Down Business Centre bids a sad but fond farewell this month to one of our longest-standing tenants. Brian Smylie is taking a well-earned retirement and we wish him well as he embarks on finding time for all those things he always meant to do but never got around to them. Now he can.
Brian owned and managed the highly successful Learn It At Work accountancy and payroll support business, which listed more than 1,500 customers in its portfolio over a period of 22 years. He was a one-man-band operation who somehow always found time to deal individually with each of his contacts, even when it meant spending long nights and weekends, which was invariably the case. He always appreciated the need for prompt responses to problems and issues and built a reputation for delivering solutions well within expected timescales.
It was that attention to detail that earned Brian multiple plaudits. He recalls why it became a feature of his practice: “I took advice from a previous boss who told me to always follow through, never promise what you can’t do. He told me a customer only contacts you when they have a problem, so give them a date by which you’ll solve it, and they will be happy. I stuck with that throughout my time in business.”
Brian hails from Downpatrick, though he lived for 25 years in England, where he was a training manager for a large accounting software house, before returning to his roots in 2000. Once back in his old stomping ground, Brian was determined not to let the grass grow under his feet. “I attended one of the Business Start courses run by Janice McDonald at Down Business Centre’s old premises in Saul Road and immediately launched my own business. The Centre kept in touch with me and invited me to be a guest presenter at other courses run by both themselves and Invest NI. This is where I cut my teeth and from where my business really began to take off.”
Brian fondly remembers those first weeks and months. “When the Business Centre relocated to new premises at the business park on the Belfast Road I was invited by Joe McCoubrey to view an office in its Knowledge House complex. I took one look around and signed up immediately, moving there in 2001. Looking back, it was the best move I ever made. I originally called my business Quoile Training but changed it quickly to Learn It At Work, mostly because I think it best summed up the services I was offering, but also partly because I’m not sure anyone outside Downpatrick knew how to spell Quoile!”
The former boss who had given Brian such sage (pun intended) advice about customer relations came to the forefront again when during a holiday meeting he recommended that Brian provided a crucial additional service. “Quite simply, he told me I should become an accredited Sage Business Partner. It was something I had previously considered but probably needed the incentive to follow through with. I found it both challenging and rewarding and it most certainly opened up new doors for me in a way that I hadn’t thought possible.”
Things snowballed quickly for Brian. “The Business Centre itself was one of my first customers and during one Invest NI training session there, one of the participants passed on my information to a friend who asked me to help her. She told another friend and my business started to grow. Through the Business Centre I was also introduced to businesses of a similar nature in order to network and jointly bid for contracts. This resulted in working with businesses from all over Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Tax and payroll differences made it difficult to secure work in the Republic of Ireland, though I did have a few payroll and VAT customers south of the border.”
Was it difficult to get operational? “I started the business from scratch, knowing only Janice from DBC and Violet from Invest NI. In those early days I didn’t know what to charge for the service. It is not like a product mark-up and valuing something you easily know how to do. It can be very difficult. The advice I received from Janice in making the calculation was invaluable. I’ve passed it on many times.”
Any particular problems? “Just one. I still can’t believe that in 22 years, I had over 1,500 businesses, many becoming regular customers, which meant that my Christmas Card list was expensive. Just kidding – it was a joy writing and sending every one of them.”
A highlight of Brian’s successes and achievements undoubtedly came during the Pandemic. “That was a period of real challenge, but I kept my customers up to date with the regulations and made funding claims on their behalf. I lodged over 380 claims totalling more than £595,000 on behalf of my clients and only had one query!”
As Brian moves on to his next chapter, the Business Centre’s staff and directors send their heartfelt thanks and best wishes to him. It seems as if he was an ever-present piece of our history and we are grateful and honoured to have shared his business life with him. An exceptionally gifted and affable person, Brian was known and respected by everyone, as much for his friendship as for his talents. We will miss his chats and his almost-daily catch-ups, although he leaves us with a warning. We will be in regular touch, particularly when we have a problem that needs solving!