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For Cod and Ulster to bust: How David James Kerr built £1m clothing empire after fast food chain collapse

David James Kerr was still in his early 20s when he was declared bankrupt. In an inspiring tale of triumph over adversity, the father-of-three tells Claire O'Boyle why he was determined to be a success in business again

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David James Kerr is based on the Newtownards Road in east Belfast

David James Kerr is based on the Newtownards Road in east Belfast

Freddie Parkinson

David and partner Stephanie

David and partner Stephanie

David James Kerr in his shop with an array of designer clothing orders

David James Kerr in his shop with an array of designer clothing orders

David and his baby daughter Georgia

David and his baby daughter Georgia

David James Kerr is based on the Newtownards Road in east Belfast

The extraordinary story of his achievements, a tale of triumph over adversity, reads like the script of a Hollywood movie. And with Belfast's very own Holywood Road making a star appearance in David James Kerr's remarkable journey, it's as fitting a comparison as any.

Because the businessman and father-of-three - who is still just 34 years old - has already had more dramatic ups and downs than most of us will have in a lifetime.

From overnight success with his cheekily-named chain of Fish and Chip shops - For Cod And Ulster - to a devastating bankruptcy in his early 20s, the east Belfast entrepreneur has fought his way back from the brink and built a business empire to be proud of, turning over an incredible £1m last year.

"It's been a bit of an eventful time," laughs David. "A proper rags to riches story, I suppose. But I'm nothing special. I'm a guy from east Belfast, and I've literally worked my way up, selling the coat off my back, to make something of myself. It shows anyone can do it."

David's road to success started in the midst of what was a difficult time. A new dad in 2006, David was just 20 when his oldest son Ryan - now 14 - was born. His father Norman, passed away the same year.

"It was a very life-changing time," recalls David, who is also dad to Abbie (10) and seven-year-old Georgia.

"Becoming a dad makes you grow up pretty quick, and it was sad because my own dad was only there with the baby for a few months. Looking back I think it could have gone either way. I could have gone all down in the dumps and started partying and going down the wrong path, that would have been easy. But for some reason it sparked the opposite in me. It made me want to do something with my life."

Despite having left Belfast's Orangefield High School with no qualifications - "just a couple of Ds and Es in my GCSEs" - David clearly had brains to burn.

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David and partner Stephanie

David and partner Stephanie

David and partner Stephanie

"School wasn't really for me," recalls David. "The whole approach seemed to be teaching you how to be an employee but I didn't want that. I wanted to work for myself, and I had ideas."

And with a clever name for a chippie in his head, once his father had passed away, David was determined to make his idea a reality.

"I'd thought of the name, For Cod and Ulster, and I knew there was something more to it," he recalls. "I had a look on Google to see if there was anything else like it, not just in Northern Ireland, but anywhere, and I couldn't see anything."

With some money left to him from his father, and after completing training through the Prince's Trust, David - then just 21 - invested in his first business, the For Cod and Ulster fish and chip shop on the Albertbridge Road.

"It was east Belfast but I didn't want it to be one-sided, so we had the Gerry Adams Burger, and the Ian Paisley Burger," remembers David.

"It really caught people's imaginations, and it was 10 years after the Good Friday Agreement so there was a lot of goodwill at the time and it went brilliantly at the start. It got attention from right around the world and tourists would flock to the place."

Before long, David opened two more shops, one in Ballyhackamore and another on the Holywood Road.

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David James Kerr in his shop with an array of designer clothing orders

David James Kerr in his shop with an array of designer clothing orders

David James Kerr in his shop with an array of designer clothing orders

"I expanded within a year," he recalls. "I was young and ambitious, but I took on too much too quickly. By the time I was 23 or 24, when my wife Stephanie was expecting our second baby, we lost it all."

Taking on three rents, three sets of rates, wages and utility bills, the financial pressures began to mount on David, and he was declared bankrupt. "It was literally the scariest place," he remembers. "We went from having the world at our feet, fancy cars and property investments, to nothing.

"The shops were gone and I had to sign straight on to Jobseekers. The investment properties were gone, the cars were gone and we were blacklisted on credit.

"Being bankrupt feels like you've got a disease. You're used to being in your car, and suddenly you've got to walk everywhere. You feel like a failure.

"It stays on your credit file for six years, so when you're looking for a TV on credit or a car or anything at all, everything is a struggle.

"From all we'd had, we were straight back on housing benefits and from being flush suddenly we were relying on my mum to top up our electric in the house when the metre was beeping.

