Belfast Telegraph

'My dad started with a £5,000 turnover - now it's £30m'

Leading family companies give Lisa Smyth an insight into the challenges of keeping their businesses on top at a time of tough competition

ByLisa Smyth

After 55 years working in the same job, Maurice Surphlis knows what he's talking about. The 69-year-old is the managing director of LW Surphlis & Sons, a leading agriculture and hardware merchants located in Newtownstewart, Co Tyrone.

He started working for the family business when he left school aged just 15, so it is unsurprising that he knows the industry inside-out.

"You do tend to get to know how things work after that length of time," he said.

"I grew up with the business, I was under my father's stewardship and got involved in the business really from when I left school."

The company, which counts animal feed and fertiliser among the products it sells, was established by Mr Surphlis' father, Lowry, in 1948.

"My father came from Co Fermanagh, he was a shop boy in Robert Dickie in Enniskillen," Mr Surphlis said.

"He had served his time in the hardware industry so when he saw the premises being advertised he came down from Enniskillen and they were sold by public auction.

"He was 32, he saw a business opportunity and he said he always wanted to own his own business.

"I remember him telling me that it cost him £6,000 and that included the stock as well.

"It was only a small grocery shop in those days and it has been developed 500-fold from that."

When the grocery and sub-post office was first bought by Mr Surphlis, it employed five people.

However, 68 years later, it now employs more than 60 people.

Maurice Surphlis believes the commitment of staff has played a crucial role in the success of the business.

"There has been a lot of hard work, commitment and dedication," he said.

"We have some very good members of staff, very conscientious people working here."

Over the years, the business has expanded, as has the products on offer.

In 1987, Mr Surphlis installed bulk bins for the storage of dairy, beef and sheep nuts, as well as a weight bridge to allow customers to collect bulk feed at a cheaper price.

A new warehouse for the manufacture of farm buildings was also erected at this time.

A new meal store was built two years later and further renovations were completed in 1997 when the hardware store was extensively renovated.

The range of products created and distributed by the company has increased over the years - partly driven by the changes in farming over the years.

"You really get to know the trade after being in it for that length of time," said Mr Surphlis.

"One of the biggest problems we have faced is keeping up with legislation and health and safety.

"The amount of work generated by this is unreal.

"The amount of time you have to spend keeping records and dealing with traceability is crazy.

"It's basically down to the EU membership and the EU regulations, which is why I believe we would be better out of it to be honest.

"It would certainly be better for the farming community, there would be less bureaucracy to deal with. We couldn't be much worse off anyway, look at the milk industry for example, it's on its knees."

Mr Surphlis said they have worked hard to identify gaps in the market and to cater to the changing requirements of the agricultural industry.

"We still have the shop and post office but they are a small part of the business. It is only because it was always there that I have kept it, but we have expanded to suit the customer," he said.

"For example, we develop a lot of dairy, beef and sheep rations specially to suit the customers' requirements.

"Basically the customer comes to me and asks me to make a dairy ration at 20% or 22% and a lot of the time we can do that at a cheaper price than the dairy nut being produced by other companies."

This has all been made possible as a result of an investment of £1.5m in premises and equipment.

"When you are trying to grow and develop a business, it takes a lot of extra capital," added Mr Surphlis.

However, at the same time, the profits have increased massively.

Mr Surphlis said: "The business started off turning £5,000 a year, that would have been in 1948/49, and that has grown to £30m at the moment.

"When you look at tonnage of animal feed we produce, in January there were 5,926 tonnes, 6,100 tonnes in February and 8,000 tonnes in March.

"The increase is seasonal because by the time March comes around people get low on silage, hay and straw and have to use extra feed."

Looking to the future, Mr Surphlis is keen for his two sons to take over the business.

However, he added: "I still have a few more years left before I retire."

Belfast Telegraph