Top of the food chain

Brian Herlihy’s Centra network is reinventing modern convenience, putting food firmly on the table. He speaks to Ireland’s Forecourt & Convenience Retailer about his strategy’s success

The importance of food service in today’s convenience store will not be lost on regular readers of these pages, but few have pursued the concept as wholeheartedly as the Herlihy group.

Herlihy’s Centra Fermoy is just one example of the network’s approach. A revamp in 2015 saw it completely transformed into a fresh food emporium. Every aisle was stripped out, every gondola and fridge rearranged, all to further expand the deli and carvery offering; and introduce a state-of-the-art bakery and new café.

The execution of this reinvention won the store a place on the vaunted Best Small Retailer of the Year shortlist for the annual NACS Insight Conference.

Today, the model has been rolled out across all six Herlihy’s Centra stores, which stretch the length and breadth of Co Cork.

“We call it our ‘High Convenience’ format,” managing director Brian Herlihy said. “We’ve cut back all our shelving and ambient lines, and moved really heavily into food service.”

Brian entered the family business in the late 90s with two of his brothers, Paul and Kevin. Sadly, Paul passed away some years ago, but Kevin remains as operations director for the group.

The business, which started as one store under Brian’s father (a former Musgrave director), has now grown and developed into six multi award-winning stores, each one a high-performing and quality outlet.

Along with the flagship Fermoy outlet – where the head office is located – the network comprises of stores in Mallow, Bishopstown, Millstreet, and two city centre locations, Grand Parade and Oliver Plunkett Street.

Brian and Kevin inside their Grand Parade store

With over 240 staff, Herlihy’s is a significant employer throughout Co Cork, and an example to many other retailers of how to move with the times.

The city centre stores were the latest to be refurbished, with a “huge amount of work” undertaken at both sites.

Brian took equally huge efforts to ensure the store kept trading as long as possible, with the building company pulling in 30 workers on a 72 hour shift to keep the Oliver Plunkett site’s closure down to just two-and-a-half days.

“The city centre stores have just two metres of grocery shelving – everything else is food service,” Brian explains. “The deli is self-service, with a huge range of healthy food, a self-service salad bar, and a soup station. It offers the full range of healthy options, including trending health foods like quinoa.

“The Oliver Plunkett store is located in the financial district of Cork and its offer is very much directed at the high-end consumer.

“The other store, Grand Parade, attracts more every-day people, and it’s located in an area where there are a number of nightclubs. It’s a 24-hour store, and caters for those enjoying Co Cork’s nightlife. That of course presents its own challenges with security, but we’ve chosen to embrace the opportunities of its location and it’s working very well.”

Herlihy’s approach to tailor the offer at each location has been an important part of the business’s strategy.

“You have to know what your customers are looking for,” Brian said. “In Fermoy, for example, they’re looking for value and fresh food, and also the social aspect and a chat.

“In the Grand Parade store, it’s very different. They want speed of service and quality food-to-go.

“It’s really important that we know who the customer is and market the store accordingly. There’s no point competing with Asda or the discounters, we’ll lose. So it’s important we distinguish our stores in other ways.”

While customer focus rightfully plays a significant role in Herlihy’s strategic planning, Brian believes the network’s success is the result of a small number of simple principles.

“Our mission statement is, to be part of a community, deliver fantastic fresh products and quality customer service,” Brian said. “That’s what differentiates us, and that’s what we teach our staff.”

According to Brian, the community side of retailing is “very important” to the business and fulfils a number of functions.

“Our customers come from the community and it’s important to pay back the loyalty they give us,” he said. “We work a lot with local GAA teams and we encourage our staff to all participate in charity events.

“We had 30 runners taking part in the recent marathon and they managed to raise €5,000 for charity. We’ve worked with a number of different charities over the years, most recently with the Simon Community.”

Herlihy’s Millstreet store recently ran a ‘Spinathon’ event, raising money for Irish Autism Action and Breakthrough Cancer Research. According to Brian, the event presented a good opportunity not just to help important charities, but also to bring some theatre to the store.

“Our staff would jump on the bike for a half-hour or an hour, and we’d even encourage customers to get involved,” he said. “Yes, we raised money, which is very important, but at the same time it boosted the profile of the store, and encouraged a bit of banter in the shop.”

While the group continues to be successful, Brian is keenly aware of the many challenges the sector poses.

“Brexit is a big unknown,” he said. “We don’t know what effect it’s going to have. There is concern it will damage consumer confidence. We don’t anticipate it will have a ‘direct hit’ on us, but the effect will more likely be an indirect one.

“Millstreet, for example, is in a very rural area with a very large farming community. If Brexit impacts them, that will impact us.”

Brian added that business costs were another important challenge, noting the 30c rise in the minimum wage to €9.55 was “a fairly significant” increase in his costs.

“Competition is really growing, but that’s what happens when you have a growing economy,” he said. “There’s more confidence, despite Brexit, and many positive developments, like increased investment.

“But we’re dealing with many of those challenges, and I think we’re doing it well.”


Our image at the top shows Brian and Kevin Herlihy outside their Centra in Grand Parade, Co. Cork