'Mummy guilt made me quit my 9-5 job and set up my own sandwich company at my kitchen table'
Sheila Chambers, founder of Newry-based firm Around Noon, talks to Emma Deighan about how she turned homemade sandwiches into a success story...
Co Armagh woman Sheila Chambers grew up with a "forward-thinking" mother who instilled in her a self-belief that she says is partly behind the huge success of her sandwich empire Around Noon.
The mother-of-five said her business, which is now headed by her son Gareth, came about "from necessity" rather than a "lightbulb moment".
It was a desire to spend more time with her children that saw her seek out ideas that would allow her to earn but stay at home.
Fast-forward 30 years from the day she made her first sandwich for profit in her very own kitchen, and Sheila has just been recognised with an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours for her contribution to the local economy, her role in generating vital employment, and for being one of Northern Ireland's most notable female entrepreneurs.
It's an honour that demonstrates just how far that business has come over the years.
"At the time I was working in an office and we would make our bosses sandwiches.
"It could be a bit of Veda with banana in it, but on the days when it was busy it was a struggle and I thought, wouldn't it be lovely if someone came through that door with a basket of sandwiches?" she says.
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Shelia grew up in the small village of Killeavy, south Armagh, which she describes as "a lovely area with forestry and just a nice, small community in the 1960s".
The youngest of five children, she was raised by her mother who worked as a dressmaker before Sheila was born. Her father was a painter and decorator.
Sheila says: "There was a big age gap between me and the oldest, 20 years. I was cherished and an adored wee late one. All the older siblings looked out for me."
Sheila studied at St Paul's High School in Bessbrook and went on to take her A-levels at Sacred Heart School in Newry. Afterwards, a career in office work beckoned. "I started off in a wonderful office close by my home. In those days I would've learned a lot of things I needed for the business. It was a family firm and it taught me how to do wages, manage a switchboard, and do accounts. I got a good grounding in the office work," she recalls.
"Then I moved from a building supplies firm to property. I went to an estate agency run by a very hard-working family and I learned general reception work and how to work in a busy environment under pressure, but there was always something in me that wanted to start something that was my own.
"I had two small children at the time and it was difficult to get good childcare."
Dinner parties with friends saw Sheila vocalise her idea to kick-start a sandwich business from her kitchen table. Her husband Francis, a furniture agent, would go on to be an instrumental source of support and his "good grounding in business" would help them grow Around Noon into a major business.
But she also credits her unwavering bravery to quit the 9-5 to her mum, adding: "I know my mother in particular was way ahead of her time in her wisdom.
"She always said there is nothing in life that can't be achieved and my father always had a great work ethic and believed that hard work always wins through. He said never be afraid to go after things you want.
"But it was hugely scary. When I said to my husband I had left my job he said 'good on ya'. I told him I had an idea and was going to go with it and he was very supportive. It wasn't a lightbulb moment, more out of necessity.
"The final decision came when my daughter was sick and I got a call from creche to take her home. I thought, I can't do this any more.
"The guilt drove me on to think I have to do something now. I was 29 and in my lunch hour I got menus designed and sat and came up with sandwich ideas."
The first years of Around Noon - so named because it's "the time when people start to think about lunch" - were full of hard graft, working through the night and delivering sandwiches to customers with a car full of children.
"In the planning days it was done in-between school runs and things like that. It was a nervous excitement and only started off as a spark of an idea, a means to allow me to look after my own childcare.
"It was my husband who always had great ambition. I don't even know if I'd be going as far as Dundalk but I did knuckle down."
Paperwork was done during the children's nap times and even on the beach "while peeking up from under my sunhat to watch them".
"And it very quickly started growing. I employed a few women who I knew and who had kids at school. We started working before the kids got up and it was growing at a pace," says Sheila.
Gareth now holds the reins at the firm. He is Sheila and Francis' eldest child.
Their daughter Andrea also works at the company. Their other two children "went on to do their own things".
Sons Glen and Alan are both at university and are interested in careers in the arts sector.
It was a series of serendipitous events that helped grow the company. One was delivering sandwiches to Invest NI where Sheila was encouraged to enrol on courses and apply for funding. And with Francis' help, they secured major delivery deals with forecourts around NI.
Around Noon grew from a cottage industry at the Chambers' home into an enterprise that today employs around 360 people.
"Our bedrooms were small offices where we printed labels, and a visit to one of the sandwich shows in England where we discovered the plastic sandwich wedge changed everything.
