Chaired by celebrated Northern Irish entrepreneur Kevin Lagan, the Belfast Lagan Group became over its 40-year history one of the region’s most successful builders and suppliers of construction materials. In 2017 it posted turnover of £272m and earnings of some £55m. But in 2018, Lagan and his board decided on a profound change of direction and sold the group’s materials companies – a cement plant, nine active quarries, 13 asphalt plants and nine readymixed concrete plants – to AIM-listed Breedon in a £455m deal.
The move left Kevin Lagan’s operations leaner and tightly focused, with just three operating companies. Lagan Homes is Northern Ireland’s largest housebuilder, FastHouse is a specialist in the manufacture of modular buildings, and Lagan Investments a newlycreated property development operation that already has acquired sizeable stakes in commercial, industrial and tourist opportunities in Belfast, Dublin and the English Midlands. A fourth company, Lagan Management, is the holding entity and management services vehicle.
By 2014 the fast-growing Lagan Group had a voracious appetite for voice, then still the preferred communication method in the construction sector. With over 300 handsets at multiple locations around the UK, information systems manager Jim Fennell needed to find a way of cutting call and infrastructure costs down to size, and of achieving greater operational flexibility. He trialled SIP telephony on a small scale, but was not impressed.
He recalls the 2014 trials ruefully: “Our needs back then were not exceptional. With the business changing constantly we needed something that was flexible and allowed us to make day to day provisioning changes ourselves without having to wait for a technician and then pay high charges. That proved to be a big ask; back then encountering any SIP solution that worked properly was a novelty. Then we encountered Gamma.”
Today, Fennel manages information systems for Lagan Management, the services entity supporting Lagan Homes, FastHouse and Lagan Investments. He notes: “The Gamma offer in 2014 was more feature rich, more developed, and evidently more stable than the best of the alternatives.”
Back then oversaw a technical due-diligence process and sought references from existing users before making the decision in favour of Gamma. The group’s multiple sites were migrated over to Gamma’s Horizon virtual PBX over the course of 12 months and the system supported the group through four further years of growth to 2018.
When the board’s decision to divest itself of most of the operating companies was made, this pivotal point of change was perhaps the ultimate test of Horizon’s and indeed Gamma’s flexibility, requiring as it did a shrinkage to less than half the number of handsets and just three operating company locations.
Fennel naturally sees the relationship with Gamma as one of two phases. From 2014 to 2018, Horizon played an important role in supporting the organic growth of the group, enabling Fennell’s team to work with lower predicable costs, and to save further time and money by themselves provisioning new sites, and make routing changes as and when they were needed to accommodate staff movements and changes.
“We wanted flexibility and predictable costs, and that’s what Horizon gave us,” Fennell observes.
Post the divestment decision, the requirements changed, yet Horizon not only remains a key part of Fennell’s technology armoury but is now to be joined by further Gamma solutions in the shape of WAN connectivity and security that channels voice and data over the same trunks, giving access to central servers, backing up to internal cloud storage protected by Gamma’s next generation firewall.
Says Fennell: “The flexibility of the Horizon system allows us to react to demands of the business, adding or moving staff, immediately. People still like to have a phone on their desk and Horizon makes this easy. In the future, as attitudes and needs change, Horizon can already fully integrate with private and personal mobiles giving us full mobility through one number following users to any device.
“On the rare occasions that something has gone wrong the response from Gamma has been swift and effective. We’re extending the agreement with Gamma for a further three years, and adding in Gamma WAN connectivity and security as a natural extension of our relationship.”