Lidl boss Conor Boyle: 'We will always look at what our competitors are doing and try to be the best that we can be'
Lidl’s Northern Ireland regional director Conor Boyle tells Margaret Canning why it’s got its sights set on up to 50 supermarkets in the province and that it’s no longer simply about the jam and muesli
When Lidl regional director Conor Boyle started to work for the German discount supermarket, its image was very different from today.
Nowadays, it’s used by anyone and everyone, for everything from a full weekly shop to a pre-dinner party trip for fancy international products.
In the recession, it managed to swap what had been a cheap and utilitarian image, to become a darling of canny gourmands who knew it was the cheapest place to pick up a lobster, chorizo, balsamic vinegar or olive oil.
It’s also developed a reputation for stocking the unexpected, usually in wire baskets at the back of stores. (True to form, on a tour of its distribution centre, I spot stacks of Singer sewing machines which will soon be making their way to its branches).
Conor, who’s from Belfast, began his career at Lidl in 2002, and reminisces that friends at that time would discuss shopping at Lidl — but always feeling the need to justify why they’d embraced the blue and yellow logo.
“They’d be saying, it’s because Lidl’s jam is great, or the muesli is great.
“But Lidl is now just part and parcel of the make-up of the weekly shop and it’s a major player that offers the best value for money.”
It’s grown significantly in Northern Ireland, and now has 768 staff and 38 stores since its first branch opened in 2000 in Cookstown.
And Conor’s career — he was Lidl chief executive in Sweden for three years until his move back home — has mirrored Lidl’s success. It’s clear he’s always been ambitious and never shied away from a challenge.
He grew up in Knockbreda in south Belfast, but attended St Malachy’s in north Belfast — his father’s old school.
He’s now 39, and graduated with a first in French and Business from Queen’s University. His first job was on a graduate programme run by telecoms giant, Nortel, a company which employed up to 2,000 people in Northern Ireland at the time. But by 2002, it was clear that the good times at Nortel wouldn’t last forever.
Redundancies began — leading Conor to decide to get out on his own terms.
By then, he’d met his Scottish future wife, Kirsty, and decided to move to Glasgow with her.
She’s a pharmacist and they now have Erin, who’s almost nine, Calum (6) and three-year-old Rory.
Conor got his first job in Lidl in Glasgow in 2002, as a district manager. “The reason I was attracted to Lidl was because it offered rapid responsibility and career progression for people who were prepared to work hard.”
He climbed the Lidl ladder quickly. After establishing himself at the company in Glasgow, he was asked to work in London on secondment. “I had just gotten married in 2004 and didn’t have any children yet. My dad had recently passed away and I thought to myself, do you know what, I want to move myself on and move my career on.
“I said to Kirsty, you know what will happen if I don’t go? Nothing.”
He became a district manager in London before receiving more promotions “relatively quickly” and became responsible for 30 stores by the age of 28.
And he was young to have achieved such seniority so quickly — but explains he was by no means the exception. And he’s also completely frank about acknowledging how hard he has worked.
“Lidl’s attitude has always been, ‘if you’re good enough, you’re old enough’. I have been very lucky in my career but I’ve also worked very hard and been very flexible.
“My latest move to Northern Ireland is mine and my family’s seventh move in 10 years. Some of those moves have been from house to house, but that’s the upheaval if you have children.”
Dieter Schwarz is the German owner of the company. His father Josef founded the business, which also includes German chain Kaufland.
“He’s a very unassuming, pleasant gentleman and you wouldn’t think if you met him on the street that he’s a multi-multi millionaire. He’s very humble.”
That the company remains in family ownership gives it great freedom. “When it’s privately owned, decisions can be made very quickly and with a more long-sighted view.
“When you’re a plc you have shareholders to keep happy and your results are made on a quarterly basis. Our results aren’t made public, full stop. We just need to keep ourselves happy.”
He admits that the economic downturn was good for Lidl and helped to dramatically overhaul its image.
“It’s very difficult to measure but that did play a large part in the success. Throughout the 2000s we were working very hard to combat misconceptions about the brand, about the product and product range. That began to gain some traction and some credibility — this is just my personal view — around the time of the downturn.
“Because of the economic downturn, ‘trading down,’ as it was called then, became a buzz term... There was no longer a stigma with shopping at a discounter. It became smart to think about saving money. It became a bit cool, for a period of time.”
In store number terms — though not in square foot terms, due to the larger format of its rivals — it’s now the second biggest supermarket chain in the province after Tesco.
And it’s carrying out major refurbishments on its stores, including in Banbridge, Co Down, and in Andersonstown in west Belfast. And a new, enlarged store is being built at Connswater Retail Park in east Belfast.
But he’s confident the market could accommodate more. “I think we have room for 50.
