Belfast Telegraph

Small businesses showing real taste for moving with the times

Maine Soft Drinks and McKee's Quality Pies are two prominent examples of Ulster food and drink suppliers flourishing in today's modern market, writes Lisa Smyth

There are few people in Northern Ireland who have not bought soft drinks from 'the Maine man' at some stage or another. And now Maine Soft Drinks is taking its iconic brand to the other side of the world where it hopes to repeat its success here.

Derrick Harkness, the firm's sales director and grandson of its founder, said: "There is a big Irish contingent in Australia so we want to make our products available there."

The move has only been a couple of months in the making but it is a major development for the Ballymoney-based company.

It demonstrates its desire to expand and diversify, as well as reach as many customers as possible.

Mr Harkness said: "We have just had our first small order go to Australia.

"We had a bit of help from Invest NI for that who gave us some contacts and we developed them.

"We have been working with a chap who sends local products out there and now our first delivery is on a container on its way to Perth."

It is not the first time Maine Soft Drinks has made deliveries to locations outside of Northern Ireland.

Maine already regularly delivers to cities like Nottingham, Manchester, Doncaster and Liverpool after taking over a large door-to-door soft drinks company in England.

"It has been very well received," said Mr Harkness.

"We have managed to bring brown lemonade to Liverpool which has gone down well.

"There is a green cream soda they do over there so we've had to adapt to a certain extent to cater for the flavours that are popular over there.

"It's important we keep our customers happy."

When it was first established in 1949 by John Carson Harkness, he could hardly have imagined the success Maine Soft Drinks would enjoy.

He set up the company after deciding to break away from the family business, Braid Soft Drinks, and set up a rival company.

It was quite a scandal at the time.

However, Mr Harkness said it was nothing more than a case of sibling rivalry.

"My grandfather actually shared a delivery vehicle with Braid when he first started out so it couldn't have been too serious," he said.

"It certainly wasn't like the Dallas oil wars."

The biggest headache in those days was sourcing the ingredients for the drinks as Northern Ireland was still subject to rationing as a result of the Second World War.

Despite this, Mr Harkness said many of the recipes used now remain largely the same from those created more than half a century ago.

Although he admitted the company has had to adapt to stay relevant and ensure it keeps up with changing consumers' tastes.

"We have stuck to many of the original recipes although we do now use more natural flavours and colourings.

"People have maybe gone off drinking as much fizzy drinks as they used to as well so we have created other lines to compensate.

"We have been doing flavoured waters for about five or six years and we've been doing sugar-free fizzy drinks for about 15 or 20 years.

"We now do nine different flavours of sugar-free fizzy drinks."

With the growth in products, the number of people the company employs has also risen - from a handful when it was first set up to 105 people.

The company also moved from its factory in Ballymena in 1959 to new premises in Ballymoney where it remains to this day.

It is here that all of the drinks are produced and bottled before they are delivered to households and retailers across the province and beyond.

A quarter of the business comes from bottling contracts with other firms.

Half of all the business comes through the home delivery service - though it no longer includes the money-back scheme for bottles.

However, the company has worked hard to target people who do not avail of its home delivery service.

"We're only doing 10% of households in Northern Ireland so there is 90% of people not getting home deliveries," he said.

Its products are sold in both Tesco and Asda, as well as smaller independent retailers around the province - accounting for 25% of its business.

"We developed a one-litre bottle which we presented to Tesco who were very interested," he said.

"That was a good moment, it's a good feeling to see your products lined up on the shelves of a major supermarket, but it is an even better feeling seeing gaps on the shelves as well."

In keeping with its desire to move with the times, Mr Harkness said the business relies heavily upon the power of social media to advertise its services.

He also believes it is an invaluable tool to communicate with customers.

"We have more than 100,000 likes on our Facebook page.

"It is a lot of work but it's great to see messages from people all over the world. We even had one from a guy in Texas who said he wished he could buy our drinks there. We post pictures of our products on the page - we even included photos of some of our drinks on the shelves when they first went on sale in Tesco."

Maine Soft Drinks now has an annual turnover of £5.5m but Mr Harkness revealed it has plans to continue to grow the business in coming years.

Over four million glass bottles are currently delivered to homes through Northern Ireland but the company is aiming for 5% increase year on year across the business.

"We want to build on the success of the Maine man and developing the caricature is something we might look at," added Mr Harkness.

Belfast Telegraph