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Five firm believers in entrepreneurial spirit

A quintet of Northern Ireland companies are in the running for the much-coveted Entrepreneur of the Year Award, fighting it out with 19 other contenders across the island of Ireland

By Margaret Canning

Published 04/09/2012

Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year trophy
Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year trophy
Brian McErlain, managing director of Genesis Crafty
Denis Lynn, founder and managing director of Finnebrogue
Matthew Brown of Connect Telecom
John McCann of Willowbrook Foods
Stuart and Russell Dickson of Decora Blind Systems

Five Northern Ireland firms are in the running for Ireland's most sought-after entrepreneurialism award.

Three of Northern Ireland's five finalists in the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Competition are in food, underlying the growing importance of agri-food to Northern Ireland's economy.

Co Down venison and sausage firm Finnebrogue, Co Londonderry bakery Genesis Crafty and Co Down vegetable processor Willowbrook along with blinds manufacturer Decora, based in Lisburn, and Belfast-based telecoms firm Connect Telecom will all represent Northern Ireland in the finals next month.

Two of the companies - Genesis, which is run by six brothers, and Decora, which has two brothers at the top - are family firms, also reflecting the prevalence of family-run firms in the Northern Ireland corporate landscape.

The Ernst & Young competition has a long history in Ireland and two years ago the Ireland competition was won by Brian Conlon from Newry financial software firm First Derivatives, one of the province's biggest success stories and one of its three listed companies.

The winner of the Irish contest, who will be chosen from a total of 24 finalists, will go on to represent the country at the glamourous Ernst & Young World Entrepreneur of the Year final in Monte Carlo.

But before that, the coveted Ireland Entrepreneur of the Year will be crowned at a dinner and televised ceremony in Dublin's Citywest Hotel on October 26.

Brand diversity icing on cake for bakery

The late 1990s were a period of dramatic changes in the grocery retail sector in Northern Ireland, with the arrival of the supermarket multiples like Tesco and Sainsbury's into the market. Safeway also came, but for a relatively short-lived stay.

But instead of seeing Tesco, Sainsbury's and the others as a threat, Brian McErlain - who is managing director - decided to work on a brand which would appeal to the multiples and their customers.

That brand was Genesis Crafty, and it has since won millions of customers through the multiples with its breads, buns and other sweet things.

It started supplying just a few products for Marks and Spencer stores before building up to supply 708 stores with goodies from jam bakes to cheesecakes. But Mr McErlain said a foot in those doors doesn't mean you stop working at the relationship. The product development goes on.

"Things change and products come and go so we have to bring something new to the table because if we are not, someone else is."

It also got in on the Titanic mania of earlier this year with a Titanic Tastes range featuring shipyard subs and giant Belfast baps to celebrate the ship's centenary.

Overall, Genesis hopes to double its business over the next few years and Mr McErlain feels that, as the world population grows, so will demand for products from companies like his.

Getting the right staff can be difficult, he said, as many young people had been attracted to the building trade in its heyday.

But he spoke positively of the bakery business.

"It's a very rewarding career," he enthused.

Meat success recipe for future growth

Finnebrogue has enjoyed major success since it was founded 16 years ago to produce venison.

It spent three years testing the market before building a deer slaughter and processing factory at Finnebrogue Estate in Downpatrick - still one of a kind in Ireland.

Its range of venison products has now progressed to include steaks, sausages and casserole cubes. It has also diversified into pork sausages, launching a brand bearing the name of TV food campaigner Jimmy Doherty, and it also makes the sausages in the Paul Rankin portfolio.

Both are sold to Tesco and Waitrose and have a combined turnover of £3m. In 2009, the company also started to produce food under the label 'The Good Little Company', a concept of social responsibility which has gone down well with customers of Waitrose. It has also produced venison Christmas goods for M&S, sales of which have quadrupled to around £2.5m. It has also won the contract to supply M&S's top-end sausages, increasing its annual M-&S revenue from £3m to £7m and has won a £3m deal to supply 'counter sausage' to Sainsbury's UK.

Denis Lynn, founder and managing director, said: "We have a clear understanding of what we are as a business and are opinionated about the things that matter: making great quality food, and treating animals, people and the planet with respect. The next big challenge is about combining customer insight with our own product development to help deliver products that people love."

