The Big Interview with refrigerated transport boss Patrick Derry
'I wanted to be successful in my own way and there was no more to it'
Patrick Derry, founder of Derry Refrigerated Transport (DRT) in Co Armagh, is nothing if not a pragmatist. And it's a quality he will need by the lorry-load as the potential pitfalls of a no-deal Brexit loom on the horizon.
The 40-year-old is marking 20 years of transporting goods up and down Ireland for food giants like Avondale Foods and Kerry Foods - a process which could become fraught and expensive in the event of a no-deal.
But regardless of Brexit, he is readying for expansion over the next few years as DRT prepares to unveil a new cold store site in Carn near Portadown after a £9m investment by a separate company, Carn Coldstore Ltd. That's likely to result in around 40 new jobs. It also bought over a business in the Republic, Brennan Transport in Co Waterford, as part of its Brexit planning.
Father-of-three Patrick says he has had six people working on Brexit planning for two years - another signal of his innate pragmatism.
The company now has a fleet of 70 lorries, 127 fridges and 120 staff, and says it can guarantee delivery anywhere in Ireland within 12 hours. Around 45% of the business is international, and the company, which does not publish full accounts, increased sales by 42% in 2018-19.
Patrick was just a teenager when he started planning to set up in business, after working with his dad Paddy in his company PJ Derry & Son. It was a fruit and vegetable trader which operated from the Balmoral Fruit Market off Boucher Road in Belfast.
Patrick lives in Kilmore near Armagh with his wife Fiona, a solicitor who practises in the Republic, and their three children. It's not far from where he grew up with his mother Rose and his father.
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Around 25 years ago, Patrick had been itching to leave his secondary school, Drumcree College in Portadown. "I was probably not that studious but I just couldn't wait to get out of the place. I had too much interest in making money and that was just it," he says.
He happily left school at 15, joined his father at the market and loved the atmosphere. "It was a great place to work in and very healthy, physically and mentally.
"There were great people and great characters who were always chasing the pound and buying and selling.
"It was a great education. You learned how to deal with people, how to read characters and read a situation. It was a great place."
The business supplied supermarkets like Wellworths, Stewarts/Crazy Prices and Dunnes Stores. But the takeover of Stewarts/Crazy Prices by Tesco marked a new era. Big multiples like Tesco, Sainsbury's and Asda shook up the market by dealing directly with farmers instead of fruit and vegetable traders.
The ever-pragmatic Patrick sensed the game was up, even at the age of just 19. "The writing was on the wall. I could see the trade getting less and less and there was no-one in my age group working in the market any more. The supermarket business really squeezed it completely. It was time to move on and do my own thing.
"I could see the opportunity to move into trucks. I always had a notion of trucks and loved them."
And a food company not too far from home in Kilmore was willing to give him a try.
"I got a break with Derek Geddis, one of the owners of Avondale Foods in Craigavon. Derek gave me an opportunity to start taking stuff to Cork and into Dublin.
"We built upon that and 20 years later we're still with Avondale Foods."
It has taken much hard work to build up the business, Patrick says.
"I was just doing whatever needed done, driving, washing trucks, loading lorries, no day was the same. There was no 9 to 5, not starting out in your own business.
"In those days, I was a single man and had no real commitments, my only focus was building the business.
"There's nothing easy about it, I had drive and ambition and you just wanted to be successful. There was nothing more to it.
"I was young, I was 19, I had nobody to advise me, learning it day by day myself. It was difficult, you just had to go by your gut feeling. I still have quite a number of staff that started with me up to 18 years ago."
He says his father had no problem with his son going out on his own. "He started a business himself, he knew what it was going to be. He was doing his thing and I was doing mine. He was happy enough for me to do anything."
As well as Avondale Foods, the company rapidly acquired other clients in the food industry, like Glanbia, potato grower Wilson's Country, salad firm Willowbrook Foods, Evron Foods, Kepak, Simply Fruit and C&J Meats.
