Mount Charles boss Trevor Annon: ‘Covid-19 nearly killed our business but, somehow, we came back stronger’

The chairman of the largest independently owned catering, cleaning, events and support services company in Ireland has revealed that the business almost went under during the Covid-19 pandemic.

But Trevor Annon, who founded Mount Charles in 1988, also told how the company fought its way out of crisis following the darkest days during which they were forced to lay off some 500 staff.

Now, employing over 3,000, and with a turnover of more than £55m, the business is one of Northern Ireland’s top 20 employers, which is testament to Trevor’s entrepreneurial acumen and diehard resilience.

“We could have been finished,” he said.

“It was a fight for survival. We lost 65% of our business within four or five days.

“We were saved by the speedy actions of our management team who quickly renegotiated contracts with our clients. Otherwise, we could’ve been a casualty of Covid.

“That was a very challenging time. We had to make some very difficult decisions.

“We had to tighten our belts significantly and let people go, which was particularly difficult, as our staff are our most important asset.”

Trevor added: “Now in 2024 we’re stronger than we were in 2020 but it was a very testing period.”

It’s staggering that Trevor’s family business – which continues to grow and expand its size and reach across Ireland – began with a gut instinct.

“I just had a gut feeling telling me to give it a go. It was as simple and unscientific as that,” he said.

“The industry has changed so much. Back in 1998, there were only two multinational players in the market and now there are 10.

“If I was to try and create Mount Charles today, I genuinely doubt if it would succeed.

“But I had fire in my stomach and, while I knew there were risks, I wasn’t going to let that hold me back.”

Trevor’s foray into being his own boss came when he bought The Copper Kettle cafe in Carryduff.

He continued doing his day job for a multinational catering company and worked in the cafe at weekends.

“I didn’t consider it at the time but, perhaps, subconsciously it was my way of seeing if I could run a business for my own benefit,” he said.

The initial goal was simple.

“The priority was to make sure there was a loaf of bread coming into the house on a Friday night,” he said.

“Beyond that I didn’t have any fancy business plans or projections.

The company’s current headquarters at Annon House on Belfast’s Ormeau Road is a far cry from its humble origins – a small office loaned to him by a business friend.

So much has changed in the intervening years. For a start, his sons Gavin and Chris are now key players in the business.

The company has also cultivated an impressive client list that includes Moy Park, Spirit Aerospace, Ulster Rugby, Down Royal Racecourse, ICC Waterfront Hall, Belfast International Airport, Maynooth University, RTE and, most recently, Translink.

As the world of contract catering has changed significantly, Trevor’s business focus has shifted towards cleaning in recent times.

“Food prices have gone through the roof and, post Covid, there’s been a major short supply of staff,” he said.

“The margins within contract catering are so tight we’re putting a lot more focus into securing long term cleaning contracts in Northern Ireland and Ireland.”

Of note, for its political significance, is the Castle Buildings hospitality contract that Trevor secured in 1998 for his business covering the talks leading up to the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement.

Not only did the company cater for the then UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, Trevor also rubbed shoulders with popular Northern Ireland Secretary, the late Mo Mowlam.

“We worked 14 hour days for weeks during the final stages of the negotiations,” he said.

“It was a relief when the deal was done… But it was great to be part of a major historical event.”

As founder of the outsourcing and facilities management empire, Trevor has guided Mount Charles into the all-island operation it is today, comprising five individual companies.

These include CCM (Corporate Cleaning Management), Mount Charles Group, MCGFMI (Ireland), Hospitality Belfast (a JV overseeing ICC Waterfront Hall, Ulster Hall and the Irish FA) and, most recently, Craft Event Co, a corporate event and banqueting business.

He added: “Around 18 months ago we acquired a local company called Concept Services, which specialises in washroom consumables, to diversify and broaden the base of the company.”

Trevor is as “immensely proud” of his contribution to the local community – evidenced by his involvement with the Irish Football Association and charity Crimestoppers – as he is of building his business from scratch.

“I didn’t have a name for the company, I didn’t have an office, I didn’t have any business and I didn’t have any money, but I wasn’t going to let any of that hold me back,” he said.

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