WHEN the head of Craft NI Alan Kane sold his Harley Davidson dealership last year, he was financially secure after running a series of successful businesses and could have sat back for the rest of his life.
Instead the 55-year-old from Coleraine took up the challenge of helping Northern Ireland’s designer makers fulfil their dreams of running their own companies.
After almost 25 years of being self-employed, he took a couple of months out and thought seriously of retiring. But he realised quite quickly that he missed the challenge and interaction of being involved in a business.
His friends and family thought he would start another new business from scratch and they were shocked when he applied for the vacant post of Chief Executive of Craft NI.
“I just didn’t want to set up another business of my own. I didn’t feel that this would be a challenge; I had made my money and wanted to do something entirely different,” he added.
The keen amateur painter and fine art collector was attracted by the challenge of turning around the fortunes of Northern Ireland’s craft sector.
“I just happened to see the job at Craft NI advertised and it really interested me because I always had an interest in the Arts. The role combines the ability to run a business and to bring new techniques to bear in an industry that really needs them and at the same time be closely involved with creative, imaginative people.”
Alan joined Craft NI in September 2012 and this is his first August Craft Month – the annual celebration of the best of Northern Ireland craft.
He said: “I am looking forward to it. For me it is a great opportunity to see the full breadth of what is going on in the sector in a short, condensed space of time. Through planning for this year’s event, I have picked up so much information about the industry.”
He is on a two year contract and is relishing the challenge. “I am now ten months into the job and absolutely love it. I get a huge amount of personal satisfaction from it and I hope I have made a contribution to the commercial success of the sector.”
His remit from the board of Craft NI was to put in place more programmes that would directly benefit makers on a practical and business level, as well as the emphasis on artistic merit.
“We have put in place some retail programmes, including joint ventures with the National Trust and Belfast City Airport. Just today I secured funding for a trade show to Dublin in January 2014 involving 10 makers,” he added.
He has also travelled to all parts of Northern Ireland to encourage makers to set up their own Craft Collectives. This includes regular visits to Derry/Londonderry, the UK City of Culture where there are many exciting things happening include the establishment of ‘Culture Matters’ a makers-led collective.
“It is about bringing entrepreneurial skills to bear to a fragmented industry because many people initially don’t have strong business knowledge and come into the industry because they love what they do, whether it’s working in ceramics or glass. We can help them plug those gaps.”
Alan, who is married and has three grown up daughters, trained in that most conventional of occupations Chartered Accountancy, working as a financial controller for a financial services company.
In 1988 he decided to go into business in partnership with a sales executive colleague, Dr Norry McBride. They were offered a contract to deliver Government jobs training for young people and built it up into a company with a multi-million pound turnover.
When they sold the business in 2004 it was the biggest privately owned training company in Northern Ireland with an annual turnover of £3.5m. It had ten branches, employed 100 staff and was delivering training to 1,000 young people on a rolling basis.
They also ran a series of smaller businesses, which they developed and ran for a period of time before selling at a profit.
One of these was the Harley Davidson Franchise, which the partners set up in 1999.
“We went into it for the fun of it. At the time I didn’t have a motorcycle licence and I didn’t want to be the only Harley dealer who couldn’t ride one of his own bikes, so I got a licence two months before we opened,” he said.
The Harley business was run in Ballymena on a small scale until they sold the training company. In 2005, Alan bought his partner out and moved the franchise to a new showroom in Antrim a year later.
At its peak, it was turning over more than £3m before the economic bubble finally burst around 2008.
Alan still rides when he has time. He has taken some long trips with friends, including one to Majorca, where he has his summer home, through the Pyrenees, another through Southern California and the Rockies.
He is looking forward to more challenges ahead with Craft NI: “I view it as a great privilege to be able to do something for the sheer enjoyment as opposed to the need to make an income. For me it is a great joy to get up every morning and come to work here. I enjoy the social side, the intellectual challenge it gives me and meeting interesting, creative people.”
For full details of all August Craft Month events, visit the Craft NI website: www.craftni.org and click on the August Craft Month section. To find out about all the makers and events in your area, click on the interactive craft map.