The company transports Glanbia's yoghurts, as well as the mozzarella which Glanbia manufactures at a factory in Magheralin, Co Down.
He says the company's growth has been in tandem with growth in the food industry. "The industry has progressed a lot. There's a lot more factories producing things. There is a lot of food produced in Northern Ireland and if you produce food you need transport. They work hand in hand."
With the growth of the business, he has experienced the transition of ending up in a management role. "But I still wouldn't be afraid to load or drive or wash a lorry, I'm still hands-on."
Finding good staff can be difficult, but he says he's now built up a "great staff, which I'm very happy with". There are around 130 drivers, with the rest made up of warehouse, administrative and accounts staff. The business is a 24-hour operation, seven days a week.
"Your driver is your face of the business. You have to respect your driver and make sure they know that they're driving for quality customers."
Patrick recently celebrated his 40th birthday at a bash organised by his wife Fiona in Belfast. The couple have three children, Rachel (8), Daniel, who is 6, and two-year-old Thomas. He says they are still too young to show a strong interest in what their daddy does. "They're all young but I wouldn't want to force them into the business."
Fiona is originally from Leixlip in Kildare and the pair met in Brighton in Boston in 2006 when they were over visiting friends in the US. They married in 2009.
While he is open about the company's Brexit preparation, he - like most people - doesn't want to get into detail when asked for a forecast for beyond October 31. "I'm not a politician and I don't know what the outcome will be. I would have liked to have seen the backstop as it would have been the ideal situation.
"If we could get the uncertainty out of the way that would be the main thing. If you could understand what was going to happen you could deal with it and every business could understand what's in front of them. We're all up in the air."
But he says that every week brings new discussions among his own Brexit team. Asked what he would say on the subject to former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson - who's likely to be unveiled as the new Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister today - he says: "I wouldn't like to comment on that."
At the minute, Patrick is the sole investor in the business and hasn't taken on any other investment from elsewhere.
"I wouldn't see it any other way." But that's not to under-estimate the scale of his ambition. "Down the line we'll be looking at other opportunities, taking over other businesses, growing it into different areas and seeing where it goes.
"We are building a new depot in Carn so we're going into cold storage and order-picking."
Order-picking works by a transport company like Derry picking up orders and delivering them to the customer's customer - rather than just to Derry's own customer for onward delivery. "That leaves you as our customer more focused on production."
Patrick has had more than usual cause to celebrate recently after he was shortlisted for the prestigious Ireland-wide EY Entrepreneur of the Year Award. He has been shortlisted in the 'industry' category of the competition, regarded as one of the most rigorous business competitions across Ireland. And in evidence of the growing heft of the haulage industry, fellow logistics industry titan Ashley McCulla of McCulla (Ireland) is also shortlisted in the industry category.
As part of the Entrepreneur of the Year programme, Patrick was out to Hong Kong to learn about entrepreneurship with his fellow short-listed business leaders, as well as former winners.
He was impressed with the calibre of business leader he met in Hong Kong. "Every one of them stood out; just unbelievable people. Being part of the EY Entrepreneur of the Year does open doors. I think it can fast-forward your business and gives you a lot of learning and a lot of different stories to draw on.
"Through time you can build up your network as people get to know you more."
The company is about to make its second move since it started out in Kilmore. It's to move from its present base at Vicars Road in Portadown to Carn in Craigavon.
And Patrick thinks there is an entrepreneurial flair in evidence around Kilmore, citing the example of the PJ McCann family of fruit growers.
"People can talk and deal with each other quite well in this area," adds Patrick.
"We are an important element in the continued success of food companies throughout the country and Brexit has brought that to the fore. But the hours are long with narrow margins and transport planning is not as simple as people might think.
"No two days are ever the same and this presents challenges, but I have made some very good friends and met some great people along the way. I thoroughly enjoy going into work every day."