Q. How did you get involved with the Irish Association of Master Bakers (IAMB)?
A. When I was chairman of the Northern Ireland Bakery Council I was put forward for the presidency of the IAMB. The association represents three organisations: the Northern Ireland Bakery Council; the Irish Bread Bakers Association, which represents the plant bakers in southern Ireland; and the Flour, Confectioners & Bakers Association, in association with the Institute of Irish Bakeries, also in the south.
The president is elected for two years and, as each of the three bodies nominates a president in rotation, it means the presidency only comes to Northern Ireland every six years. I am three-quarters through my term in office, having been elected in October 2004. The IAMB will be 100 years old in 2008.
Q. What would you be doing if you were not in your present position at Allied Bakeries Northern Ireland?
A. I would be working somewhere as an electrical engineer. I had a technical education at a college of technology in Belfast and moved into electrical engineering, starting with an apprenticeship. I joined Allied Bakeries, Belfast, then known as Sunblest, as an electrical engineer in 1971, becoming engineering manager in 1979.
In 1986 I became chief executive of Allied Bakeries, Belfast, reporting to the MD of Allied Bakeries, Ireland. In many respects, I am still in the same role, now termed operations executive. I’m responsible for bakeries in Belfast and Coleraine.
Q. What are your main duties as IAMB president?
A. Representing the interests of Irish bakeries at conferences and similar gatherings is an important function. I am also closely involved with helping to raise money for the Irish Bakers Benevolent Society (IBBS). The organisation was only formed five years ago and its fund-raising had been limited to southern Ireland until I held a golf day in the north recently. With the support of 26 sponsors, this raised E3,500. In the south, a similar golf day raised E8,000 in May and a gala ball last November contributed E20,000 to the society’s funds.
There is no equivalent organisation to the Flour, Confectioners & Bakers Association in Northern Ireland and, through functions such as the golf day, I hope to get some of the smaller bakeries in the north involved with the IBBS and help to create greater unity within the industry.
Q. What issues are plant bakeries facing in Ireland and how can you help to resolve them?
A. It’s very difficult to escape from the price pressures being put on plant bakeries by the large retailers. This is worse in the north than the south at present, but I’m sure more big chains will move into southern Ireland in the future.
Companies need to be slicker in their operations to stay profitable and have money for capital investment in projects such as automation that will lower the overall head count.
As IAMB president I try to encourage bakers to share their experiences in dealing with the pressures they find themselves under. Price is an obvious one, but we also like to discuss issues such as the salt content in bread and how we can prevent so many bread trays from constantly disappearing.
Q. How do you view the craft bakery sector in Ireland?
A. I have worked in plant bakery all my life, but I think I still understand the needs of the craft sector. One reason for this is that I used to have a small business selling and refurbishing machinery for craft bakers, so I was able to see first-hand the life they led and the pressures they faced.
Theirs is a hard life with early starts and a need to produce a wide variety of goods. We don’t compete with each other and I’m sure there is a place for craft bakers.
People like to go to their corner shop for pastries and their wee rolls, and plant bakers cannot fulfil that function.
Life is just as tough for craft bakers as it is for the plant bakeries; we will all have to continue to work hard.
Q. Do you have a vision for the baking industry in Ireland?
A. I see further rationalisation of bakeries across Ireland, with more plant and craft bakers going to the wall. There are now only three plant bakers in Northern Ireland (British Bakeries, Allied Bakeries and Irwin’s) and the reduction in capacity has introduced a bit of sensibility into the market. There’s less need to attack each other than in the past!
I would expect more rationalisation in the south as big supermarkets start to wield greater influence. There are no issues between the plant and craft sectors however. We will continue to work side by side.
Q. What do you like to do in your leisure time?
A. Last October, at the age of 60, I completed a business management degree at the University of Ulster, graduating with a 2:1. There were 18 modules to the course and this enabled me to bring back some new learning to the company in areas such as quality management and operations management. I like to think this played a significant part in Allied Bakeries winning a Northern Ireland Quality Award last year.
Away from Allied Bakeries I sit on the board of Belfast Cathedral and also of East Belfast Enterprise. This is an incubator for start-up businesses in the area, which has been hit badly in terms of skills and employment by the demise of the shipyards.
On the leisure front, I play the Scottish bagpipes, competing in the world championships each year, and enjoy my golf, although my handicap is moving in the wrong direction!