Stories of Brave- Stepping out of the shade

lady in showroom 

AIB is proud to back brave businesses that push forward and overcome adversity. In a special series, ‘Stories of Brave’, we talk to local leaders about the qualities that can help make SMEs successful, such as the culture and determination shown by Bloc Blinds.

“We see trial, error and even mistakes as a way to grow. We learn from this collectively, meaning everyone from our R&D to marketing teams has the bravery to push boundaries, knowing they have our full support.”

Bloc Blinds Financial Director Ciara McGonnell-Cushnahan knows the true value of taking risks. “Effectively I act as the company’s financial gatekeeper. 

From projecting export market growth to the cost implications of new products on the business, I help the company take measured, quantified risks. It’s a strategy that has stood us in good stead as everyone in Bloc Blinds is innovative to the core - knowing they have the freedom to pitch new ideas and strategies.”

Celebrating its 10th anniversary in business last year, Bloc Blinds has grown to become a leading designer and manufacturer of bespoke blinds, skylight systems and most recently face shields. The company employs over 150 people with two sites in Magherafelt and one in the Netherlands.

“I’ve been with Bloc Blinds for four years and what I find unique is its culture”, says Ciara.  “There is a big focus on helping team members feel empowered, myself included. I was appointed Director to the board last year and my role in the company has developed in that I now find myself immersed in all elements of the business.  Through extensive learning and developing programmes, Bloc Blinds wants to inspire leaders and managers that will push the business forward. We’ve invested in a training and display suite and also take the time to make sure everyone, company-wide, understands our product range and each item’s unique selling points.”

A focus on culture is also helping the company overcome one of its key areas of focus, attracting talent. “We are based in Mid Ulster which is the heart of NI’s manufacturing prowess and we want to attract the best talent. Standing out from the crowd is important to us, so we embrace flexible working, encourage forward thinking and trying out new ideas, and we continually assess what we can do to make our team feel valued,” says Ciara.  “Manufacturing can sometimes be viewed as a traditional industry, but Bloc Blinds is a brave business and isn’t afraid to buck trends right across the board – from product development and innovation to people management and work life balance.”

No more was this approach evidenced than by Bloc Blinds’ response to the Covid-19 pandemic. When Boris Johnson issued his speech on 23rd March, we halted operations immediately. Our priority was the safety of our employees and their families,” says Ciara. Within four days of halting production, Bloc Blinds moved from a concept design to the repurposing of its production line in order to produce Personal Protective Equipment for frontline workers. It is this agility and positivity, that, according to Ciara, sets Bloc Blinds apart. “After a busy few months, we have now opened up a dedicated visor facility and can produce up to four million FaceShields per week for the health care sector. The response from our staff was phenomenal, everyone was so proud to play a practical role to help safeguard key workers,” explains Ciara.   

The coronavirus pandemic isn’t the only crisis companies have had to contend with in recent times with Brexit still at the forefront of many business leaders’ minds. Bloc Blinds bucks yet another trend in this area being one of only 6% of NI businesses to have a formal Brexit strategy in place, according to AIB’s last Brexit Sentiment Index research Q3 2019.  “Bloc Blinds is a business with global ambitions. We export to GB and RoI and mainland Europe and we have projected growth into the North American markets with our new product innovation The BlocR Wand,” explains Ciara.   “When the EU Referendum result came through in 2016, we immediately started to address the challenges that Brexit presented. We were prepared for the March deadline, then the October deadline, and we’ll continue to make sure we are prepared for whatever tariff and trade arrangements are in place. We are a company that takes the bold and determined decisions which reflect the vision and values that are embedded in our culture at Bloc Blinds.”

While exporting might seem like a daunting step for many businesses, Ciara explains it is one that comes with many benefits. “Firstly, you spread risk and are better able to navigate market fluctuations if you are operating across different markets. Patience is also an attribute firms need to have when looking to export. It takes time to establish and build relationships with new partners. The key is tenacity- plan, apply resource correctly don’t give up. We are thankful to all our partners in that regard. In particular we have developed a fantastic relationship with AIB over the past 10 years, working very closely with the team in the North and West Business Centre who back our growth and expansion plans.”

AIB is backing businesses by providing a range of supports and cashflow solutions tailored to your business needs. For further information, visit AIB NI We Back Brave.