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Northern Ireland Mace and Centra owners McDade and Quinn on staying up to date in retail game

John McDade and Michael Quinn, who own Centra and Mace shops in Co Tyrone and Belfast, tell Lisa Smyth about achievements, challenges and setbacks


John McDade

John McDade

Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press E

John McDade

Becoming a success in the world of retail takes dedication, countless hours of hard work along with a little bit of courage and willing to take a risk.

No-one knows that better than John McDade, who owns two busy Centra stores in the west of the province. The first is a thriving food market and filling station located in Clogher, on the main road between Enniskillen and Belfast, while the second is a convenience supermarket in Ballygawley, Co Tyrone.

Both are very different shops, catering to very different markets, but in many ways, John adopts a similar approach in the way they are managed.

"One thing that never changes is that overheads go up almost on a weekly basis," he says

"The cost of electricity, rates are increasing significantly, and in order to meet all those increases, you have to find ways of driving sales or reduce margins.

"Margins are very difficult to influence because customers are becoming more and more savvy about prices.

"That means you have to constantly looking at getting new sales and ways to squeeze a few more pounds out of the business.

"It's about looking ahead and meeting new demands that may be there.

"If we don't drive sales of margins, then we are effectively worse off this year than last year because of overheads, so we're always looking for small improvements here and there."

This ethos is behind the recent extension and refurbishment of the store in Clogher and why John is already considering revamping his shop in Ballygawley.

"The business is performing well but we are looking at freshening it up this year and spending some money on it," John explains.

"It was only done in 2015 but we're constantly looking at ways to innovate and improve."

It comes after John completed major works at the Clogher store, which he said has resulted in increased customer numbers and profit.

The primary objective for thework was to improve the customer experience and range of products on sale.

"It took significant investment," says John. "We're on a main thoroughfare so we always had a decent footfall but we were underdelivering on what modern customers expect, so we wanted to improve our coffee and hot and cold food offering.

"Prior to the work, we also had about 18 to 20 parking spaces and they were a bit cramped and disorganised, but now we have about 40. We also have designated HGV spaces and the flow is much more efficient, the parking is much more customer friendly.

"There's much less messing about and that has helped our footfall."

While John is passionate about the world of retail, his path into the sector wasn't exactly straightforward.

He spent his younger years helping out on the family farm and working for his father's fruit and vegetable wholesaler business, before officially joining the business after university and a number of years spent in the food industry.

As the years went by, however, a decision was taken to expand and diversify, so John, his brother and father, took a leap of faith and diversified into retail.

They bought a small store in Derrylin in Co Fermanagh and quickly updated it and increased profits at the same time.

"We went from taking about £4,000 a week and moved up to about £20,000," says John.

"We could see how spending money and attention to detail helped drive business and then the opportunity to buy another two stores came up.

"I wasn't worried about moving into retail when we bought the first store.

"I had been in and out of shops doing delivery for the wholesalers, so I had seen the successful and not so successful shops and had seen what made them work.

"You need good, fresh produce, you need the right products, high standards of cleanliness, high standards all round really.

"It seemed like going from one shop to three shops was a bigger risk because the first investment was smaller.

"When it came to the other two shops, you were talking millions as opposed to hundreds of thousands."

John, who's the sole owner of the stores at Clogher and Ballygawley, adds: "I supposed when it comes to risk, I try and see the bigger picture.

"It might sound ridiculous, but if I believe that something can work, then I believe I can make it happen.

"If you believe in yourself, there's a good chance it's going to happen.

"You have to be prepared to work hard, set yourself targets and then do your best to meet those targets.

"You also have to hold your nerve - when you first draw down a significant amount of money, there is a period where you can start to panic.

"Last year, when we did the refurbishment of the Clogher store, it would have been easy to worry in the first few months if things didn't happen immediately because we had drawn down a big chunk of money.

"However, if you keep the faith and keep meeting your standards and attention to detail, everything will work out."

