Friday 28 October 2016

Raise a glass to a reformed accountant

Michael Barry built up his drinks-distribution business by building up other companies' drinks brands here in Ireland

Published 19/07/2015 | 02:30

Sean Gallagher with Michael Barry. Photo: Michael MacSweeney
Sean Gallagher with Michael Barry. Photo: Michael MacSweeney

An optimistic outlook and a general sense of positivity are often found to be among the main characteristics possessed by those who have gone on to achieve significant success in their lives and their businesses.

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This week's business owner certainly has both in abundance. His name is Michael Barry and he heads up Ireland's largest independent drinks-distribution company, Barry & Fitzwilliam.

Headquartered in Cork and with offices in Dublin, Barry & Fitzwilliam currently employs 65 staff and has an annual turnover of more than €71m.

"Our business model is relatively straightforward," explains Michael as he welcomes me to the company's expansive warehouse in Cork city.

"We import premium wines, spirits and beers from all over the world and distribute these to customers throughout Ireland."

As we make our way throughout the warehouse, I recognise many well-known names. From the world of wine, there's McGuigan, Villa Maria and Michel Lynch; in the spirit section, I notice shelves packed with cases from Kilbeggan and Teachers to Jim Beam and Famous Grouse. And pallets with boxes of Jagermeister, WKD, Tia Maria, Tio Pepe, Cointreau, Courvoisier and Remy Martin.

"We also distribute an extensive range of craft beers and ciders - a sector that has really exploded in recent years," says Michael.

In business for more than 30 years now, Michael has built up an impressive list of over 3,000 customers across Ireland that include well-known pubs, restaurants and off-licences, as well as Tesco, Supervalu, Dunnes and Spar.

It must be a very competitive sector, I hazard.

"We do have strong competition, but that comes mostly from a number of large international drinks companies," explains Michael.

"Our success comes from being an Irish-owned company that is both highly entrepreneurial and has a direct route to a large and loyal customer base. And we have proven experience in helping international brands build recognition here."

It's been an exciting journey for the man who started out his professional career as a would-be accountant. Michael Barry grew up close to the famous Midleton Distillery in Co Cork.

His father and uncles worked as stonemasons and the young Michael would often hurry home after school to help his father prepare the company's invoices - something he loved doing. During the summer holidays, he worked in a variety of jobs, from wages clerk at a nearby quarry to messenger boy in the local hardware store.

"Looking back now, I realise just how much I was learning," explains Michael. "I was getting a real understanding of how important it is to have good people skills if you want to get on in business."

After school, he got a job as a trainee accountant - first with a local cloth-making business and later with Murphy's Brewery in Cork. In 1978, he qualified and was immediately offered the job of administration manager with the company.

"Today I refer to myself as a reformed accountant," says Michael with a laugh. "While I never actually practiced as an accountant, my time with the company proved another great learning experience - something that has stood to me in my own business."

In addition to the skills he was learning, Michael also developed an extensive network of contacts in the drinks industry, which would later become a major asset to him.

In 1982 it was announced that Murphy's was going into receivership. Michael decided it was time for him to go out on his own and set up Barry Wines and Spirits, his distribution company.

"I started out as a drinks wholesaler, servicing the Cork and Waterford markets, then over the next 10 years or so, gradually expanded into the wider Munster region," explains Michael. "I am particularly delighted that a number of the team that started out with me back then are still with the company today."

At this time, Chris Murphy was running his own drinks distributor called Fitzwilliam Wines & Spirits. Recognising the potential of their combined strengths, the pair decided to join forces and in 1990 merged to become Barry & Fitzwilliam. Their mission from the outset was to become the largest independent drinks company in Ireland.

"Each of us had our own individual company mottos back then," explains Michael. "Chris's was Deo Adjuvante Non Timendum, which means 'with God on our side', while mine was Boutez En Avant which means 'to strike forward'. When you put the two of these together, you end up with something like 'we strike forward with God on our side'. Sure how could we not be successful?"

