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Saturday, 25 October 2014

Furness Internet at heart of web revolution

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GIFTS Helen Hartley from Murray’s with Edward O’Keeffe in Murray’s Dalton Road store in Barrow MILTON HAWORTH

ONE of Cumbria’s biggest digital companies could be on the brink of a major expansion.

Furness Internet is on the verge of securing investment which will allow it to break out beyond its Barrow heartland and open offices elsewhere in Cumbria which it hopes will make it easier to recruit skilled staff.

Managing director Edward O’Keeffe is keeping his cards fairly close to his chest when pressed to talk further about his plans, but says he envisages a period of “aggressive expansion”.

He is not yet in a position to talk about the investment to fund Furness Internet’s growth, but if everything falls into place it would enable the company to open satellite offices elsewhere in Cumbria.

“We are one of the biggest digital firms in Cumbria and I think we certainly offer the widest range of services,” said Mr O’Keeffe, adding: “This expansion may see us having a higher profile around Cumbria than we do at the moment. We certainly want to be a lot larger.”

Not that Furness Internet should have any inferiority complex about its size or client list that boasts such household names as John Lewis, Waitrose and AOL.

It has certainly come a long way from its beginnings in 1996 when Edward started the company with a business partner in Ulverston’s Daltongate.

With a background as a naval architect and in ocean engineering he had seen earlier than most the potential of the internet. Travelling great distances for meetings with his clients he realised that online communications would soon turn the world on its head and he set about using his project management skills to establish Furness Internet in the world of the wide web.

Edward then “spent a couple of years explaining to people what the internet was”, building up the business and moving to Barrow offices in 1999. The rest, as they say, is browsing history.

Now Furness Internet provides a diverse range of services that include website builds, apps, support services and is an internet service provide (ISP) in its own right, providing servers and infrastructure to its clients.

A lucrative area has been providing the software for internal e-commerce systems for large companies such as John Lewis, Waitrose and Heathrow Express. Furness Internet has built an intranet system for Thistle Hotels, for example.

The company is also experimenting with smart card applications and has high hopes of a trail taking place with the construction industry.

“Websites are only the tip of the iceberg,” says Edward, who is hoping the imminent arrival of superfast broadband will play its part in helping Furness Internet and the county’s digital sector grow.

“Superfast broadband is hugely important to us, our customers and Cumbria, but the impact it has depends on whether we are going to get the speeds to simply ensure we do not fall behind other areas or are we going to get speeds that give us a real competitive advantage.

“It’s just like in the industrial revolution – when parts of the country that had access to ports, raw materials and railways grew rapidly. Now it is broadband that can change an area.”

“I don’t think the people in charge of delivering superfast broadband fully understand that and we need to make sure that business needs are higher on their agenda,” Edward added.

Like many digital companies, Furness Internet can find recruitment difficult, although a link-up to the nearby Furness College has provided them with around eight staff over the years. The company employs 20 people, but according to Edward: “We are three or four down on where we should be at the moment.

“It is hard to attract people with experience which is partly due to the area. Furness and Cumbria needs to do more self promotion as a great place to live and work, concentrating on its real strengths.”

And Edward hopes that expansion and new satellite offices elsewhere in Cumbria will also do their bit in attracting talent to help Furness Internet grow.

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