SHE HAD BEEN gone for more than a decade, but all the memories rushed back to Bernie Butler as she looked around the factory she helped build.
“When I walked out the door of the business in 2004 I had no yearning to ever go back, but when I walked in during Christmas 2013, it was uncanny,” she tells Fora.
“My youngest daughter Emma opened a drawer in the office and found my diary. It was scary, you said, ‘Where have those years gone?’ It was like we had never left.”
Butler, 59, had just bought back her factory after selling it almost a decade ago to one of Ireland’s biggest companies, Kerry Group. Before, she had built a sizeable operation employing 60 people who made a mix of salads and ready meals for retailers.
Now, she hopes that the facility will allow her new company, healthy snacks producer Good4U, to reach a similar level.
“We had been based in Tyrone until 2013 when we were given the opportunity to produce product for Marks & Spencer, but we didn’t have enough space to do it,” she says.
Butler was keen to set up again in Sligo, a county that she had fallen in love with when she visited it for a weekend with her husband in the late 70s. The pair was newly married and young, with Butler in her early 20s and working in the civil service.
Move to Sligo
Despite the fact that she was born and raised in Dublin, her stay in the western county was enough to convince her that she wanted to up sticks at the time.
“I was blown away by the scenery and the landscape,” she says. “We came back to Sligo a few years later and opened a restaurant, but it didn’t work out as planned.
“We were young and naive and thought that we would easily attract a market.
“What do you do when your business fails? You have to pick up the pieces, we had no option but to start again. We had to reinvent ourselves.”
The couple worked in food sales for years before managing to cobble together the money to open a factory on the outskirts of the town in 1995. The business was sold to Kerry Group six years later and Butler spent a spell working with the food giant.
She says that she had “no intention” of getting back into running a food business herself, but she became enamoured with the idea of selling sprouted seeds as a healthy snack.
“When I told my husband I was going to get back in the food industry he said ‘You can’t be serious!’, (but) I was fascinated by the health properties and uniqueness of the product.”
In 2004 Butler opened a small sprouted seed factory in Cookstown, Tyrone. She started with the help of her husband and four children, all of whom now hold senior roles in the business.
In 2007 the company attracted the attention of Sainsbury’s, and a year afterwards “got a break” with Tesco. The company struggled in 2011, when contaminated seeds from Egypt caused an E coli outbreak in Europe that killed dozens of people.
Previously the firm had mainly sold seeds to supermarkets, which then sold them on under their own labels. However, after the outbreak the firm began to brand its product as a sign of quality control.
As well as finding partners in the UK, Good4U also built decent links with several large retailers in Ireland, including Supervalu, Spar, Centra, and Costcutter.
“We had focused on Ireland but we hadn’t got a return. We had been in the UK since 2007 and we decided that we had to focus on it,” Butler says.
This led to the deal with M&S and Butler buying back her old factory in Sligo. Whereas the facility in Cookstown is where the bulk of the seeds are produced, the Sligo complex is mostly focused on making healthy snacks, such as its ‘Super Bite’ energy ball.
Butler acknowledges that there is uncertainty in the market with Brexit looming and says that the firm is planning to expand into several new markets, including the US, in the coming years. However, the UK will continue to command most of the company’s attention.
She says that the company is a “market leader” in the area of sprouted seed sales, although others such as Wicklow-based firm The Happy Pear provides some competition.
An increasing demand for healthy snacks has seen the likes of healthy fast food chain Chopped expand quickly. Butler says that, for now, there is room for a few different players in the sprouted seed market.
“The business can only be sustained if you are producing a quality product at the right price and at the moment we’re doing pretty well at that,” she says.
“We’re trying to do better by introducing functional ingredients into products and maintaining affordability.”
At the moment, the firm employs 45 people between Tyrone and Sligo. Accounts for Good4U show that it had accumulated profits of almost £156,000 (€184,000) as of the end of June 2015, although it made a small loss of about £20,000 during that financial year.
However, Butler says that the firm is now profitable and is planning to significantly expand at its Sligo facility.
“We are looking to embark on the second phase of our expansion and we are hoping to double our business,” she says. “We are looking at hiring 15 new people by the end of the year.”
The company turned over about €5 million last year and Butler hopes for a significant improvement this year, with revenues of about €8 million.
“We want to get to €20 million by 2020, we believe that it’s achievable if someone doesn’t push a button somewhere,” she says.
Butler, who will be 60 this year, says that it has been a “long road” to get the business to where it is now.
“Every so often I say that I am doing the same thing that I was doing 30 years ago, except I haven’t slowed down. I keep forgetting that I’m older,” she says.
Age is something that Butler mentions a few times but, while she says that her daughters are “very capable”, she says that she has no plans to retire any time soon.
“As long as I have the health to grow and support the business I will do it. I would like to take my foot off the pedal and take it easier at some point, but not for now.”
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