Telecoms firm makes the right connections with lucrative partnerships

Matthew Brown has been shortlisted as Ireland Entrepreneur of the Year in recognition of his successes at the helm of Connect Telecom, which he co-founded in 2007. The telecoms expert, which is based in Belfast provides telecoms services including mobiles, landlines, systems and data services - but sets itself apart from competitors by managing customer accounts on a face-to-face basis.

This focus on a personal form of customer service has proven successful and over the past three years turnover has increased 10-fold, with projected turnover to hit around £4.8m this year.

It recently secured a national partnership with BT and it is the first telecoms firm in Northern Ireland to become a Vodafone Gold Partner.

After its success in Northern Ireland and recent deals in Wales, the company is planning on expanding into England and Scotland in the coming months. They also hope to bring their services to the Republic of Ireland.

Customers are spread from the small to medium-size enterprise sector to the public sector, and major firms like Mascott Construction and Hastings Hotels.

Mr Brown said: "Starting a business in the worst recession in years proved to be a huge challenge, particularly due to the lack of availability of working capital. In order to overcome this challenge, we had to manage our cash-flow exceptionally well, and make sure that every penny spent had a definite return on investment.

"Sadly, the lack of working capital to assist expansion is still a challenge, particularly when, as a business, we are on a defined growth path and continue to invest heavily back in the business. As we seek to expand throughout Ireland and Great Britain, the need for financial discipline remains."

He added: "Being part of the Entrepreneur of the Year programme has been a real privilege. It has been fantastic meeting fellow business owners and understanding their challenges and learning from their experiences and expertise."

Fresh approach to old 'greengrocer' model

Willowbrook Foods in Co Down is at the savoury end of the food market. Like the McErlain brothers, its managing director John McCann, the son of a vegetable farmer, has rejuvenated the business ideas of the generation before him.

Forty-three years ago, he recognised that the greengrocer model of fruit and veg retailing would no longer cut it.

Instead, the new supermarkets would need daily deliveries of fresh products in high volumes. Willowbrook was well able to provide the deliveries, but John also looked out for the best packaging to keep his food fresh.

It supplied Wellworth's - an indigenous chain which disappeared with the arrival of Tesco - with 30 fridge cabinets, helping it double sales.

Again, it had to adapt to the arrival of the multiples by widening its customer base. There was also a need to diversify - so the company opened a food innovation centre for research and development so that the company could start coming up with new products.

Now it produces over 300 prepared vegetable products for retail and wholesale and employs over 250 people. Turnover in 2011 was over £20m.

Products include prepared vegetables and soup mixes, wet and dry salads, stir-fry vegetables, mashed potato products and par-cooked baby vegetables. Customers include Tesco, wholesaler Costco, Superquinn, The Co-Operative, Iceland, Hilton Hotels, Kerry Foods, Burger King, and KFC.

Mr McCann said the company's successes provided him with motivation to keep going - as did the prospect of providing a living to his staff.

"Maintaining profitability in order to sustain this - and keep the banks happy - is certainly a challenge but it's also a great motivator during these recessionary times." In conclusion, he said: "If you don't aim high, how will you ever get there?"

Blind ambition sparks 56% rise in turnover

Stick to one thing and do it well is the business advice of nominees and brothers, Stuart and Russell Dickson of Decora Blind Systems.

Their parents started the company in 1979 and since then, it has become one of the main suppliers of components, fabrics and made-to-measure blinds to trade customers and window blind manufacturers around the UK and Ireland. The boys joined the business in 1993.

Instead of just responding to marketing demands, they have kept up with what's going on in the marketplace in order to influence consumer trends. They have also invested in new product development, and recently announced 79 new jobs and a £2m investment in manufacturing capabilities.

Turnover at the Co Antrim company has increased by 56% over the past three years. The business directly employs 400 people.

Their product portfolio includes roller, roman, vertical and panel blinds, wooden and aluminium venetians, luxurious interior basswood shutters and contract fabrics.

Brands include Santa Fe Shutters, Sunwood Blinds and The Fabric Box and each has a clearly defined target audience.

Asked what their biggest business achievement had been, Stuart Dickson said: "Our development from a small local company to that of one of the leading suppliers to the window blind trade in the UK market."

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