Growing the empire

Growing the empire

Willie O’Byrne, managing director for BWG Foods tells IF&CR how he believes every challenge presents an opportunity.

While you might expect the managing director of an Ireland-wide company, with an annual turnover of €1.3bn, to keep more than a watchful eye over proceedings, Willie O’Byrne, managing director of BWG Foods in Ireland pleasantly surprises Ireland’s Forecourt & Convenience Retailer by his clear, impassioned knowledge of every aspect of the business. For O’Byrne, the retail trade isn’t about resting on your successes, but consistently striving to improve. “We obsess about what we do,” he says. “We obsess about our retailers.”

BWG Food encompasses four key areas: retail operations comprising SPAR, EUROSPAR, Londis, MACE and XL brands; Value Centre – a network of cash and carry distributers; BWG Foodservice, and BWG Wines and Spirits. For a business, with so many strands, ensuring quality across the board can be a difficult formula to crack.

“With so many fantastic brands we are passionate about differentiation,” says O’Byrne. “Each brand is nurtured and evolves its own individual personality through their dedicated sales and marketing teams. We bring consistency, economies of scale and synergies when it comes to IT, technology, trading relationships, retail development teams and admin.”

While a small percentage of BWG’s retail offering follows the company-owned-company-operated (Coco) model, their real business, O’Byrne states, “is our relationships with entrepreneurs.”

To grow these relationships, O’Byrne believes that as a company, they need to be seen as persuaders for their ideas rather than command and control.

“It sharpens our own skills and creates a higher bar when it comes to making sure our concepts are well thought out. Ultimately, nobody can be ordered to take them on – they need to sell themselves.”

Being the difference

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When you are constantly striving to be the best, selling yourself can’t be too difficult.

“Regardless of the success of our brands at any point in time, we are constantly reinventing ourselves,” says O’Byrne. “Even at the most successful point in our brand cycle we challenge ourselves to refresh or remake a strategy again and again – that’s been the key to keeping our brands at a leading edge.”

O’Byrne cites Londis as a case study. When BWG Foods bought the Londis brand in 2015, it was inevitable that the new dynamic would require a period of acclimatisation for both sides. This was as much a cultural project as it was a business one. Continued investment into the brand and working in collaboration with Londis retailers has paid off. “We wanted to prove over time that we would be absolutely consistent and do what we said we were going to do; the best way to build trust.”

Employing over 20,000 people across the BWG symbol store state and serving one million shoppers daily, there is no doubt that BWG Foods has experienced considerable growth over the past few years. While economic recovery has been a key element, O’Byrne points out that a healthy economy doesn’t automatically translate into profits at the tills. In fact, he states retailers are having to work harder and more creatively than ever before.

“Ireland’s bounce back in consumer expenditure has been stronger than the growth in retail sales. The grocery sector has been bedevilled by deflation but also by the sheer competitive nature of our businesses – through promotions and competitive activity, we’re driving down price as well.

“Because the top line doesn’t naturally grow as a result of inflation in the businesses that we’re in, we have to work very hard to ensure that we are profitable and that we maintain and control our costs.”

In reviewing BWG’s progress O’Byrne highlighted BWG Foodservice, which has grown by double digits consistently over the past five years and boasts a customer base of more than 3,000.

Creating points of difference to their offer is what BWG Foods continually strives for. This is particularly evident within BWG Wines & Spirits, which supplies 409 licensed stores within the network.  “We focused on building a very strong wine agency portfolio. Yes, our offer is value, but it is also a very, very credible wine range, a fact borne out by the strong endorsement received recently from very reputable critics.”


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Another major growth driver is BWG Food’s continued presence within the forecourt market where it now has 432 forecourt stores across Ireland. It’s a very big part of our branded business, O’Byrne remarks, stating that its forecourt stores fared better on average during the long recession than neighbourhood stores.

“Our business on forecourt has grown because we’ve used our scale to learn what is key in forecourt retailing. Food-to-go, impulse convenience, and snacking are all important parts of the forecourt mix, areas that mirror BWG’s expertise.”

Setting trends

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Innovation is at the heart of BWG Foods’ continuing success. This is particularly evident in how their symbol stores have pioneered the way on premium coffee offerings, with O’Byrne highlighting the strategic partnerships BWG Foods’ symbol stores have with top coffee companies across their brands.

“A really significant part of the business has been the enduring trend of coffee-to-go and its appeal right across all the estates. Our relationships with Insomnia, Bewley’s, and Seattle’s Best have been really important to us. It is our strategy to partner with brands and work together in a collaborative manner.”

The exclusive presence of Chopped in BWG stores is a great example of where the company’s strategy to work with other brands fast tracks BWG Foods ability to tap into the latest trends. Chopped is not BWG Foods first foray into healthy eating though, its Better Choices range in SPAR is now an intrinsic element of the SPAR brand offering. It is not just a marketing initiative insists O’Byrne but is an important tool to promote the message that health and wellness is something that you opt into rather than being forced into.

“While the choice ultimately rests with the consumer we want to make sure we provide them with the right information to facilitate their making an informed choice. Our other brands bring their own focus to the health and wellness agenda too, with MACE Right Options coming immediately to mind.”

Another area BWG Foods has seen significant uptake in is the fresh and chilled categories. “Obviously for us we see that as an opportunity. Fresh also means frequent and frequent improves the appeal of local stores against the alternative from big box retailing involving a long commute and large trolley shop.”

The recent bout of bad weather helped remind us all of the importance of neighbourhood retailers and just how fundamental they are to their local communities, O’Byrne says. “We see ourselves out there as a community retailer and probably nothing proved that better than during the period of the snow recently when people fell in love with their local store again because it stayed open. It was as much as a service to local communities than the business it did in that time. There were heroic efforts made to make sure that our store network stayed open and stayed trading.”

An optimistic future

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Online retailing is a concept that O’Byrne is keeping a close eye on, revealing that the company has taken baby steps into e-tailing by designing a deli app that allows customers pre-order and pre-pay from an in-store deli menu offering before arriving at the store. A click and collect concept, it is in the early adaptor stage with the app due to launch later this year across its retail estate.

“Adapting with the times is what we do best. We’re in a very immediate business and the day you stop changing is the day you start losing,” says O’Byrne. “Even on our best days we’re challenging ourselves in terms of our retail strategy across our brands. We strive to be always relevant, always authentic, and always just a little bit ahead.”

Looking forward is the key to staying ahead in business and O’Byrne believes the move towards electric vehicles is moving at a faster rate than expected and there will be much change within the forecourt industry over the next 10 years.

“I have no doubt that all of these things represent threats and opportunities, it’s about trying to tease out the opportunity – I’m certain it’s there, but it will be a very different business in 10 years’ time.

“The challenge for BWG Foods is to remain fleet of foot, be adaptable and show that we will continue to evolve and remain relevant to our customers,” he concludes.