With 100 years of trading under their belt, the Irwin family could be forgiven for dwelling on the success of their past.
However, for Brian Irwin, executive chairman, and his brother Niall Irwin, technical director, their past is not what is important to the company. Rather it is the plans for the future which hold the most opportunity and interest for this family-run business.
Few companies in Northern Ireland can say that they have seen their operations go from a two-person bakery complete with horse and cart delivery, to one of the leading companies in the Northern Ireland food sector with more than 450 employees, seven processing lines and an output of approximately one million products a week.
The impressive Irwin’s Bakery, situated in the Carn Industrial Estate of Portadown, has subtle images of their humble beginnings throughout which, when compared to the size and modernity of the factory floor, put into perspective the journey this company has been on.
Yet, regardless of the size of this operation, Brian Irwin still commands an incredible knowledge of everything that is going on around him, to the point that he is able to detail where each product off his processing lines is destined to end up on the shelves.
The company began in 1912 when Mr Irwin’s grandfather, WD Irwin, along with his wife and sister-in-law, set about producing baked products to sell in their grocery shop on Woodhouse Street in Portadown. With the ladies taking the lead on the baking, WD Irwin used his entrepreneurial abilities to make the most of the opportunities available to his business. At the time consumer attitudes where changing and, while many people would have previously made their own bread at home, an increase in wealth meant that a more convenient option was welcomed.
“My grandfather recognised this need for convenience and started to deliver his bread into the wider community using horses and carts, and eventually vans. At the time, my family didn’t think of themselves as overly special or original, in fact any of the recipes they used they threw out as soon as they had finished with them.
“But this is how the food sector moves on and responds to the changing needs of the consumer,” says Brian Irwin.
When his father, Kenneth Irwin, took up the reins of the business he saw potential for the distribution to significantly grow through each nearby geographical area.
He began by covering Co Armagh, then Tyrone and Down while, at the same time, modernising the equipment they were using to offer better quality and greater efficiency.
“We tend not to dwell on our past, although we have had lots of fun, lots of success and a few disappointments along the way. Obviously it is nice to have such a back story, but your history doesn’t make you a good company. It is your plans for the future which mean a lot more.”
It is this attitude which has kept Irwin’s Bakery at the fore front of our food sector and has seen their products stocked in major national and multi-national retailers throughout the UK and Ireland.
The Irwin’s brand is built on something which is truly Northern Irish at heart. Their recipes even respond to government guidelines on the health needs of the country, for example in the way they include folic acid to combat our high Spina Bifida rates.
“The Troubles in Northern Ireland meant that many of the large retailers didn’t come over here until much later, so our sector had to learn 20 years of knowledge in the space of five years when they eventually did set up shop. It is one thing to roll up to a local independent grocery store and a completely different thing to approach major national customers, but they were most impressed by our willingness to learn. The contracts we secured were because we were in the right place at the right time and with the correct resources.”
Moving their well-recognised Northern Irish products into the UK export market was something which required a new tactic to meet the needs of a new base of consumers. With the endorsement of Paul Rankin, who was well-known and well-respected in this market, they launched the now very popular Rankin Selection brand.
“The UK market didn’t know a lot about us and we have had to educate our consumers on what you can do with Irish breads such as potato bread and soda farls.
“With our Rankin Selection brand we were able to make our products accessible to a modern lifestyle, and by having the endorsement of a credible chef this range became big in the UK very quickly.”
Irwin’s Bakery has also secured major contracts with large retailers to supply their own brand ranges, contracts which are not only an important part of business for the company but are also a stamp of approval for the high-quality of their produce.
While Brian Irwin is keeping their 100 year-celebration plans close to his chest, what he would admit was that the focus will be on his customers and staff to serve as reassurance that they are buying from the best. As for the next 100 years, Irwin’s Bakery ambition is something which knows no bounds.
The company will continue to adapt and grow to respond to the demands of its consumers. Brian Irwin is a man who admits to always having “some ideas on the cooker” and it is the success of these ideas to date which leaves me in no doubt that generations ahead will be seeing similar celebrations come 2112.