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The bread winners: We chat to McErlain family bakers

Meet the six brothers who turned their traditional Northern Ireland bakery into a major player in the UK food market. The talented McErlain family take time out to break bread with Stephanie Bell.

They are the unstoppable baker brothers who are beating the big boys with their traditional Northern Ireland recipes. The six siblings - Damian, Seamus, Paul, John, Adrian and Brian McErlain - who together run the family bakery Genesis Crafty in Magherafelt, are continuing to conquer the UK with their delicious handmade fancies.

The business, which was started in 1968 with just one bread cart by the boys' parents Joseph and the late Roberta, who passed away during the summer, is now a multi-million pound enterprise producing hundreds of thousands of baked goods every week.

Despite the scale of the operation, the bakers still flip every pancake and chaff every scone by hand and maintain it is these artisan values that have seen its cakes, rolls, baps, sodas and wheatens take their place in shop shelves across the UK and Ireland.

Each McErlain brother looks after a distinct and complementary aspect of the family business. They also have one sister, Joanne, who does not work in the bakery.

Even during the recession the boys bucked the trend by expanding and growing Genesis Crafty, doubling both turnover and staff numbers in the past four years.

Today the bakery employs more than 220 staff and produces own-brand products for retail giants like Marks & Spencer, Tesco and Waitrose and fans include the celebrated chef Jason Atherton.

They now have their sights set on further growth throughout the UK, with their scones and pancakes now going into Sainsbury's, Waitrose and Ocado, and they are currently in advanced talks for supplying their cake range and speciality breads to major national retailers.

Evidently it's not just the bakery's produce that rises perfectly - sales have grown by 20% in the past year from £20m to £24m.

So just what is the secret to their success? We talked to the brothers about their incredible journey and what it is they believe gives them the edge in one of the most competitive market places.

Youngest brother Damian (37) is operations and human relations director of the company. He is married to Sinead and they have two children, Lily (4) and Joe (11 months). He says:

"My role in the company encompasses the gate-to-gate processes, including production and all the people within that network. It is a varied role which I enjoy and it requires strong people within the business in all areas to deliver a service to the standard that the Genesis Crafty brand demands.

"We are lucky to have such people currently employed and I find we are now attracting a higher calibre of candidate as our profile and reputation in the marketplace grows.

"I think each of us is in the role that best matches the skill set we have either been educated for or trained in or just developed over the years. Personalities have also played their part in the natural evolution of each of our current positions.

"It was always on my radar that I would work in the family business. I did Business Studies at the University of Ulster and had my placement in Guinness on the Apollo Road, Belfast.

"I came straight into the bakery from university, but would have preferred to have spent two or three years working somewhere else to build even more experience. The opportunity, however, was there for me at the time to come straight in. Maybe I was a bit short-sighted at the time but it's done now.

"Working with your brothers means that performance appraisals can be anything from fun to awkward or downright cringeworthy.

"We do see each other outside of work, like any other family would. We live close to each other and we share a passion for football so we would end up meeting at local club matches. The conversation when we are together is usually 20% business, 80% football. The passion for both runs deep.

"I think the reason the company has been so successful is our commitment to the product, the customer and the business, as well as the desire we have to 'do things right' using the skill set developed over the 44 years of trading.

"My parents inspired me 100% and they are still literally the DNA of us and the business.

"Their hands-on approach was necessary in the days when they worked tirelessly to lay foundations for the business as it has evolved today.

"Mummy used to say that she 'wouldn't try and sell anything that she wouldn't buy herself' and that was a technical specification all of its own long before today's highly regulated food manufacturing standards were ever heard of.

"The values they instilled in each of us have allowed us to drive forward and work together with the humility that they displayed themselves.

"Our vision is to continue to develop and grow as a business.

"We have an excellent product range, an excellent workforce and there are many customers out there who we have yet to reach out to across the UK.