"Then when there were units being built in Ashtree [Enterprise Park] near us and we opened up there. That was 1995. I remember it well. I was pregnant and I was probably a nightmare for the builders but I wanted to make sure it was right."
Other significant moments for Sheila include the day she employed a refrigerated van driver. "It was the greatest day ever. He is a great man and is still with us today. Before that we would watch the news during the Troubles and Francis would deliver sandwiches to the areas where there was trouble while I would deliver to the others. Sometimes the children would be in the back and we would be existing on two to three hours' sleep."
In 2016 Sheila retired from the business and left her empire in the hands of her son Gareth. In recent years the company has continued its phenomenal growth. Just last month it announced a planned investment of £500,000 as part of ongoing expansion plans.
The Newry-headquartered business says money will be spent on IT systems, growth in products, services and staff numbers and acquisitions may be on the agenda.
Such is Around Noon's success it has featured in the Sunday Times Virgin Fast Track 100 listing last year and in 2017.
And as well as its Newry base, it also has a manufacturing facility in greater London and has acquired two businesses, Chef-in-a-Box in England and Sweet Things Bakery in Dublin.
"I sit on the board and attend one meeting a month now and I love it. It's one of my favourite days and I get so excited hearing all about the plans. I look at them and think oh my God, you are just so positive. The staff are so involved in everything they do too and that was one of the greatest pieces of advice I got - to always ask your staff because they know best - and I see that today, still."
Gareth heads the businesss as chief executive alongside chairman Howard Farquhar. "I know they have lots of big plans," says Sheila.
When she's not attending monthly board meetings at Around Noon, Sheila invests her time in gardening and voluntary work, which has brought her back to her admin days.
"I have hobbies now too and that is something I never had time for. When I started exercise classes I would've gone to a few and then gave up because something always came up. Now I can give time to that and I love it. The idea of being fit and healthy and meeting lovely people while volunteering is great."
This autumn Sheila will step away from the sandwich counter to receive her MBE for her contribution to the economy over the years.
It will mark one of the most momentous moments in her career.
But does she miss the hectic days of building a sandwich empire? "I must be honest, no, I don't miss the day-to-day stuff. I don't miss the pressure.
"I always loved my work and bounced into it every day and there was always excitement but when you start to get tired it's time to look for something else.
"Now, at that board meeting I get the best of both.
"I still make sandwiches," she adds. "My friends say I make beautiful sandwiches. I'm always trying to come up with different things, trying to give sandwiches a bit of a lift," she adds.
Q. What’s the best piece of business (or life) advice you’ve ever been given?
A. Listen to your gut reaction and don’t be afraid to take a chance, for opportunities can be lost in too much deliberation.
Q. What piece of advice would you pass on to someone starting out in business?
A.Take as much sound advice as possible from people you trust, then do what you feel is best for you.
Q. What was your best business decision?
A. When recession hit, producers looked to reduce quantity and quality to save cost.
We did the opposite. If people were still to buy sandwiches, they had to be really good.
Q. If you weren’t doing this job, what would be your other career?
A. Something property-related. I love looking at property and seeing how prices rise and fall and the factors that effect that market.
Q. What was your last holiday? Where are you going next?
A. My last holiday was train journeys in Switzerland. I started in Basel, few days in Zurich, Lucerne, then flew home via Geneva. I hope to go to Croatia in September.
Q. What are your hobbies/interests?
A. I love anything outdoor but mostly walking and some gardening, and enjoying family life.
Q. What is your favourite sport and team?
A. I love watching football, particularly Manchester United.
Q. And have you ever played any sports?
A. As a teenager, I loved netball and running but now I love Pilates.
Q. If you enjoy reading, can you recommend a book?
A. I love reading and am currently reading Seamus Mallon’s memoir, A Shared Home Place. The best business motivational book I’ve read is called Twisted Knickers and Stolen Scones by Watt Nichol.
Q. How would you describe your early life?
A. I was the youngest of five, and was brought up in a small village.
I had a very loving and supportive family who were full of encouragement.
Q. Have you any economic predictions?
A. I have concerns about Brexit as I’m not sure it’s the right move for Northern Ireland.
Q. How would you assess your time in business with your company Around Noon?
A. I met some wonderful people over the years.
I was doing what I loved and every day was a learning day, full of opportunities.
Q. How do you sum up working in the food sector?
A. A good community of people, who are passionate about good food.