"She'd buy us our food shopping, and we had no luxuries at all. She even bought us a mobile phone. We had to share one because we couldn't afford two sets of top-ups."

But right through it all, devoted couple David and Stephanie stuck together. "Stephanie knew me when I had nothing in the first place, she knew me when I had all that success, and she stuck by me when it all went," recalls David. "She's been with me the whole way through. Without her I couldn't have done what I have."

And as he dusted himself off and looked to the future, the next step of David's journey was even more remarkable than the ones that had gone before, especially given the heartache he and his young family had suffered through his bankruptcy.

"I felt sorry for myself at the start, of course," he recalls. "I gave it a few months but then I started to rally myself again."

Looking on eBay, David started bidding on pre-owned, top end coats, which he would buy, fix up and sell again on the online shopping site.

"I'd sold a few of my own coats to begin with," he explains. "I was literally selling the clothes off my back, because what was in my wardrobe were some of the few things I had left after the bankruptcy.

"Then in the middle of it all, I started looking at some of the other coats by the same designer, and that's when it occurred to me. I could get them and do them up, and sell them on for more."

To begin with, savvy David was making a profit of anything from £20 to £30 per item, but before long, his margins began to build.

"I'd buy a coat for £50 and sell it for £80, or I'd buy one for £80 and sell for £110," he says. "I wasn't working at the time, so I was spending all that time trying to work out my next move. We didn't have a printer at home so I'd walk from our house in Bloomfield up to the library at the Holywood Arches and pay 5p to print off the invoices and labels."

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David and his baby daughter Georgia

David and his baby daughter Georgia

David and his baby daughter Georgia

While he started off with a few sales a week, it wasn't long before David was buying and selling in larger numbers.

"The parcels were getting delivered sometimes 10 to 15 at a time," he says. "If we missed them at home, they'd end up at the Prince Regent Post Office away over in Castlereagh, and of course we had no car then either so I'd take my wee daughter's pram and walk the 30 or 40 minutes over to pick them up, and walk all the way back.

"The first few times I was embarrassed. I thought people would be thinking, 'what's he doing with that?' a pram filled with sacks. But I didn't care really. I thought this was what was hopefully going to start putting food on the table for us."

Within months, David was turning around up to 60 items per week.

"The house was bursting at the seams," he recalls. "So eventually I looked on Gumtree and got a very, very cheap room to rent in east Belfast where we put up some rails and were able to ship the stuff out of there."

By 2012, ambitious David had reached out to a clothes supplier in Italy and struck up an arrangement to buy last-season top-end clothes directly.

"It was a game-changer," he says. "Social media was really taking off and we were able to use eBay, Facebook and Instagram to get the message out about what we had and we were constantly going back and forth for stock."

By 2015, the small unit was too small and David and Stephanie moved the business to its current location on the Newtownards Road, where as well as storing goods for their online business, they have a shop-front for customers, too.

And as if there hadn't been enough drama, that year brought a devastating break-in that saw the David James Kerr shop lose thousands of pounds worth of stock, but once again David bounced back with support from his family and the community.

"People really rallied round to help get us back on our feet," he says.

David explains that most of the company's business is made up of exports. "We ship as far as South Korea, Australia, Indonesia, Dubai, America and Canada," he says.

"In terms of the shop we have people coming from right across Northern Ireland and the Republic, and we've had people across from Scotland and England too because the brands we have are few and far between.

"We've got everything from Gucci and Valentino to Stone Island and Givenchy. It's all luxury brands, and we're now one of the key destinations in Northern Ireland."

And while his phenomenal success is definitely worth shouting about, not least last year's turnover of £1m, David's past experiences mean his feet are planted firmly on the ground.

"Now I'm very cautious when it comes to finances," he says. "I'm not gung-ho like I was back then. But I'm glad I kept going and didn't give up after what happened.

"It was a horrible thing to deal with, especially with wee kids and Stephanie to think about. But I think it's worth talking about, working hard and getting your head down.

"Because you can end up doing well. It's all about hard work and perseverance, and yes we have nice cars and we're comfortable again, but it wasn't easy and I'm working hard for it.

"I'm in the shop six days a week, Stephanie works here full-time and my mum helps us out part-time with the packing.

"The kids are in here sleeping in cardboard boxes when we're preparing for our big sales so we work around the clock. We've been through a lot for it, but I think when you love what you do, then it's worth it."

To find out more visit davidjameskerr.com

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