Belfast Telegraph

Sean Largey: 'I want to make the Year of Food a big success - it's a brilliant platform for Northern Ireland's local producers'

Tesco commercial manager Sean Largey tells Yvette Shapiro about working in supermarkets since his secondary school days and spreading the word about Northern Ireland-made produce

Tesco commercial manager Sean Largey tells Yvette Shapiro about working in supermarkets since his secondary school days and spreading the word about Northern Ireland-made produce

Sean Largey has the biggest shopping list in Northern Ireland. He leads a buying team that spends £550m a year on local produce. It's a lot of money and brings with it a lot of influence over what appears on our supermarket shelves.

Farmers, processors, bakers, brewers and distillers are among those who depend on Sean's Newtownabbey-based team to select their products.

For a small producer, it can mean the difference between being a niche business selling through delis and independent shops and breaking into the big time with shelf space in supermarkets across the UK.

"Tesco is unique in that we have a commercial team based here in Northern Ireland that works with local producers," said Sean. "We talk to them about product design, content, accreditation and packaging. We want to help them bring their product to market. That's the final step in a long journey.

"We've forged long-lasting relationships with suppliers. In fact, some of them have been working with us for 20 years. Those are important friendships, for us and for them."

Tesco, like its competitors, has been under fire from farmers for the price it pays for produce, particularly milk. The company's supermarkets were targeted by protesters last Autumn. In response, Tesco launched a review of its agreement with farmers, which the company claimed would"better reflect on-farm costs such as feed, fertiliser, and fuel".

Sean said: "We are proud to be local agriculture's biggest customer and champion. We work closely with our suppliers to develop long-term sustainable relationships. For example, we have worked with Dale Farm for many years."

All of Tesco's own-brand fresh pork, chicken, beef, milk and eggs sold in its Northern Ireland stores are sourced here. It currently has 95 local suppliers, from multi-nationals such as Moy Park and large scale bakers like Irwin's, down to artisan firms like Clandeboye Yoghurt and Pizzado, accounting for 1,500 product lines.

"We're a broad church," said Sean. "There are 30,000 products being carried in the larger stores. Producers come to us with products, we look at them and if they compliment the range, we take them on.

"We have to give a product the chance to develop, but it's commercial at the end of the day, and if there's no demand for a product, it won't remain on the shelves.

"The big thing is to get your product into stores in the UK. We've seen great local companies like Punjana, Irwin's and Linwoods making that move to the bigger market."

Co Down vegetable processor Mash Direct recently secured new listings in more than 100 Tesco Extra stores across England and Wales.

And TS Foods in Castlewellan, which already has its stuffing on sale in 400 stores across Great Britain, has just recently taken part in a special two-week promotion for its "finest" sage and onion mix in more than 900 shops nationwide.

Last week, Tesco announced annual pre-tax profits of £162m, following a record loss of £6.33bn a year ago. Britain's biggest supermarket hailed "significant progress" in its turnaround, which involved shutting some stores, including Connswater and Cregagh Road in east Belfast, as well as reducing prices and slashing the number of products that it sells by 18%.

However, Sean said local suppliers had fared well in the review of brands sold in store. "Northern Ireland companies have punched above their weight and we've not lost local lines - in fact, they've been given more space," he added. "We've introduced 200 new Northern Ireland product lines in the past 18 months. Those figures stand for themselves."

Mr Largey has been working in supermarkets for some time. Born in Andersonstown in west Belfast, he attended De La Salle secondary school, earning pocket money by working in Stewarts supermarket. He kept his part-time job when he went to Queen's University to study information management and computer science.

"I've always enjoyed retailing because of the business, the colleagues and the customers," he said. "I liked working for Stewarts and Crazy Prices. It was the days of Jim Megaw and his brother, Ken. Jim was famous because of the television adverts, but he was very approachable and they ran a great business."

Sean joined Stewarts full-time in 1996 after graduation, as a trainee manager. The following year, the chain was acquired by Tesco.

"Northern Ireland was going through a change and it was a very hopeful time," he said. "The acquisition brought in new products and suppliers and created new jobs and opportunities for people who might otherwise have left Northern Ireland."

In 2000, Sean was given his first store to manage, at the recently closed Cregagh Road branch. "It was the smallest store in the business, but a big role for me and I really enjoyed the challenge," he said.

The fierce rivalry between the big supermarket chains means that Sean is reluctant to discuss his brief move to Sainsbury's - he opened the retailer's Falls Road store in 2006 and ran a chain of stores in the north of England, before returning to Tesco in 2010. "It was always very close to my heart," he said.

Sean managed the Clare Hall store in north Dublin, which was the biggest Tesco in Ireland at the time, and was promoted to store director, responsible for 21 outlets across Northern Ireland. But it is his new role as commercial manager that he finds most rewarding.

"It's a fantastic opportunity for me," he said. "I'm a real foodie and passionate about local produce, so the Year of Food is really close to my heart. I'm getting the chance to help individual companies grow their products and to introduce them to the customers."

In January, Tesco launched a £500,000 programme to promote the local food and drinks industry as part of the NI Year of Food. It includes more than 200 sampling days in stores, cookery demonstrations and pop-up shops run by artisan producers in Tesco store foyers.

"My ambition is to help make the Year of Food initiative as successful as possible," Sean said. "Being such a big player in the food and drink market, we threw our weight behind it from its inception. It's a brilliant launch pad for local producers. I'm completely biased, of course, but I love the quality of our food. We have to shout about our producers and get them out to the wider market. From a commercial point of view, it's great for all of us, a win-win for everyone. The more we can champion our producers, the more we'll all benefit."

This time it’s personal...

Q. What’s the best piece of business advice you’ve ever been given?

A. Understand the customer and put them first. From that all goals can be delivered.

Q. What advice would you pass on to someone starting out in business?

A. Make sure you know your market and target consumers. This will allow you to offer real value.

Q. What was your best business decision? What was your worst?

A. Best: getting into retail, in particular my latest role. Worst: I don’t do negatives.

Q. If you weren’t doing this job, what would be your other career?

A. I’ve always had an interest in business management and retail, but if I wasn’t with Tesco I’d loved to have been a chef in a Michelin-star restaurant.

Q. What was your last holiday?

A. We had a family getaway to our holiday cabin in Co Cavan. I love getting away to the woods. It’s a great retreat away from all the modern distractions. Getting back to nature and getting the time to spend with the girls helps me unwind. I enjoy fishing, kayaking, hill climbing and exploring nature.

Q. What are your hobbies and interests?

A. My biggest interest and hobby is my two girls. They take up all of my time and energy when I am away from work, whether it’s dancing, playing, singing, dress-up or outdoor pursuits. They are a handful. I have a keen interest in ancient history and conspiracy theories, so I enjoy watching the Discovery Channel when I have time.

Q. What is your favourite band?

A. Snow Patrol, because they’re from here and have some great, iconic songs.

Q. What is your favourite sport and team? And have you ever played any sports?

A. At the moment, cycling is my big thing. I like to think I’m an all-rounder who has participated in loads of sports over the years.

Q. Can you recommend a book?

A. To be honest I’m more of a movie man, but if pushed I really enjoy National Geographic, which I get at home every month

Belfast Telegraph