Paul Allen: 'One or two firms come across my desk every week... uncertainty brings opportunity'
Entrepreneur Paul Allen, the ex-boss of Tayto, tells Emma Deighan about his bakery, pasta company and lessons from his dad’s fruit machine business
Paul Allen, executive chairman of Genesis Bakery, has a reputation for boosting the fortunes of food businesses, or any business for that matter, but he'll not take all the credit for it.
Just last year, Paul took over McErlain's Bakery in Magherafelt after it went into administration. He's now announced a £750,000 investment and the creation of 35 new roles - and the rebrand of the business and its most famous lines from Genesis Crafty to Genesis. Before that he was at the helm of Co Armagh crisp giant Tayto for seven years during which he increased turnover from £15m to £250m.
"I may have driven a lot of that strategy," he says about the acquisitions that drove that rise in profits.
"But it's important to say there was a team of people there who helped put together the vision."
Born and bred in south Belfast, Paul recalls his childhood as a happy, stable time.
He has one younger brother and an older sister who he feels lucky to still be very close to today. "My father ran his own fruit machine business and before I went to school I was counting 10ps," he says.
"He would've covered all of Northern Ireland - every nook and cranny - delivering everything from pool tables to fruit machines, anything you would find in a pub. Sometimes people would say to me how do you know that part of Belfast but I knew all the shortcuts because of him. I really enjoyed that.
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"And it was an invaluable lesson about money. I learned lots of things from that. In fact, I think if you're in a family that runs its own business you're more inclined to go into business yourself," adds Paul.
But business wasn't the original career path Paul chose. After completing his degree in European Economics at Queen's University, he decided to become a pilot.
A serendipitous conversation with his sister's colleague the night before he was to fly to England to begin his pilot degree would change that. "She said, 'It's very clear your interest is in business, not being a pilot. You've a couple minutes taking off and landing when you fly and the rest is done in autopilot and I think you want more from life, instead of spending time in autopilot'."
Instead of becoming a professional pilot, he studied for an MBA at Ulster University which led him to the role he is in today - though he does have a pilot's licence. Paul fondly recalls his secondary school years at St Malachy's Grammar in north Belfast.
"I would've gotten two buses across the city during the Troubles. Many times the buses were bricked and generally that wasn't by the other side, but I think when you grow up during times like that you get an awareness.
"I think Northern Ireland people have a bit more of a cop-on than people elsewhere. I just think we tend to hide that light when we go into other territories. I've worked in England and I've not seen that awareness there. It's a talent."
While at St Malachy's Paul excelled in sports, notably basketball and golf. "I played with a great bunch of guys and we had a great basketball coach, Brian Molloy, who has since passed away. He was really good at taking kids and developing them through basketball."
While playing golf, Paul was crowned Leinster Boys Champion, but as the teenage years approached he admits: "I didn't do as much as I could have.
"It is a great regret I didn't keep them up because as you get older you need that outlet to meet other people outside of business and who have a wider socio-economic background," he adds.
It's perhaps those regrets that have seen him become the biggest champion of his only child, Sophia, who plays squash at competition level here.
Paul married his childhood sweetheart Nicola, who grew up in the same street as him.
They became a rare success story in long-distance romances even when Paul moved to England after his MBA at Ulster University and a stint at AIB.
"There were a few bumps along the way," he says. "But I suppose it was like a boomerang and we kept coming back."
Today Paul and Nicola are married 23 years. Sophia (16) is at Methodist College and Paul and Nicola spend most of their weekends travelling to support their daughter as she competes playing squash for Ulster.
During the week, Paul is busy living up to his name as a guru in the food business. He's established a reputation for turning companies around; developing and expanding them through expansion and acquisition.
His first journey into company takeovers was during his days at PwC where his first deal was the management buy in of Shop Electric. And while working with Tayto at PwC he was offered an in-house role.
That was in 2002 after which he was instrumental in Tayto's acquisition of Golden Wonder, Red Mill Snacks, Mr Porky's Pork Scratching, The Real Pork Crackling Company, Portlebay Popcorn and Real Crisps. Sister company, Montague Group, which specialises in vending machines, was also formed.
Last year he took over the McErlain's and Genesis Crafty Bakery. Paul effectively rescued the business out of administration - along with the jobs of 260 staff.