“I believe we can expand more with new stores, and our current growth can cope with organic growth. When we continue to invest in stores, they’ll become a more attractive proposition to customers.”
It also spent £20m on upgrading its distribution centre at Nutts Corner, Co Antrim. The building has been extended by 5,000 sq ft, with new refrigeration, heat recovery and light bands. And there is plenty of empty warehouse space, particularly in the cold store which, Conor explains, will fill up with seasonal goods,particularly the Deluxe range, in the run up to Christmas.
He’s proud of the impact Lidl aims to have through its Community Works scheme, launched last year to support community groups. It’s already helped around 600 groups, including Eco Tots in Newtownabbey — to educate young children about growing nutritional produce — and the Portrush RNLI.
It also supports The Prince’s Trust, and its work on a Get into Retail Programme, offering unemployed 18 to 25-year-olds experience in the retail sector.
It’s also in the middle of a two-year partnership with CLIC Sargent, with Conor taking part in the gruelling Lap of the Lough cycle challenge to raise money for the children’s cancer charity.
The company has also been staying on top of Brexit — and it’s tempting to conclude that Lidl was better prepared for either eventuality than either side of the debate. “We have had a task force that’s been established for six to nine months that’s been looking at the possibility of Brexit and what that entails.
“But the reality is that nobody really knows, and that it’s a very unexpected result.
“Immediately, you can see that the value of sterling versus the euro and many other currencies has dropped, and that means for Lidl — as well as many other companies, who are importing fruit and vegetables from the continent or pasta from Italy, and the contract you have negotiated is in euros — that means that your product is more expensive now. If it’s in pounds then, for a period of time until the contract is back up for negotiation, you’re on to a winner.
“When goods for import become more expensive then, typically, that will feed its way into pricing and retail pricing — eventually. But that doesn’t happen overnight.”
He’s adamant that whatever happens, Lidl will continue its reputation for value. “We offer the best quality product at the best possible price, and that’s not going to change. We will always look at what our competitors are doing and we will always endeavour to be the best and offer the best value in the market.”
And he’s excited about its Connswater project, which will see a new store being built, at 1,400 sq m, almost double the size of the current one.
“We believe in the area and have got a strong local following there, and residents were very supportive. It’s going to be bigger and better.”
Next week John Mulgrew speaks to Stephen Mills who heads up ship fit-out business McCue Marine
Q. What’s the best piece of business (or life) advice you’ve ever been given?
A. Whether private or business-related, my father once told me as I started to climb the career ladder to make sure that every morning and evening I could look myself in the mirror and be happy with what I had done and how I had treated people, ie how I would like to be treated myself. I still live by those rules today.
Q. What piece of advice would you pass on to someone starting out in business?
A. Work hard, listen to those around you, don’t presume to think you know it all, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes — just learn from them.
Q. What was your best business decision?
A. In 2011 I took the decision with the rest of the UK board to roll out and install in-store bakeries in every UK store. It was a huge undertaking and investment but was absolutely worthwhile for our customers and for Lidl.
Q. If you weren’t doing this job, what would be your other career?
A. During my final year at Queen’s, I applied for and was offered a place to study a PhD in French Linguistics, studying and tutoring undergrads at Exeter, so I suppose if things had been different, I could have been a lecturer somewhere. I’ve no regrets that I opted to take the job offer with Nortel though.
Q. What are your hobbies/interests?
A. Having a demanding job and three young children, spare time is at a premium, I’m mostly an unpaid taxi driver. I do play badminton and am looking for a new club in Belfast and am training for the ‘Lap the Lough’ cycle event, raising funds with some work colleagues for Clic Sargent. 95 miles at the end of August.
Q. What is your favourite sport and team?
A. I’m a huge sports fan, and will watch pretty much any sport on television as my wife will attest. I’m a big football fan. I used to play to a very poor standard and for my sins I am a long suffering Leeds United fan.
Q. And have you ever played any sports?
A. I’ve played both football and badminton.
Q. What was your last holiday? Where are you going next?
A. I’m currently writing to you from a campsite by a lake in the north of Italy.
Q. If you enjoy reading, can you recommend a book?
A. I’ve read a few books during this holiday. All fiction — crime thrillers mostly. My current favourite authors are David Baldacci, Lee Child and Harlen Coben
Q. How would you describe your early life?
A. I had a happy childhood. As the fourth child in our family, my parents were probably a bit more relaxed with me and my brother and sisters would say I got away with a lot more than they did.
Q. Have you any economic predictions?
A. I’d need a crystal ball for that one. I’m sure though regardless of the current or future economic landscape, Lidl is and will remain the best place to shop.
Q. How would you assess your time with Lidl?
A. My time with Lidl has been a journey affording me great experience and fantastic opportunities all over the UK and Europe. I look forward to using the experience to help Lidl NI continue on its exciting journey.