The Monday Interview: Family business moves with the times as consumer tastes change

The Monday Interview: Family business moves with the times as consumer tastes change

AS one of Cork’s most recognisable family businesses, food wholesaler M&P O’Sullivan has proven adept at reacting to market changes, with fathers, sons, brothers, and cousins working to satisfy shifting customer needs and markets over the past 113 years, writes Pádraig Hoare.

The Monday Interview: Family business moves with the times as consumer tastes change

This month saw the latest move to enhance the offering of a business now run by a fourth generation of leaders — frozen storage.

At the official opening of its €500,000 frozen storage build at M&P O’Sullivan on Sarsfield Rd, managing director of M&P O’Sullivan, Pat O’Sullivan was joined by his son and director of purchasing, Patrick O’Sullivan, and director of sales Eoin O’Sullivan, who is the son of legendary Cork philanthropist and former director, the late James O’Sullivan.

Patrick and Eoin are the next generation of leadership for a business that first opened in 1905.

Their customers are food service operations such as restaurants and fast food outlets, as well as schools, universities, and hospitals.

Through its retail franchise, Gala, M&P O’Sullivan serves stores, while it also has significant buying power, allowing it to successfully serve the independent retail market.

Patrick said:

The reason our business is still here after 113 years is that we kept moving with the times. We were initially tobacco- focused when we started out, moving into the grocery business in the 1930s, and we expanded intoVictoria Cross, and moved to this purpose-built warehouse in 1999

“We continually pushed it and each one of those steps would have been very big at the time. The frozen business is the new generation’s first step in doing something similar"

The two men could not have received a better education, according to Patrick, learning from his father Pat, his late uncle Frank Barry, who was financial controller, and James, who served on three separate occasions as president of the Cork Business Association (CBA).

Eoin and I have really appreciated how much knowledge our parents and relatives had for the business. When you come in as a youngster, you think you know it all and what you should be doing. But they taught us that patience is key; you cannot gather everything you need to know in three or five years — this is 30 or 40 years’ experience they have had. They have seen things happening before that are now happening again, because certain elements go in cycles. If we can emulate that in what we do in any shape or form, then we will do very well

As well as the frozen and chilled food business, which brought in €400,000 in 2013 but is on track to hit €1.5m this year, M&P is investing in its IT offering.

“Competitors are growing bigger and bigger — it is up to us to match them and grow. Customers want things instantly and have a lot more information than they used to. They want delivery as soon as possible, and that is what we are working towards. We are changing our IT system to allow our customers to order off an app, which will ensure that they can order any time of the day or anywhere,” Patrick said.

Over 113 years, the family has learned when to be brothers and cousins and fathers and sons, and when to be cold, objective business people.

“There have certainly been times when things have become heated in the boardroom. In a family business, there is certainly a more emotional side to things, but we have always done a very good job of separating the personal side of it when it comes to business.

“We come to work and are extremely focused on what we have to do and what we have to achieve. We know where to draw the line when it comes to the end of the working day. Then we are brothers and cousins and fathers and sons again, which is very important,” Patrick said.

That family is extended to the 50 staff at its Wilton headquarters, which will grow in the coming years with the new frozen food business, according to Patrick.

“It is important that everyone in the business embodies the culture and values that we embody ourselves. We have a great workforce here, some employees here for more than 30 years. I’ve been here all my life, as long as I can remember, and they are family to me,” he said.

The staff has been dependable and loyal even in the hard times, such as when Patrick and Eoin entered the business.

“I started 10 years ago at the start of the recession, learning the hardest side of it, really having to battle for sales and making it work in a different climate. Eoin came in shortly after me so it was similar for him.

“What we have seen ourselves is that we were primarily an ambient food supplier, with soft drinks, grocery, and other competitors would have done chill and frozen.

“Over the last few years, there has definitely been more conservation, plus more time constraints on our consumers. They want one supplier for everything. It was something we noticed we were missing out on.

“Frozen foods were never on our radar but you have to move with the market,” he said.

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