Posted on Tuesday 19 January 2010 by Ulster Business

Brian Irwin

Brian Irwin - Irwin’s Bakery

Leaders in Business - Irwin’s Bakery is one of the best-known brands in Northern Ireland and one which has weathered the changing tastes and habits of local consumers. In this volatile environment, executive chairman Brian Irwin has ensured the company has stayed ahead of the curve. Here he gives Ulster Business a rundown of his thoughts for the sector in the coming year.

Economic pundits are predicting a ‘mixed bag’ for 2010. Amid signs of recovery, notably some buoyancy returning to the housing market and consumer confidence steadying, the economy is ultimately expected to remain fragile next year. With further labour market difficulties and public expenditure set to tighten, local business owners are bracing themselves for the year ahead. Brian Irwin, executive chairman of Irwin’s Bakery says that the situation will produce tough choices for the Northern Ireland Executive but stresses that political leaders must take the long view. In particular, support must be ramped up for local industries that offer strategic, sustainable and long-term growth for ‘NI Plc’ – with food and drink manufacturing one such critical asset. “Food and drink processing is a significant contributor to the local economy. Latest government figures show that the sector continues to make the biggest contribution towards total sales (19.3%), external sales (16.6%), GVA (13.4%) and employment (22.2%) in NI’s overall manufacturing industry. It also made the second largest contribution (15.1%) to overall manufacturing export sales,” says Brian Irwin. “The global economic crisis has, in fact, thrown the importance of the sector into stark relief – as other local industries have constricted, food production has remained stable,” he continues. “Nonetheless, NI processors are facing considerable pressure, particularly from escalating production costs exacerbated by fluctuating commodity prices and energy costs, notably electricity. 2009 was a good year for Irwin’s with dynamic consumer demand in local and export markets, however, the year began with a huge increase in raw material costs. While this eased to an extent, global currency fluctuations proved a double-edged sword, making it attractive to export into the euro zone, for example, but producing major volatility in commodity purchases. “The year ahead is going to be similarly tough. Government spending cuts and any post-election budget will no doubt throw out additional challenges. Now more than ever, local government must recognise food processing as a core growth area, making the necessary investment in the sector and putting effective support mechanisms in place to drive it forward, particularly in exports,” says Mr Irwin. Businesses too must take steps to ‘future proof’ themselves, he advises, becoming more efficient and ‘market agile’ to manage currency and commodity fluctuations effectively. Moreover, the sector must focus squarely on producing goods that consumers want. “Compare the situation with this time last year and there is at least greater certainty. This is stabilising consumer and business confidence and returning some control. In turn, it’s producing opportunities – consumers are still willing to pay for the right product. Right now, businesses must focus on the critical proposition – the right product at the right quality and the right price,” he says. Clearly Irwin’s Bakery knows a thing or two about what consumers, local and national, want. Founded in 1912, it is one of the few large-scale family-owned businesses in NI. Co-owned by Brian and brother Niall, Irwin’s technical director, the business is worth £40million annually, employs around 450 people and produces over a million bakery products weekly for some 1,000 retail and food service customers. With nearly 100 years’ trading, success derives from pre-empting and responding to change says Brian. “As far as the current recession goes, sliced bread sales are on the up as consumers turn to products that are simple, value for money but still nutritious and versatile. The comfort of familiar favourites has brought people back to bread. However, it is by no means ‘recession proof’, particularly for us as an indigenous business facing intense multi-national competition. We have to get the strategy right. “The emphasis continues to be on delivering the ‘quality-utility-value’ proposition. We’ll aim to be more agile than ever, responding to continuing demand for our signature products but producing exciting innovations to engage new markets.”


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