Talking about that move, he says: "We all reach a watershed moment and last year I turned 50. My mother-in-law and father-in-law passed away within the year, we were moving house and I bought and sold a Harley Davidson. I wasn't willing to have an affair so the next change for me was to change jobs.
"I was made aware that Genesis was in difficulty so I put in an offer and bought it with help from Danske Bank," he says." "I was very sorry that the McErlain family lost the business," he continues, adding that while there are opportunities to grow it and return it to profitability, the takeover will not be without its challenges.
"The future for Genesis is continued growth. There is great opportunity to grow including the gluten free range. It's a very nice business with a committed workforce," he adds.
But the firm, which supplies to M&S and Waitrose as well as Starbucks and other big high street names, is struggling to get sufficient numbers of staff. Many existing staff are from EU countries. "Brexit is having an impact and people are unsure," says Paul.
"People feel unwelcome and some have probably taken a pay cut because the euro has strengthened.
"Our staff numbers have gone up to over 400 people but there are times when we can't run the bakery to its full capacity because we don't have the staff numbers and that is a challenge for all of the food business to face."
Looking ahead to the general election in December, Paul hopes that whatever the outcome, some form of certainty will prevail.
"I think what the business community is crying out for is certainty and we need to be able to plan. We only have 80,000 factory jobs to sustain a population of 1.8 million and those industries are very capital intensive.
"They require a lot of future planning. If I look at my business in three years' time, I know I have to make investment but whenever I don't know what paper work is going to be required to sell products to customers in Dundalk or Dumfries it's difficult to make those decisions.
"And then funders become cautious. It's causing paralysis and we need to work it out, whether it's leave or remain, we need certainty."
And on the subject of Brexit, he adds: "We shouldn't just take whatever deal is on the table. We need to push for the best deal that we can."
In the background, however, Paul and his team will be looking at other transactions that could add value to his business.
In recent weeks, he and his business partner Michael Blaney took over Devon-based Pasta King, which provides pasta meals to schools in the UK.
It also has a growing presence in the health, leisure and care sector with a sales turnover of around £8m.
He plans to grow the operation into Northern Ireland too with a view to connect with Deliveroo.
When it comes to other possible acquisitions, he says that "one or two come across my desk every week".
"I've invested small amounts in a couple of other food businesses that stay below the radar," he says.
"Where there's uncertainty people will see opportunity and we've been looking at a number of UK businesses.
"In the food industry it's important to have a critical mass. It comes with a huge amount of regulation and to be compliant and be aware you need to be a certain size.
"We will wait and see what 2020 brings. There will always be opportunities."
Q What’s the best piece of business advice you’ve received?
A Listen. Listen to customers suppliers, colleagues. Listen to your gut. Don’t procrastinate, make a decision. The F in FMCG means fast.
Q What’s the best piece of advice you would pass on to someone starting out in business?
A Ask for help. People are frighted to ask for help. Anytime I’ve been asked for help I’ve always given it. When starting out you don’t need to be secretive. Do your research, use networks and have a clear statement.
Q If you weren’t in this job, what would you be doing?
A Either a pilot or a racing car driver. I enjoy cars and flying. I have a pilot licence.
Q Where was your last holiday and where are you going to next?
A I have a small apartment in Tenerife and we go there all the time. That island gives me plenty to do and explore. I’ve travelled all over the world and I’m happy in Tenerife. I’m learning the language too.
Q Have you got any hobbies?
A Cars and squash.
Q And do you follow a particular team?
A I follow the Ulster squash squad. My daughter plays for them and I watch her every weekend.
Q What’s the best business decision you’ve made?
A I think investing in yourself. Continual investment is important but I don’t put all my qualifications on my business card because there’s always someone more qualified than you.
Q Do you read? Can you recommend a book?
A I did English A-level and read a lot when I was studying but at the minute I read current affairs and motor magazines.
Q How would you describe your early life?
A I come from a great family and my parents instilled core moral DNA into me and helped create opportunities and worked hard.
Q Have you any economic predictions?
A Big ticket purchases are down. People are nervous and world economics is moving towards protectionism. There will also be so much more focus around poverty and the green agenda.
Q How would you sum up working in the food industry?
A FMCG I would say stands for fast, motivational, challenging and great fun. It’s a career for life with a chance to influence the future eating habits of a nation.