Business grew steadily until 1992 when the country became gripped by a currency crisis that left the firm having to borrow to meet cashflow requirements. With the interest rate at the time running at a staggering 20pc, this resulted in incredible pressure. In order to survive, Michael decided to incentivise customers if they would agree to pay their invoices earlier than normal. The strategy proved effective and by the following year, the company was back in profit. While this was their most challenging time in business up to then, there was worse to come.

"Our toughest year was definitely 2003," says Michael solemnly, his voice dropping noticeably. "The sales team came with me on a business trip to the south of Spain and our minibus was in a terrible accident. Two colleagues, David Berrie and David Rafferty, lost their lives, as did another great friend of the business, Frank O'Connor. The rest of us were lucky to escape with a mix of broken bones, cracked ribs and a few scars. It was a horrific time and affected us deeply," he adds.

It also turned out to be a watershed year for the business. His staff rallied around, providing cover for those who were recovering. His customers too were patient and understanding. Even his competitors offered to help.

"While we can all sometimes be cynical, it is at a time like that that we get to appreciate how good people can be and what life is really all about," explains Michael. "I know most business owners will tell you this and that's because it is true - having the right and committed staff is critical to the success of any business. I consider myself blessed in this regard. And I see my job now as more of a player manager than a boss."

He tells me too that he is thankful for the wonderful support he receives from his family, in particular from his wife Kathleen, who also works in the business and who he says keeps them on their toes.

The following year, 2004, was also an important time for the company when it took over the business of Maxxium Ireland, giving it access to such high-profile brands as Absolut Vodka, Jim Beam, Remy Martin and Famous Grouse. Building on the existing customer base, it launched a major sales and marketing drive that saw it more than double Maxxiums business in Ireland. It also positioned the company as a significant player in the Irish drinks industry.

The momentum gained as a result also provided the platform to further begin growing the wine business. Not long afterwards, they were successful here too, with McGuigan and Villa Maria becoming the number-one Australian and New Zealand wines in the county.

"The drinks industry remains a tough place to operate in right now because of the draconian excise duties that the Government insists on imposing on the sector - duties that have risen by 70pc on wine and 40pc on whiskey since this Government came into power," says Michael.

"Not many people appreciate that on a typical bottle of whiskey, costing around €22, the Government takes as much as €16.03 between VAT and excise duty. And on an average bottle of wine that retails at €10, the vat and excise duty amount to €5.06. So there's little left for distributors and retailers."

Even given these challenges, Michael remains positive and focused on taking the business forward. This year, he celebrates 33 years in business - and he plans on making it 50 years by 2032.

"We also want to remain the largest independent drinks distributor in Ireland, which, God willing, we will achieve," Michael says with a smile. "For now, though, our main focus is to adapt to the changing trends that are currently taking place in the market. This includes harnessing the huge growth in craft beers and ciders, which is really growing right now, in both the on- and off-trade.

In the hospitality sector, the company is also focusing heavily on the bistros and gastropub market, where they recently developed an exclusive wine list specifically for those who want to differentiate themselves by offering more exclusive wines, rather than stocking the standard mainstream brands.

Michael Barry is an incredibly upbeat, engaging and all-round positive type of person. While one of his key skills is helping suppliers launch and build their brands in Ireland, his greatest strength lies in his ability to develop and sustain trusting relationships with his customers, his suppliers and his staff.

Meeting him in person, it's easy to see why. He's a genuinely nice man, a shrewd business operator and a good communicator. Together, these traits have helped him stay at the top of his game for over 33 years - and no doubt, these too will be the traits that will enable him achieve his ambition of reaching the 50-year mark.

Contact: Barry & Fitzwilliam, Ballycurreen Industrial Estate, Airport Road, Cork. Web:

Michael's advice for other businesses

1 Persistence beats resistance

"You will always encounter obstacles, no matter what your objectives are. In the pursuit of your goals, you simply have to be relentless. The best way to get past any resistance is to adopt a mind-set of never giving up. "

2 GOYA (or Get Off Your Ass)

"All success starts with taking action. Action begets more action. You can't solve problems by complaining about what's wrong or not working. You have to take positive steps - you have to Get. Off. Your. Ass."

3 Business is all about people

"Business is ultimately all about people, about building and maintaining relationships. That goes for customers, suppliers and staff. These relationships don't just happen, they have to be nurtured and developed."

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