Upping the ante in Dundalk
Pat Flanagan and his wife Aine run a Mace store and Esso forecourt on the Dublin Road in Dundalk. Since investing in a state-of-the-art deli and revamping the whole store, business has been steadily rising. Fionnuala Carolan travelled north to hear their story
11 July 2014
Pat and Áine Flanagan’s Mace, Dublin Road, Dundalk
Managers: Kazi Rahman and Andy Nolan
Size: 2,000 sq ft
Staff: 20 full and part-time
Opening hours: 6am – 12 midnight
The day I visit Pat Flanagan’s Mace in Dundalk, the mood reflects the weather. And it’s a sunny day. “Business is good,” he says. We’ve become so accustomed to hearing tales of woe that it’s a welcome change to hear some positivity. The investment that was made in the store last year is already paying dividends. This included a new deli and spacious seating area, a new off-licence and an increase in the size of the shop floor. Flanagan explains his motivations for making these changes to the store: “We put in a full off-licence last year. It’s just something that we needed as there is no off-licence in the area. It’s working well. It’s a big spend buying a licence so you’d have to be fairly confident it’s going to work for you before making that investment. You want it working straight away. If you reach a certain target you should pay it back in three years. I think we are ahead of schedule.”
He says that other categories also get a lift when people come in to buy alcohol. “Normally when they’re in, they might buy something else like some nuts or pizza. The off-licence is probably more than 10% already. The deli is also growing. I’m not happy with it yet but it’s getting there.” The deli has had a complete remodel and Flanagan is keen to utilise it to its full potential. “We are trying to crack the take-away business in the evening like pizzas, snack boxes and chips. We keep the deli open late and you can get hot food until 9/10 at night. Most of the money is spent in the deli so why close it early?” Other areas of his business that are doing well are fuel and tobacco. He explains: “The fuel business is quite good now. I think we’re bucking the trend. I think the Revenue are finally making some headway on the laundered diesel. We have always had fuel smuggling and laundering around the border but I think life is becoming more difficult for these smugglers. Our cigarette sales are bucking the trend too. Nationally they would be down 6-9%.”
A family business
Flanagan runs the store with his wife Áine but it was his father John that started the business and can still be seen pottering around the store most days, even though he is now in his late 80s. “We had a garage on this site back in the day when forecourts were for petrol, car repairs and car sales. The shop was only added in the early 90s,” he says. Flanagan explains how the business was when his father was in charge: “We did van repairs, car repairs and tractor repairs. We did car hire and car sales as well. There was fuel but no shop. Garages didn’t have shops. My father was a mechanic by trade and I spent some time as a mechanic.” Despite being involved at a young age with the family business, he made the decision to emigrate to America in the 70s to find work and didn’t return until 1983.
“I went to the states back in the 70s when things weren’t great. It was a good time to be there. There was a tonne of Irish there. I came back in the early 80s. The business was here and the emergence of shops in forecourts seemed to be starting to kick off. We opened a small shop and we would have incorporated the tyre bay into the shop. We’d a very small deli and we sold tea and coffee. And then it was time to develop it and around 1993 we started dealing with BWG.”
Although they joined BWG, they didn’t brand the shop as a Mace for a number of years after. However, they benefitted from the buying power of the group straight away. “We didn’t become Mace straight away. At the time the margins on milk and bread were an extra 20% [when buying from BWG] so for that alone it was worth it.”
He says that they never looked back after joining the group and today the service from BWG is second to none. “We get deliveries twice a week. I do my order Monday and it’s here Tuesday and then the same at the other end of the week – it’s ordered Thursday and it’s here Friday. Because this weekend is going to be fine weather we’ve stocked up on plenty of beer, minerals and ice-cream.”
It’s been reported that the fine weather would add €150 million to the economy. Flanagan agrees that the good weather does have a positive impact on sales. “You see people coming in more. People wouldn’t normally buy beers mid-week but the minute the sun comes out, they’re all in.”
Barry Flynn, retail operations advisor for Mace believes that there is pick up in business in some parts of the country. “There seems to be light at the end of the tunnel. The east is picking up. Then Cork and Galway. Areas like Donegal and Sligo are not seeing it at all. It’s definitely linked to jobs.” In that case this store is in for a spike in business because it is located just outside an industrial estate with a host of established companies including the European operations centre of online payments company PayPal. During June, the company announced the 400 new jobs will be created over the next four years at this location. This is welcome news for Flanagan who will benefit massively from all the extra people passing his door daily.
Aside from PayPal, there is also Zerox, Ebay and National Pen and a couple of smaller companies. While many of these companies have their own catering facilities in-house the staff need to fill up their cars with petrol and buy groceries on their way home so without doubt the extra jobs, will translate into extra custom for this Mace.
Content with the brand, the Flanagans opened another Mace store beside Dundalk IT in 2006. This shop was primarily set up to service the college and it closes during the summer when the students are away.
“It opened in 2006,” says Flanagan. “It really caters for the college and the school. We close at weekends, at 6 in the evening and in the summer. It would be busy at 11am and 1am but it trickles off in the afternoon. We have 20 full time staff here and we have about four full time there and we supplement them from here for the busy times. Two or three go down at 11am and the same at 1am to deal with the crowds.”
Although Flanagan works full time in the store and Áine looks after the DIT store, they also have two managers called Kazi Rahman and Andy Nolan. This means that there is always a manager on duty. “I’d be in early but one of the guys is in from 8-5 and the other is in from 1 until 10,” he explains.
Benefits of a brand
The store has a host of offers on show in the grocery, soft drinks and wine sections. These offers are hugely important for driving extra business, according to Flanagan. “I couldn’t imagine not being with a brand. It would be very hard to compete with the offers. It you are an independent, you have to have that time to go and source offers and then you need more staff to cover you while you do that. Every three weeks we get the sheet of offers and we pick from that. In the first couple of pages, head office highlight what they think is the best and they are usually right but there might be different types of coffee or biscuits to choose from. It’s quite extensive and you can pick what you like.
“We have a deal of the week every week too. It could be cornflakes for €2 instead of €3.50. It could be butter, milk etc. And Coke is in this week; six cans for €2.50. We also have a wine of the month. The one coming up is Barefoot.” Like most retailers, Flanagan works seven days a week and even while on holiday he tends to do a couple of hours work every morning online to check in on the store. He seems like a man who is always looking ahead and thinking of ways to better the business. His efforts so far have certainly returned strong results.