Big Interview: Brian Reid - 'For two years we didn't take a wage, but knew with spirit and energy we could make it all work...'
The Big Interview: Brian Reid
By his own admission, Brian Reid wasn't particularly fond of school and he couldn't wait to leave.
But this has not held him back when it comes to business - he is the chief executive of Deli Lites Ireland, which recorded a turnover of £19.7m and a £627,000 profit in 2017/18.
Furthermore, the company's turnover and profit were up by 15% and 28% respectively in 2017/18 compared to the previous year and Brian is confident it will continue to flourish.
Based in Warrenpoint, Co Down, Deli Lites Ireland produces around 12 million hand-made sandwiches, wraps and salads every year as part of its wholesale business.
It was set up by Brian and his wife Jackie (40) in 1999 after they spotted a gap in the market.
He explained: "I went to Newry College of Further and Higher Education and did business studies and hospitality.
"That was actually where I met Jackie, her background is catering and business studies.
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"While I was at Newry I saw a job advertised, I think it was in the Belfast Telegraph, they were looking for people to work on the cruise ships in the Caribbean.
"I saw it as an opportunity to further my learning, so I applied and then I was invited for an interview and I got the job.
"I didn't walk the normal path, I decided to do something a wee bit different, so I packed a bag and headed off for the year. I worked as a waiter and it really set me up for going into the food industry.
"I was working with the public and customers when working there and that's everything we do now, it's all for the customer, we're a very people-centred business.
"When you're working in the service industry, everything you do is for the customer, you give yourself to the customer, and I think that attitude has stood us in good stead in Deli Lites, because we have never gone out looking for business.
"We have always worked on referrals, we have never done the hard sell at all, because we dedicate everything to the customer."
Brian and Jackie set up Deli Lites Ireland from humble beginnings, but they have worked tirelessly over the years to develop one of the best known sandwich brands in Ireland.
According to Brian, his determination to be his own boss - a passion that was born during his time at school - has played a role in the path they have chosen to follow together.
He continued: "I was a poor student, I wasn't very good, I didn't really get the whole school thing to be honest, I didn't really get the whole discipline around it.
"It made me think that when I left school I would probably do something where I was my own boss and that drive was always in me - I always wanted to do something on my own.
"Jackie and I worked in the family sandwich bar that already existed in Newry before deciding to go out on our own and that's when we started up Deli Lites Ireland.
"We worked at it for 10 years before we lifted our heads and we did it with no real money either.
"When we started out we made the sandwiches at the sandwich bar in Newry and we would work through the night, we dedicated everything to the customer.
"We did the deliveries with a small van and we actually got a few contracts quite early on and before we knew it we were delivering around the north of Ireland and then into the Republic as well.
"It was difficult at the start, we didn't take a wage out of the business for two years. I suppose we didn't really know much about running a business in those days.
"We did know, however, that if we put in enough energy and spirit we would get something out at the end, so we focused on producing the product, getting the product right and ensuring the customer service was excellent.
"To us, the branding was also very important, we wanted to get that just right.
"I do think in those days we were feeling our way as we went along, and I think, if I'm being honest, as CEO it can still be the same.
"People think there is a textbook out there, but every day I come in to my business and I still have the same feeling that you can't know what's around the corner.
"I had that feeling when we started out and it's still the same feeling 20 years later."
Brian believes it is this attitude that helps to keep the brand and company fresh as they constantly strive to be the best they can possibly be, to consistently look to improve and update the products and service they offer. "If you don't do that, you will probably go out of business," he said.
Certainly, the number and type of products they now create are different from when they started.
"There are a lot more world flavours, because people are travelling more," said Brian.
"People's expectations are getting higher too, but we constantly learn from the customer and we work closely with them.
"We create our own products, but we also produce what our customers want and 65% of our business is own-brand.
"We now supply to Scotland, England and we recently won some contracts in Scandinavia. We do try to be as flexible as we can, but sometimes that can sometimes work against us, particularly as we become more successful.
"We never want to lose that entrepreneurial spirit, so that is something that we are working on.
"Regulations are changing, expectations are changing and in order to grow efficiently and profitably to ensure we are sustainable as a business, it becomes more difficult to be as flexible as we would like."
As the company has grown, Brian and Jackie have moved to three different premises in Warrenpoint and they currently operate out of a 30,000 sq ft building.
Brian continued: "We have almost outgrown that now, but it's a good problem to have.
"We have always stayed in Warrenpoint and we're the biggest employer in the town, we have 240 employees.
"I don't look at it as they work for me though; as CEO I believe I am working for them.
"It's about creating an environment for people to do well and I come to work every day to provide that for those 240 people.
"I am constantly asking myself, 'how do I make these guys' lives better?'
"Actually, I believe one of the hardest parts of business has been losing staff and wondering what I could have done to make them want to stay. I take that personally."
At the same time, Brian and Jackie are facing Brexit but they have dedicated a lot of time and effort to ensuring they are prepared for the potential fallout.
They have recently secured premises in the Republic as European headquarters.
Brian said: "It is going to help us build a relationship with suppliers."
However, unlike other food companies, Deli Lites is not stockpiling produce.
"Everything is fresh, so that isn't for us, because there is a shelf life," said Brian.
"We do have contingency plans in place with suppliers.
"Basically, we have done a lot of preparation and taken on advice externally, but I do think you can't plan for what you don't know what the outcome is going to be.
"It is a situation we are watching closely and we do have plans in place to grow the business, but the fact is Brexit is not the first obstacle put in our way that we have had to navigate our way around."
It's clear that running a company like Deli Lites takes a great deal of passion and dedication and Brian and Jackie have both.
While some people might find it impossible to work with their spouse, the couple have built a successful partnership and each has clearly defined roles.
They also recognise their respective areas of expertise, with Brian in the role of CEO, while Jackie is the company's sales director.
They also juggle running the company with being parents to 14-year-old Stephen, 11-year-old Brooke and 10-year-old Finlay.
When they aren't at work, Brian said they are fully engaged in caring for their children.
"By the time you are done taxi-ing the children to football and singing and all the other past-times they have, there isn't much time left," said Brian.
He added: "Although we did manage to get away to a networking event in Marbella recently, because we have wonderful support from family, so we're very lucky in that respect."
So, looking back to the early days of Deli Lites Ireland, how does Brian feel?
"I remember our first sale like it was yesterday," he said.
"We sold to three filling stations in Newry and then we also made sandwiches for the teachers at St Paul's High School in Bessbrook.
"I remember clear as day going in to the filling stations and looking at the products we had sold and the excitement of hearing back exactly what we had sold.
"I still have that feeling now when we're dealing with the likes of Tesco, I am excited to get feedback."
And looking to the future, what are the priorities for Deli Lites Ireland?
Brian wants to build the company into a global brand, and they particularly have their eye on the US and Asia markets.
They are also developing different processes to ensure that products can be distributed to the other side of the world.
And his ultimate goal would be to see Deli Lite products on sale in New York or California.
"There is a growing focus on health and lifestyle and I believe Deli Lites can deliver for that," said Brian.
"There is enough interest and excitement around the brand, when I tell people the story, they are excited about what they are going to get.
"To be honest, I'm not surprised at the success of the business and I don't see any reason why Deli Lites can't be a global brand sold all over the world."