The difficulties endured by shops in Belfast city centre after the Primark fire of August 2018 are well documented.

A number of retailers pulled down their shutters on that fateful day and never opened again, while others limped along until footfall in the affected area increased again.

Michael Quinn, who owns a Mace shop on Castle Street, was part of the latter group and he cites the period as the greatest challenge he has faced during his almost 40-year career in business.

Despite this, however, Michael is optimistic that the future is bright for both his chain of Mace and Centra stores and Belfast in general.


Michael Quinn, who owns four Mace shops and opened a Centra at City Hall before Christmas

Michael Quinn, who owns four Mace shops and opened a Centra at City Hall before Christmas

Michael Quinn, who owns four Mace shops and opened a Centra at City Hall before Christmas

‘The aftermath of the Primark fire was my worst time in 40 years’

“I remember seeing the flames going up over the Primark building and thinking they would put it out fairly quickly, but of course that isn’t how it happened,” he says.

“At the time, we were three weeks away from opening our new Mace on Castle Street.

“We had moved two doors down from our old shop to bigger premises.

“The fire didn’t delay our opening but it did affect the footfall — even though people in Belfast are very resilient, they came through the Troubles, and they did still come into the city, but it definitely affected custom.

“But I stuck to our aim and while it was very, very difficult for everyone, not just me, we were fortunate to get through it.

“Now the shop is doing great and has even won an award.”

Michael, who owns Mace shops at Queen’s Elms, Castle Street, Royal Avenue and High Street, and a Centra in Donegall Square East, has worked in retail since leaving school.

He had no great burning ambition to go into business — rather he spotted a job vacancy in a newspaper for a trainee manager role at a supermarket close to his home in Ballynahinch, Co Down.

However, he found he enjoyed the job and he had a natural aptitude for retail.

He worked in a number of roles, learning the trade and gaining experience, before an opportunity came up to take a job helping to run a number of Mace shops.

After about five years, Michael became a partner in the franchise and when his colleague decided he wanted to step back in 2009, he made the decision to buy a number of the shops.

With such a lengthy career in retail, it is little wonder that Michael has seen a massive shift in the behaviour of customers over the years.

With this in mind, the service he provides is constantly evolving.

“Catering to your customers is the most important thing,” he said.

“Belfast has changed so much over the years. There are now so many hotels and we would see a lot of people coming in and asking do we sell razors or shaving foam, or whatever else they have forgotten to bring with them.

“So we are constantly bringing in new stock, trying to meet those demands.

“People don’t have as much time either, they come in with their earphones in, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t build a rapport with our repeat customers.

“We also target the workers in the city now — whereas they used to make coffee in the office and bring their lunch in, now they want to pop out and grab something and that’s very much the idea behind the Centra we have opened.”

Michael continues: “The brand is new and exciting and it’s the direction that Musgrave, the parent company of Mace and Centra, wants to go and we’re more than happy to do that too.

“We had our shop on Donegall Square East and we were looking to expand when Musgrave approached us with the opportunity to open a Centra a few doors down, so we jumped at the chance.

“It couldn’t have worked out any better, it was an old Santander bank and we renovated the premises.

“I was really pushing to get it open before Christmas because we wanted it open in time for the Christmas market, and we managed to meet the deadline.

“Our old premises were about 800 sq ft and the new Centra is about 2,500 sq ft.

“It wasn’t a risk for us to take, we did our homework and we knew it was what people wanted.

“The risk was basically, how do we get it right, how do we make it right and provide what people want?

“It’s so important in business to consider everything — if you’re opening a shop, you need to look at footfall, what people want, the competition, whether you’re in a suitable area, whether it’s secure.

“Consider everything before you make a decision and most importantly, listen to other people and get advice.

“I work very closely with Musgrave and they are very supportive and the Ulster Bank has also been a great help.

“We have had tough times, but I’ve had a nice wee journey as well.

“I am so passionate about Belfast, I love the city centre, and I want all the retailers to do well.”

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