Pratt still has a taste for Avoca success

Following its €64 million sale to US giant Aramark, the retailer opens in Dunboyne

Simon Pratt, MD of Avoca at the new store under construction at Dunboyne, Co. Meath. Photograph: Alan Betson

Simon Pratt, MD of Avoca at the new store under construction at Dunboyne, Co. Meath. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

Avoca Handweavers managing director Simon Pratt lolls on a chair on the deck beside the herb garden at the company’s new €3 million flagship store near Dunboyne in Co Meath. He stares into the distance through the beaming spring sunlight.

It’s the home straight before next Wednesday’s opening and the place is alive with workers applying the last few touches – a painter is finishing the deck around Pratt’s feet.

Pratt is museful, engaged and wry, but also nervous about the opening – an Avoca salad of emotions – as he reluctantly enters the spotlight for the first time since it went from being a family enterprise to part of the $9 billion Aramark empire.

That sale 15 months ago earned the Pratt family €64.7 million. He contemplates Avoca’s extraordinary journey and recalls the 1980s when he lived in a gate lodge at its Kilmacanogue store while working for the Irish Trade Board.

“I’d make soup and salads in the mornings before I went to work. Then I’d stick them in the back of my Renault 5 van and bring them up to the tearooms.”

Now he runs Avoca for the US catering giant that bought it. Aramark is financing this, Avoca’s 12th Irish opening, while it also limbers up for a crack at the UK. But it was the Pratts who built it into a top indigenous retailer, with sales in excess of €60 million and 1,000 staff.

“But the ball really bounced for us. It was hard work, yes. But the number one thing was we had incredible luck.”

In business, people make their own luck.

Pratt’s father, Donald, started the business in 1974 when Simon was 10. The solicitor – to his wife’s chagrin – bought a weaver’s mill in Avoca, Co Wicklow, from a client. He began selling Irish designs from the boot of his car and slowly the business took hold, branching from retailing into food and destination retailing.

“He bought it when it didn’t make any sense. My father is 81 now, but he’d do it all again tomorrow, while my mother would be saying: ‘ah, now, Donald, let’s sit down and work this out’,” says Pratt.

“My father has 10 ideas a day but nine of them have to be put back in the box. That’s his style. Risk doesn’t bother him. It’s amazing to be his son.”

As we speak, Pratt’s elderly parents are visiting the Galapagos Islands 1,000kms off the coast of Ecuador.

Siblings

Simon and his elder sister, Amanda, who left about a year before the sale, became directors early in the 1990s, helping pivot it from a kitschy Irish designs retailer to the luxury brand house it is today. Their younger siblings Ivan and Vanessa later joined, six family members pulling in unison, mostly, to build the group. Pratt admits they sometimes fought and “we could have bloody awful days”. But their toil paid off handsomely.

“We were never very structured. We never really had formal arrangements, or a succession plan or anything like that. We learned as we went. Our business knowledge was based on experience, not a manual.”

The new Dunboyne outlet is a classic modern Avoca project, albeit a large one. It is design-led and ambitious. It comprises 56,000sq ft – the floorspace of a large supermarket – bigger than its Rathcoole outlet in west Dublin.

The new outlet is on a massive old garden centre site off the M3, 10 minutes north of Blanchardstown. There are 340 parking spaces, two of which are spoken for by a pair of bright pink and orange vintage tractors on wooden stands near the door.

Inside, the dramatic agri-industrial theme continues with a huge metal silo embossed with pink pop-philosophy: “Enjoy yourself. It’s later than you think.”

There is a huge garden centre concession, Howbert & Mays, run by the owners of a business near Avoca’s Monkstown outlet. Dunboyne includes Avoca’s fashion, books and luxury goods retailing departments, and a 200-seat Fork cafe with the inside/outside 100-seat deck, a retractable roof and a pizza van.

There is a separate and vast foodmarket with a spine of high tables and chairs for customers “to perch” and eat the market’s wares. Concessions include Sprout & Co Kitchen, Mitchell & Son Wines, rotisserie outfit Poulet Bonne Femme, Kish Fish, and health food retailer Nature’s Gold. Avoca will operate the craft butchers and bakery, while there is also Joeanna Caffrey flowers concession.

About 20,000sq ft is given over to the herb garden, of which Pratt seems most proud. He has an earthy quality about him, and I tell him he has the air of a man who likes to grow things.

“I also have the dirt,” he says, holding up his fingernails. “I’m really into sustainable farming. It is one of my passions. It gives you a sense of place.”

