When you think of the term independent grocer it usually evokes images of a one-off speciality food store or an old fashioned shop on the main street of a sleepy rural town. Pat Joyce is an independent grocer from Co. Galway, and his business will destroy any preconceptions you might have had about the limits of trading independently. Fionnuala Carolan reports
13 August 2014 | 0
I think it’s safe to say that Pat Joyce is the only independent retailer in Ireland with his own central distribution centre. This newly opened 25,000 square foot facility is situated in Claregalway and it supplies his five supermarkets, all of which are within a half hour commute. This he tells me is part of “bringing things to the next level” and with this new facility he hopes to double the size of this family business within the next few years. He is hungry for expansion, mentioning numerous times during our chat how he is looking at any opportunities that arise, whether it be another supermarket, a forecourt or forging relationships with suppliers across the country.
Joyce’s father Pat Senior started the business back in 1951 with a “one room lock up” shop in Headford, Co. Galway. Even as a young boy Joyce always had an interest in the shop. “I was passionate about it from an early age,” he says. “I would have been working during school holidays and meeting reps when I went to school and all that. I was always working.”
He remembers driving around the county in his father’s travelling shop, which he says were quite common when he was a boy.
“We would travel around the Galway area and down towards Mayo. There would have been travelling shops in every town in the country. It was a way for the housewife and the farmer to sell the eggs and to distribute them and they might buy groceries on tick. You’d deduct the price of the eggs from the groceries so not much money changed hands. A bit of bartering went on. It probably came to an end in the mid to late 70s.”
Joyce was one of ten children growing up. His twin brother Jim runs the hardware business in Headford, called Joyce and Sons. Joyce has four children of his own now and one of his sons Patrick runs the newly revamped Headford store, while his daughter Aisling runs the Knocknacarra store in Galway city. The other two children are in school and college but he expects they will get involved at some point too. “They are all involved in the business. They grow up in the business and they have to do their fair share. It’s a great education for them. They go to college for college education and they work in the shop for the education of life.”
After school Joyce went to London and worked for Tesco there for about 18 months to gain experience outside of the family business. “Certain parts were good and certain parts not so good but overall it was a good experience,” he says of his time there. “I came home for a holiday but my father was so busy that I decided to stay rather than going back again. I had always intended to come back anyway.”
He explains that his father was always very progressive and far-sighted and liked development. “I’m sure if he lived long enough, he would have expanded more,” he says. “He died when he was 56. My mother is still alive. She was 80 last week and all going well thank god.”
Joyce officially joined his father in business in 1979. When his father passed away in 1988 he continued running the business and in the following years began expanding. A second store in Knocknacarra was opened in 1999, with supermarkets in Athenry and Tuam following in 2005 and 2010, respectively. Siopa an Phobail in Inverin, which was purchased only a few weeks ago is the fifth outlet in the group. It had been a SuperValu before Joyce took it over.
He explains how they came to acquire this store: “The business had been in receivership since January 2012. It’s our first time taking over a store that’s already trading. All the other stores were new and we started from scratch. That was a learning curve but we’re quite happy with how it’s gone so far. We never actually closed the store. We took down the signs and put up our own signs and painted it and refreshed it but kept trading. There were 40 staff and they were all kept on. I think they were quite relived that there was going to be stability because it had been in trouble for a long time. All the staff are completely fluent in Irish. I’m working on it. We’ll get there, le cúnamh Dé!”
While there has been steady development happening over the past 25 years, things have really ramped up over the past 18 months. Aside from the Inverin takeover, they started work on a huge redevelopment and extension of the Headford store in February 2013 and are now only a few weeks away from completion. Although not fully finished it is a hugely impressive supermarket with a sharp emphasis on fresh food and there is excellent value evident throughout the store. It has a forecourt attached, parking for a couple of hundred cars and a number of retail units available for rent, making it seem more like something you would find in a city centre location, than in a small village in Co. Galway.
However the major addition and the element that will transform the business is the new distribution centre in Claregalway, opened only a few months ago. It’s obvious that this has the potential to supply much more than these five stores and it was built as part of a long-term growth strategy.
Joyce explains: “In May 2014 we opened our new distribution centre in Claregalway. I’d been waiting to find the proper location and proper set up. The whole idea is that we’ll be servicing our own stores. It was a good investment. We bought our own trucks so we have our own transport too. It’s ideally centrally located just off the motorway. This is bringing it to a whole new level. There are not too many doing it. Nobody in this country that I know of. It’s a natural step for ourselves.”
This facility gives Joyce the option of doing better deals with suppliers and means that the individual stores don’t need as much space for storing stock anymore.
“We needed to be able to buy in bulk so we can be open to doing deals with companies. The distribution centre has given us a lot more flexibility in that regard. We can trade how we want and with who we want,” he explains.
Joyce believes that his success thus far is partially down to his independence and being able to trade with any supplier and work out the best deals for his business.
“We do our own marketing and promotions,” he explains. “It’s a source of strength for us as we can do things locally and act quicker than most. We make a decision on the spot. Some retailers are nearly in a straightjacket to a degree. They are very successful and I always respect competition and people that do a good job but I feel like we are in a better position than most. We are not confined to certain guidelines and that can be a constraint on people these days. They [other retailers] are independent to a degree but they’re not really independent at all.”
Well-known for its emphasis on quality fresh food, up to 80% of the fresh produce sold in Joyce’s stores is sourced in Ireland. Last year, Joyce’s supermarket in Knocknacarra won the coveted title of ‘Retail Excellence Ireland Store of the Year’.
The team’s emphasis on quality fresh food and willingness to try new concepts is evident the second you walk into the stores. One of the most appealing things about the newly expanded Headford store is the innovation in the fresh food department. There is everything from a frozen yogurt bar, a pancake making machine, an olive oil station where a selection of oils are housed in small wooden barrels giving you the option to fill your own, a great selection of loose tea leaves and coffee beans displayed in large glass jars and a fantastic array of fresh meat and fish. Mark Spitzer is head of their fresh foods and Joyce credits him and the team he works with for coming up with new concepts and ideas.
Joyce also says his wife has been very involved in the planning and design of the revamped stores. “Special credit must be given to my wife Breda who had a huge impact on the design and layout of the store. The scratch bakery came about over a cup of tea on a Sunday evening. My wife said, “I think you should have a bakery”. I said, “Okay we’ll do a bakery!”
A lot of the fresh produce in-store is branded as Joyce’s. Arrabawn Dairies supplies the branded milk and there is a host of other products from meat to eggs that are also branded with the family name. Joyce says they are hoping to do a lot more branding on products from now on. “We’ll be doing more of that going forward and we can work with smaller suppliers. Some of the bigger suppliers may not want to do the branding because the order isn’t big enough but the smaller suppliers are interested in us and we in them. It doesn’t really matter what part of the country they’re in. Barriers are made to get over or get around. We’ll work out the logistics. We’d be interested in talking to anyone out there who is interested in talking to us.”
A bright future
Joyce frankly admits that they are one of the few groups out there expanding at the minute and most definitely has a can-do attitude to life. “We’re looking forward to expanding further,” he says. “We want to double our business over the next few years. If there are people out there that are retiring or just want to get out of business, we’d be interested in talking to them. Let that be a supermarket, a filling station, whatever. We have the structure for it now. We’re in the market now for taking opportunities as they arise so let’s see what happens and what comes of it in the coming months and years.
“We’re moving forward and we’re very positive about the future. It’s a business you have to be on top of. I always describe this business as like the All Ireland. You have to be up for it every day.”