"The ultimate goal is to become a strong brand in the UK nationally while remaining true to our values and developing our operations internally even further to enhance the efficiency of how we do things."

John (50) is new product development director. He is married to Deirdre and they have six children, Daniel (26), Laura (24), Peter (22), Sarah (19), Ben (13) and Holly (8). He says:

"I am responsible for all new product development both within the Genesis Crafty Brand and Retailer Own Label - right from product concept to launch, which can take between six and 10 months to complete. This includes everything from product benchmarking, taste panelling, technical compliance, packaging and commercial sign-off. If we get as far as that we then have factory trials, product travel testing, artwork sign off, product launch and then post-launch review.

"I have been working in the bakery on Saturday mornings since I was in Primary 5, so baking was in the blood. In fact, all of my school holidays were 'work days' for me.

"I went on to the College of Business Studies in Belfast and completed my City and Guilds Bakery 120 and 121 Awards. I also completed my full technological certificate in baking. These classes were held in the evenings and it was generally production managers/bakery managers from the plant bakeries in Belfast who attended.

"It was tough going but I managed to pass the exams and I came back into the business full-time in June 1984, working as a baker.

"I grew into product development almost organically and when we produced a large range of products for Supermac in Belfast [now Forestside] I demonstrated a clear understanding of how to create recipes and the processes to produce the products the customer was after.

"Working with family is always challenging - one of the advantages is we don't need to visit each other as we see each other every day.

"I think the secret of our success is our unrelenting energy and drive and the fact that each brother is in the role that suits him best. We have strong visionary leadership in Brian, our managing director, and strong customer relationships.

"Genesis Crafty was built by following the example set by the founding partners, our parents Joe and Bertie, and involved long, gruelling hours both night and day with family members pushing the relentless pace.

"Generally we pulled together, always making sure we met the mantra of 'Orders no matter what!' Now, the business is structured so that we all have our own departments and roles to fulfil. Thankfully we are at the stage where we can 'live' again after many years of 'living to work'.

"We just want the company to keep going onwards and upwards - it can't stand still."

Paul (48) is business improvement manager. He is married to Anne and they have four children, Michaela (28), Aimee (23), Shauna (20) and Conor (17). He says:

"I manage van sales in the western half of the province, which involves managing 10 van sales drivers. There are 665 customers in total in the area and I am responsible for half of these. It's a role which means I am heavily involved with the customers, building the business at ground level.

"I have always enjoyed being out speaking with the customers, so it was a natural fit.

"When we first started working with Wellworths in Cookstown, Daddy tasked me with building the account and that particular run, which is how I first got this role.

"Being brought up working in the bakery, I learnt the best qualifications were a personality, common sense and work ethic.

"I started full-time in September 1983 looking after ovens, packing bread and then delivering it to shops.

"In March 1996, I started as business development manager, which I still do and I enjoy being face-to-face in stores with shop managers and owners.

"Working in the family business was not something that I necessarily aspired to. The early rises were an initial put-off, but finding the role that suited me within the business meant it worked well for everyone.

"Working with family does allow you to have more flexibility and you also get to see your family every day, which can't be taken for granted.

"The business is run very much as a professional company where everyone has to meet standards regardless of the family aspect, but we all understand this. It wouldn't work otherwise.

"We are not all 'yes' men - everyone has their own opinion and there can be a discussion. Brian is the strategic thinker who can take all of the opinions and develop the plan moving forward.

"I think integrity and the family values that we were brought up with by mummy and daddy are still at the heart of the business's success - 'if you wouldn't buy it yourself don't put it out!' Also, the quality of people brought in at all levels of the business has also been a key factor in our success.

"But it's my parents who inspired me. They led by example - 'monkey see monkey do'. They were extremely hard-working, both were entrepreneurs of their time, seeing the opportunity that existed for the bakery."

