Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 1 October 2014

Success wee buns for the baker boys behind Genesis Crafty brand

McErlain brothers defy recession as family firm doubles its staff and turnover

Meet Northern Ireland's version of the Fabulous Baker Boys – the six Magherafelt brothers who make some of the best-selling buns in the country.

Aged from 36 to 52, Damian, Seamus, Paul, John, Adrian and Brian McErlain are the men behind the Genesis Crafty brand, who not only make their own branded products but also supply 'own brand' products to retail giants including Marks & Spencer, Tesco and Waitrose.

The business was founded as McErlain's Bakery by parents Joseph and Roberta back in 1968 and rebranded as Genesis Crafty in 1998.

Now both 75, Joe can still be seen driving delivery vans while Roberta does the post, and sometimes mans the reception.

Brian McErlain heads the company as managing director. The other brothers have roles in dispatch, business development, product development, operations management and bakery management.

The company hub on Aughrim Road in Magherafelt is a 24/7 operation turning out hundreds of thousands of scones, sodas and pancakes each week, part of around 70 product ranges, all made by hand to original recipes.

And despite the downturn and rising grain prices, Brian McErlain, the oldest of seven children – sister Joanne does not work in the bakery, said that the firm is doing better than ever, having doubled both turnover and staff numbers in the last four years.

Indeed, the company is investing £1.4m in the business and creating 100 new jobs in the next few years. Most of the new jobs will be in bakery production but three or four will be management positions and expansion into new premises is not being rules out.

"At our original premises in Church Street we employed 16 people, at the start of the downturn we had just under 100 people working here at our premises in Aughrim Road, now we have over 220, that speaks for itself," he said.

"It's still very much a small family run business – we have no large machinery. All of us brothers have a very strong work ethic. We were up working from 6am to 8am before we even started school and on Saturdays we were up at 5.30am to help out.

"Sometimes if we complained my father would say, 'Well, you're getting fed, aren't you?'.

"Many years later, when he had mellowed a little, he told us older ones off for working Damian, the youngest, too hard.

"Some of us, including myself, went off and did other things but we've come back. I worked for Nationwide building society, a blue chip company, and came back in the early 1990s, it was very different but I was able to use what I had learned in that business, in a completely different sector, into the family business.

"Dad still comes in every day, he still does delivery runs and Mum still helps out where she can – if one of the office staff has the sniffles she will be straight down to the shop to buy some Lemsip.

"People often find little things on their desk that she has gone out and bought for them."

Despite being part of a very competitive marketplace, the brothers are holding their own, even with little automation and no mass production lines.

"Some 40% of our business would be in Northern Ireland, 40% in Great Britain and the remainder in the Republic," said Brian. "We dominate in wheaten breads and scones, but as well as the traditional product people still want new things, like our new products including chocolate chip and blueberry pancakes.

"I think we have a competitive edge because we do things right. We still use traditional methods and recipes. I think it's those sorts of values that helped make us attractive to the bigger retailers. As well as our own family members, we've got people who have been working for us for 25 years.

"There's a great deal of local pride in the company, I think we could refer to it as the 'Tayto effect'.

"The Northern Ireland food and drink industry is still doing well, or else we would not have experienced such large growth in recent years. I cannot speak for other companies but I think the personal touch, the attention to detail and the dedication to taste are the things that mark us out.

"Three of our branded products won a gold star at the Great Taste awards in 2013 – our sliced wheaten, our honey and yoghurt wheaten and our Madeira cake.

"Other items made for Tesco, Waitrose and Supervalu also won gold stars."

The firm is well known for having vans emblazoned with attention-grabbing slogans like 'Don't Worry, Be Bappy' and 'War of the Wheatens' but is now re-branding to reflect its family element.

"We'll still be keeping the fun element in the promotion of our products but there is no point in being quirky just for the sake of it," said Brian. "We're going to focus on the family history of the firm and how that reflects on the quality of the product, essentially 'six brothers making baking amazing' which tells a bit more of a story about the company."

And what of the next generation?

"There are about 24 grandchildren," said Brian. "But none of my five have shown any interest in going into the baking industry as yet. However they are all still quite young, so you never know."

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