and we drive to a local bar/restaurant where the remainder of the interview is conducted.

A few Budweisers later, McCabrey is telling me how he got into construction.

But it is difficult to keep the man on one topic, and the conversation wanders to subjects as diverse as Colin Bateman novels, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and the drink-ing dens of Miami - whereupon Vincent starts to take an active interest in the conversation.

In between his forays into literature, philosophy and hedonism, I learn that Mr McCabrey grew up in the Armagh town of Lurgan.

From an early age he wanted to become a businessman and he can remember aged 14 thinking about selling fruit.

But being a fruit vendor was clearly not in his stars, and he abandoned the idea.

Still you cannot help wondering whether the Man from Lurgan would have given the Man from Del Monte a run for his money, had he persevered with this first entrepreneurial leaning.

As we are talking, Mr McCabrey is taking in everything else going on in the room, and keeps up a continual banter with the waitresses. The arrival in the dining room of a distinguished-looking elderly man does not go unnoticed.

'He looks like a judge,' he says to me, motioning at a waitress to come over.

'Who's that fella?' he asks the waitress. 'Is he a judge?'

The waitress says she doesn't know who he is.

'Well find out. Go and ask him,' says Mr McCabrey, only half-jokingly.

When he returns to telling me about his life history, I learn that he had decided on construction as a career by the age of 17, largely on the basis of watching a television advert for a particular make of Mercedes car.

It featured a macho-looking guy puffing on a cigar and studying plans on a table.

The young Ivan was impressed with this image of the industry and it wasn't long before he was studying plans himself.

Even more remarkable than the arbitrary way in which he decided on construction as a career, was how he started out. His entry into the industry reveals a sharpness that has obviously helped him in his later business life.

He says: 'I used to buy Construction News and see how much plant cost to hire out, and then I'd watch diggers working on a nearby site and see how much work they did in an hour. I was able to price jobs on the basis of that.'

He later studied engineering at university before going to work on the construction of Northern Ireland's first motorways in the late '60s.

At this time, he worked for what is now Amec. He travelled to the UK with the same firm and worked on Spaghetti Junction in Birmingham. That was followed by a year-long stint with the civil service back in Northern Ireland, before he again started out in business on his own.

He set up Mivan 24 years ago with Mervyn McCall, who joined the company as a minority partner.

Now Mivan is best known for its work overseas, where it is fair to say that the company has built up a unique reputation in the type of job it takes on.

For example, in the early '80s, Mivan was hired by Saddam Hussein to work on one of his palaces.

The company later went on to work in Beirut and in Jerusalem, where it restored the roof of the Dome of the Rock, for which it won a Queen's Award for Export.

More recently Mivan has worked on Disneyland Paris and on other theme parks in the US.

A significant part of the company's business is in fitting-out ships. It is hoping to win work on a major fit-out contract on the QEII later this year.

Mr McCabrey also reveals that an incredible 80 per cent of the company's business is won without ever going through a formal tendering process.

Most contracts are negotiated directly with clients. That is the way he likes to do business, and he is not afraid to tell a client that he will only work with them on an exclusive basis from the outset.

Much of Mivan's theme-based fit-out work is assembled in a huge 30,480 sq m factory behind its offices. Current jobs include the Manchester Printworks and the Point West, Montevetro and Selfridges buildings in London.

Further afield, Mivan has won a £30 million contract in Switzerland, erecting masts for telecommunications giant Orange. It is also working with Kier on a housing joint venture job in Romania.

Last year, Mivan made a pre-tax profit of just over £1.6 million on a turnover of £54.3 million. McCabrey aims to boost that turnover to about £75 million next year, though he says he is more concerned with improving margins to at least 5 per cent.

The company has just completed a major restructuring exercise, which saw a dramatic drop in its overheads.

It followed the slump in the Far East economy, which previously accounted for half of Mivan's business, but which now has dropped to just 5 per cent.

What seems to permeate all of Mivan's work is a sense of fun as well as a measure of risk.

He says: 'We do have fun. A lot of construction companies wouldn't bother with some jobs we do. They think they are too 'way out'.'

One recent 'way-out' project that the firm took on was to design a replica Titanic for a Japanese businessman, who wanted to use it as a floating hotel.

McCabrey explains: 'He paid us £1 million for the design but in the end he didn't get the finance to build it.

'But we will do that sort of thing. It is in our nature to work on interesting projects.'

It is clear that McCabrey himself likes to have a laugh, and he has a wry take on life.

As he is showing us out, he stops and asks the company receptionist, with the most deadpan of expressions: 'Has Bill called yet?'

'Bill who?' she asks.

'Bill Clinton.'

'Um, no, no not yet,' she replies.

It is not easy to get the measure of Ivan McCabrey, and I think that is the way he likes it.