Brian (52) is managing director and a father of five. He says:

"I started in the bakery on Saturdays at age 11 in 1973. My job was to work at the hot plate, kneading the soda farl doughs, weighing up mixes and doing the washing up.

"John started at the same time - he was so short, he needed a creamery can lid to stand on to reach the table.

"I started full-time on April 23, 1990, and became MD in 1996, when the business became incorporated.

"I think all of the brothers have been matched to roles that best match their skill set, which is hugely important.

"Certainly, the journey Genesis Crafty has been on since the bakery officially opened on June 10, 1968, is remarkable.

"On the second day of trading, the takings were just £7 for the day. At the time our mother Roberta was five months pregnant with her fifth child and the eldest of the others was just seven years old. Now, over the last five years the business has more than doubled, with retail sales in the region of £20m in the last financial year.

"This has been a very sad period following the passing of our mother. She was instrumental in inspiring the whole family and will be sadly missed".

Adrian (54) is despatch manager and a father of three. He says:

"I've been working at the bakery since I was eight years old. My first job was brushing the floor. I went on to have a few different roles over the years before I started full-time as a 17-year-old apprentice in April 1978. I then moved to van sales in October 1984 and in May 1993, I started in packing.

"I also worked in the office for a year before going back to packing and despatch and for the past six years I have been in despatch full-time.

"Like any brothers we had a few fisticuffs when we were growing up, but it didn't do us any harm and nobody has held any grudges!

"We have to give credit to mum and dad - they both worked very hard."

Seamus (46) is bakery manager and a father of four. He says:

"I've been working in the bakery from the age of 11 at the weekends and in the summer holidays. I left school at 16 and I have worked on every product.

"After four years one of the head bakers left the business so I assumed the responsibility of his role and I have grown into it as the years evolved and as the business has grown.

"In the early days it was pure hard graft. When Brian came into the business, we assessed what role best suited each family member. With each of us accepting what our roles were it meant that the company could grow and employ non-family members in senior positions with the skill set required to move the business forward.

"Our parents really inspired us and led by example. They never hid away from a challenge and faced it head on. They instilled core values in all of us and must take a lot of credit for where we are today."

The products that get the special touch

The full Genesis range of products is handmade in small batches to keep the dough soft and moist.

The brothers insist on working the dough by hand for extra "fluffiness" while the butter pastry is hand-pressed into the baking trays.

Among the company's most popular products is its range of wheaten breads. As well as a traditional sliced oven wheaten, Genesis have put a new twist on this popular Irish bread with a honey and yoghurt wheaten, a fruited wheaten and a loaf specially made for toasting.

Pancakes are another staple, and flying off the shelves are blueberry, chocolate chip, maple and raisin, lemon and raisin and, of course, the original flavour.

No Irish kitchen or fry up is complete without soda farls and as well as the original square ones, Genesis' quirky range includes round sodas and wee sodas.

The bakery is in operation 24/7 to produce its range for Asda, Centra, Dunnes, Costcutter, Eurospar, Sainsbury's, Shop 4 You, Spar, Supervalu, Tesco, Today's Group, Waitrose, Ocado and a number of independent stores across the UK.

Pancake tower

WHAT YOU’LL NEED

400ml whipping cream

4 tbsps lemon curd

Handful fresh raspberries and fresh blueberries, or any seasonal fruits you desire. Redcurrants also make a beautiful display

Handful edible petals (optional, available from souschef.co.uk)

2 packets Genesis Crafty Big Original Pancakes

Whip up your whipping cream until smooth and creamy. Marble four spoonfuls of lemon curd through your cream

The pancakes, fresh fruit and flowers do the rest, simply layer your Genesis Crafty pancakes (12 gives a nice height) with a dollop of lemony goodness and your seasonal fruits and top with edible flowers for a showstopper dessert or afternoon tea treat!

Recipe created for Genesis Crafty by lifestyle blogger Coralie Grassin of Teatime in Wonderland (teatimeinwonderland.co.uk)

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