The family business and our core SME sector remains the bedrock of the Northern Ireland economy, with more than 102,000 family firms here, and a UK-wide employment of 13.4 million people. Emma Deighan speaks to three very different family firms about their journeys to success
Fiona Boyd-Armstrong and her husband David distilled, packaged and posted the first Shortcross Gin in 2013 as a husband and wife business on the charming Rademon Estate in Crossgar, Co Down. Today that business has expanded to employ 15 staff and its trading activity is strong, with the exporting market offering more potential for greater things.
Fiona says a mixture of passion, straight-talking and provenance are what have taken the brand so far, much of which she attributes to being a family entity.
“We are extremely passionate about what we do. It is, without doubt, challenging but it’s also rewarding. We have to be fearless in our ambition to uphold our values of distilling uncompromisingly great crafted spirits but as a family business we have many frank and open discussions. We all share the same goals. We make mistakes but we move on.”
It’s an approach that has paid off so far as the couple have successfully applied for a licence to trade and serve on-site. Meanwhile the product portfolio is set to grow with a new whiskey launch imminent.
“We have been quietly distilling our Irish whiskey since 2015 and then we laid our first casks. We have been experimenting quite a bit so I think you should expect the unexpected when we do launch,” she says, hinting that the product may be unveiled later this year.
It will sit alongside Shortcross’s original juniper-led gin and its new distilled pink gin, Rosie’s Garden Gin, in the firm’s product line.
Beyond the copper stills at Rademon Estate Fiona says there is a family ethos that is keeping business buoyant, it’s a spirit in its own right that Fiona wants to keep alive.
“Family is a very important to David and I and our wider families, like everything we do here at our home, Rademon Estate is all about the next generation, we are simply custodians.
“We have invested in building a distillery and bringing Shortcross from an idea to an award-winning gin. Our future and livelihoods are very much part of the fabric in everything we do. We want and hope to create a legacy, for future generations of the Boyd-Armstrongs to lead forward,” she says.
Established in 2008, Jonzara is a respected name in fashion circles here. The retailer, which stocks some of the biggest brands in female fashion, including Betty Barclay, Gerry Weber and Sandwich, began as a small fashion boutique for Heather McCann in Newtownards.
Today it has another store in Lisburn and a franchised Gerry Weber outlet in Newtownards. “As plans progressed we began to recognise an opportunity and my sister Sarah I both left our finance and mathematics degrees at Queen’s University Belfast to be part of the project,” Jonathan McCann says.
With three members of the McCann family driving business from the beginning, Jonathan believes a shared investment in giving customers an authentic experience is what has driven expansion to three stores and a lucrative e-commerce business, which ships over 1,000 parcels worldwide daily.
And further growth is in the pipeline, Jonathan says: “A multi-channel strategy is a core aspect to our business and we think this is an important way forward.
“Last year we relaunched our website and this has enabled us to offer our product worldwide. This has opened up a whole new list of challenges and we are working very hard to develop our infrastructure to cope with higher volumes of parcels and managing deliveries and returns globally.”
The company is currently the largest Gerry Weber stockist in NI with a store dedicated to the brand. It’s an area that the firm is exploring further as other brands show interest in this kind of retail partnership.
Thriving in one of the most challenging of sectors has been one of Jonzara’s strengths. It’s that balance of a high street presence and a healthy online site that has kept it safe.
“Retail in itself is a very challenging sector. Things are changing rapidly and it is about trying to keep up. For us bricks and mortar is very important but e-commerce is a growing aspect of Jonzara and we are trying to use a balance of the two to give our customers the best possible choice and service.
“Consumer confidence is critical for our sector too and unfortunately issues around Brexit and now Covid-19 have the potential to be extremely damaging. The bulk of our stock comes from Europe so we are watching closely and planning as best as possible for import and commodity duty charges. We are also keen to explore more sustainable options within our fashion chain.”
Being a family firm helps Jonzara face uncertainties with “complete support” Jonathan says. He says the shared passion is what drives it and its appeals to customers, but it can also cause a few arguments which he brands as a strength.
Asked if he would be keen to keep the business a family one, he says: “Jonzara is slightly unique in that the first and second generation started the business together. At just 32 and 30, Sarah and I have no plans to retire just yet and indeed no third generation to pass the business on to at the minute. Our staff team has grown to 20 and while these individuals are not members of the McCann family they are very firmly part of the Jonzara family.”
Caroline is the financial director of Shelbourne Motors, a Northern Ireland business that started as a forecourt back in 1973 when it became a Toyota franchise.
Today it employs more than 150 staff across its Portadown and Newry showrooms where car marques have multiplied to include other brands, as well as used car sales, an accident repair centre, vehicle rental and valet centre.
Caroline says Shelbourne Motors is “built upon an ethos of delivering exceptional choice and excellent customer service to our strong and loyal customer base”.
“Since my brothers, Paul and Richard, and I took on overall responsibility for the business we have celebrated Shelbourne Motors’s 45th Anniversary in 2018 and officially opened a new £5m multi-franchise complex in Newry.
“We made a commitment to build on our father’s legacy and never stand still, and we continue to go from strength-to-strength as one of Northern Ireland’s largest family-owned vehicle retailers.”
The priority for the firm now is to maximise its new and used car sales and its new site in Portadown will support that growth. It will also focus on its online retail presence following an investment in ‘ePlatform’, Caroline says.
She says the insights passed through the family from her father have supported the success of Shelbourne Motors, helping it to overcome a challenging and competitive environment.
“Family connection differentiates us from non family businesses. We all have grown up in the motoring industry and have a genuine passion for the business instilled in us by our father. He has passed on tremendous insights into the successful running of well-structured and operationally sound vehicle retailer operates.
“We are now entrusted with building on his legacy and it’s great that my brothers, Paul and Richard, and I are able to sit down together as a team and all have an input into the direction of the business in the short, medium and long term.”