Expansion

Once the Dunboyne opening is in his rear-view mirror, Pratt, who signed a three-year deal a year ago to run the group for Aramark, will turn his attention to further expansion in Ireland and Britain.

“We’re looking at six or eight sites. We are looking first at Cork, then possibly Galway. We are looking for major sites on the main arteries into those cities.”

This would follow a template established with its Kilmacanogue outlet on the N11 and Rathcoole on the N7. Both have the triumvirate of cafe, retail and foodmarket offerings. He does not favour retail-only outlets in urban shopping centres. Avoca’s home-style food offering has become a core part of its concept.

“I’ve never loved the idea of being a name over a door in a marble mall. The quirky nature of Avoca is part of the attraction.”

A smaller, food-only format is known internally as the “Salt model”, after the Salt cafe, its Monkstown outlet in south Dublin. Pratt is “actively” scouting the city for this format, which could also supplement full-format outlets around Cork and Galway.

Its planned entry into Britain, however, is the big play for Avoca following the Aramark deal. Pratt hopes to open on the outskirts of London, possibly off the M25, “at the back end of next year”.

He prefers converted leasehold sites that already have retail planning and parking, rather than starting from scratch. He has learned lessons from the opening of Rathcoole, a freehold new-build that opened not long before the last recession at a cost of €17 million, placing a strain on the group.

“Nothing is imminent in the UK, but I’ve been over four times since autumn looking at sites. We would need at least two of the big ones to make it economic, with a few fill-in smaller formats dotted around.”

While the financial return from smaller formats is more attractive, Pratt says it needs larger format stores in the UK to make a splash with the brand. He is also considering partnering a UK company – perhaps a garden centre operator – on the rollout. Potential partners have been to Ireland to view its operation.

“If it worked, we could maybe do up to 12 big outlets in the UK with a lot of fill-ins, but that would take time.”

Pratt is keen to highlight Aramark’s “commitment” to Avoca, bankrolling a major development at Dunboyne as its first project. He is sensitive to the notion that the multinational might erode Avoca’s quirky brand and says Eric Foss, Aramark’s global chief executive, told him to retain its character.

Aramark won’t roll out Avoca as a brand for its corporate catering clients, rather, Pratt says, Aramark wants to “expand Avoca in its existing likeness, but with the structure a big company can give us”.

Sales data

Aramark will mine Avoca’s sales data for consumer trends, informing its other operations. Aramark’s recent quarterly results refer to $19 million Avoca sales in the three months to December, on top of $24 million in the quarter before.

Previous Aramark filings have referred to a purchase price of $57.9 million (€53 million at today’s rates but €51 million at the time of the deal) for Avoca. This has been erroneously reported elsewhere in the Irish media as the price the Pratts received. It does not include payments for goodwill associated with the brand.

When asked about the price, Pratt will not directly answer. But it is definitely a €64 million question.

That’s a fine payday for the Pratts. Ivan has since bought back Avoca’s Wicklow millweaving operation. Vanessa still works in the business running non-food retail. Donald still oversees the garden centre at Mount Usher “pro bono” says his smiling son. Amanda has moved on.

They’re all now very wealthy people. They always intended selling the business instead of handing it to the next generation. It was a sure way of ending any potential for inter-family conflict.

“We were always close enough, but we were direct enough too. But the next night, someone would make a phonecall and the greater good would prevail.”

Pratt seems relieved to have sold to Aramark. He felt the strain of running Avoca as it got larger and appreciates the support of being inside a larger structure.

“I did what I wanted to do with it [under family ownership]. But it got too big a responsibility. I felt pressure because of how hands-on I was. I’m a pain in the arse for details, and I took things too personally. That was bruising.”

He is happy to stay on for now, as long as Aramark want him , although he envisages moving into a more strategic role before he eventually exits.

“I never wanted to grow old doing this and for it to be the only thing I did.”

He plans to open a “sustainable farm” in Wicklow, noncommercial and just something for him and his family: “I’ll have geese, hens and ducks. I’ll grow vegetables and I’ll look after some ancient woods. That’s what is on the horizon for me. Something less, something different.”

In the meantime, he will continue overseeing the Avoca rollout.

It may not be about family any more, but it is still important business.

Name: Simon Pratt

Position: Managing director, Avoca Handweavers

Age: 52

Family: Married, two children and two step-children

Home: Delgany, Wicklow

Something we might expect: “We keep pigs and make (bad) charcuterie.”

Something about him that might surprise: “I hate public speaking.”