Padraig McAtamney’s nickname as a kid was ‘pony’. So, when his efforts to establish a foothold in London required a re-brand, it seemed only natural to shape the future using something from the past. Pony Plastering it was then, the new name subsequently plastered (sorry!) on the side of the firm’s van and work clothes. It appeared to have the desired effect, with a major upsurge in attention. Unfortunately, as Padraig was to find out to his embarrassment, this new-found notoriety was not all it seemed.
“At the start I didn’t concern myself much with re- branding and the latest marketing slang, I focussed on the work,” he explained. “So, I didn’t pay much heed to the new name until I noticed some weird glances and a few sniggers, and it was explained to me that ‘pony and trap’ means ‘crap’ in Cockney rhyming slang.” So, how do you go from feeling like Del Trotter after a bad day down the market, to smoothing out the walls in some of the most iconic buildings in London?
MKM Contracts Ltd is currently engaged in work at Claridge’s Hotel, adding to an already impressive portfolio that includes The Savoy, Goldsmith’s College, Lord Cadogan Estates on the King’s Road, and property on Sloane Square. From pony to thoroughbred – it’s a far cry from the company’s humble beginnings.
“I left school at 17 with virtually no qualifications,” Padraig explained. “I was slow to learn, couldn’t concentrate and was later diagnosed with a form of Attention Deficit Disorder. Plenty of times I came home and told my dad I was struggling to pick something up. He always said stick at it, to do whatever I tried to the best of my ability.”
What Padraig might have lacked in formal qualifications, he more than made up for with a seemingly unbreakable determination to succeed. It was a resolve that would be tested to the full on more than one occasion. Serving his apprenticeship as a plasterer, Padraig was bitten by the travel bug that had lured several family members to America and Australia. Despite a blossoming football career alongside future four-times GAA All-Star Anthony Tohill at Michael Davitt’s GAC in Swatragh, and selection for the Derry Minor, Under-21, and eventually senior panel, Padraig and fellow Oak Leaf county player Gary McGill headed Down Under in 1990.
“I remember my first job working at Sydney Harbour Tunnel. I had just finished my apprenticeship and was very green about the gills. I hated it initially, but eventually learned to love the Aussie lifestyle. I was definitely more worldly wise when I returned home a year later, but still naive enough to think that the best approach was to go self-employed and strike out on my own.” Caught between his love of football, desire to be near his family, and those still itchy feet, Padraig spent the next few years travelling back and forth to Australia. Not even the discovery of a serious heart condition stood in his way.
“I was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy [when the walls of the heart chamber become stretched, thickened or stiff, making it harder for the heart to pump blood to rest of the body] at the age of 21 and had a pacemaker fitted,” said Padraig. “Although I did get back to playing and was still turning out for my club into my mid-30’s, I never rediscovered the fitness levels I had before the pacemaker.”
It was in 1995, just a couple of months after his father’s passing, that Padraig returned home for good. Having established a reputation for his now accomplished plastering, work was plentiful and he traded mainly in the mid-Ulster area on high-end residential properties. The work kept on coming, word of mouth removing the need for any advertising and marketing. Now married to Ailish, life was good. That was until recession hit in 2008. The collapse of the economy coincided with the conclusion of Padraig’s football career – everything came to an abrupt end.
“We’d been dabbling in property and had a rental portfolio, but like so many people at the time we took a massive hit and found ourselves under financial pressure. My hip and ankle joints were also starting to cause me considerable pain and discomfort. Over the next eight years, between the economy collapsing and me needing two hip replacements and two ankle fusions [he also broke his leg] they were tough times.”
With work at home practically non-existent, Padraig decided the only course of action was to extend his reach to the UK mainland. He entered a cut-throat London market in terms of pricing, a small fish in a very big pond where having the right contacts was key. “I ended up getting the move across the water with a plastering company at home that had secured a contract in Sunderland. We then moved south to Cambridge, and then London, where I’d always wanted to try my luck. During that time, I would be away for weeks at a time. It was often 7am to 7pm, seven days a week, and one job on Tower Bridge I only managed to get back once in a month. They were difficult times with me being away so much, especially for Ailish who was at home with our three children.”
The strength of character and steely resolve that had been present since Padraig’s schooldays was needed more than ever. It seemed that the harder he and Ailish tried, the more elusive success became. Padraig explains: “We had a lot of stuff thrown at us. One of the kids was diagnosed with a lung condition. There were regular trips to the hospital, and juggling home life with work wasn’t easy. I just tried to keep going and eventually travelling back and forth to London, networking, and lots of bad jobs, we were able to secure work with some great Irish companies, many of them like Mastercraft Construction, Gilbert-Ash, and McHugh Fit-out we’re still involved with.”
It was a job for award- winning construction and fit-out company Gilbert-Ash in 2015 that finally established Padraig on the ladder. All the sacrifices he and Ailish had made, the time Padraig had missed as the kids were growing up, finally paid dividends. Launching as a limited company with a new brand name and website – MKM Contracts Ltd (after his kids Meaghan, Kealan, and Micheal) – future growth became dependent on mastering skills from the past.
“We also became involved with a lot of excellent English companies who specialised in Trust and heritage work. That led us to become specialists ourselves in traditional methods of plastering, the Lime and Lath rendering that is required on restoration and refurbishment projects. We’ve been working on a massive refurbishment project for The Maybourne Hotel Group (Claridge’s, The Ritz, and Connacht) over the past two years.”
Now with a base in Fulham, south- west London, MKM Contracts Ltd employ between 20 and 30 skilled workers on a range of projects. Hand-picked to ensure the highest standards, this network of self- employed tradesmen is mentored and managed by the boss. Padraig has an over-view on each project, delegating responsibility to supervisors, but never afraid to pick up the hawk and trowel and get his hands dirty.
“I go to London on a Monday and try to get back on a Friday evening. With expensive flights and bad flight times during the Covid-19 crisis, it’s been more like a trip home every two weeks. My job is challenging, but not to the same degree physically as it once was, although I still like to rock up for a couple of days and get back on the tools. I’m actually back at the Claridge’s job because there’s a lot of work to be completed, so I’m helping out.” Padraig and Ailish (wife, mother and MKM Contract’s Marketing Manager) have watched the company go from making ‘peanuts’ to a tidy turnover for a small business.
Just how far they’ve come was illustrated recently when MKM successfully completed a project at the Royal Mews in Buckingham Palace for specialist building contractor, Malcolm Charles Contracts Ltd. Despite the royal seal of approval for his work, Padraig has learned the hard way not to take anything for granted.
“I feel fortunate to have a successful and developing company at a time when so many others are struggling. I also look at what happened to Cormac McAnallen [the Tyrone GAA star who passed away aged 24 from Sudden Adult Death Syndrome] and count myself very lucky to have come through having a pacemaker fitted and the injuries to play football as long as I did. We have been through a lot as a company and as a family. I’m still here to tell the tale.”