The best piece of advice? ‘Be honest and be straight’

EY Entrepreneur of the Year finalist Patrick Derry of DRT (NI) Ltd

At nine years of age, Patrick Derry earned pocket money by selling tomato boxes around the Belfast fruit market and it was little wonder that when he left school at 15, it was to work in the markets full time. A mere four years later, Derry realised that the large UK supermarkets were replacing the need for traditional food markets so he bought a lorry and trailer and established Derry Refrigerated Transport.

Today, Derry's company is a major distributor of fresh and frozen goods in Ireland, with a fleet of 70 lorries, 127 fridges and 200 staff. And expansion is on the cards, with Derry planning to open the first phase of his £9 million (€10m) investment in a state-of-the-art depot, Carn Coldstore, in August.

In his 20th year of business, Derry has grown the company from his one-truck, one-trailer operation to include clients such as Moypark, Willowbrook Foods and Kerry Foods, while also servicing smaller producers selling across the island.

While Brexit has caused some consternation, he got ahead of the problem by acquiring a majority shareholding in Brennan Transport, a Co Waterford- based company, in an effort to reassure customers that the challenges can be overcome. Having consistently invested profits back into the business, Derry has built an all-island operation that can provide a specialised service across Ireland within 12 hours.


What vision/lightbulb moment prompted you to start up in business?

After spending my teenage years in Belfast Fruit Market it was clear by 1999 that UK supermarkets had established themselves in Northern Ireland, slowly squeezing out the middle-man at the market stalls. Recognising this progression, I seized an opportunity to transport goods from the producers to the supermarkets having gained vast experience dealing with those key players in the food chain.

What is your greatest business achievement to date?

By far the new Carn Coldstore, which is near completion. It is a big investment for the company but one that sees us slightly diversify the business and will allow us to offer more value to our customers.

What was your “back-to-the-wall” moment and how did you overcome it?

In 2012, the company owed a substantial amount of money, the future wasn’t looking very bright and there were difficult choices ahead, including the possibility of the company going to the wall. That wasn’t a decision I was going to take for me or my company. We talked to our suppliers, we brought on new customers, we expanded and honesty and hard work paid off as the money was recuperated. Our business has since trebled as a result.

What were the best and worst pieces of advice you received when starting out?

The best piece of advice which I’ve stood by all my working life, is “be honest and be straight”.

The worst piece of advice, which I didn’t take, “dig a big hole, bury your debt in it and start up the next day with a new name”.

To what extent does your business trade internationally and what are your plans?

With our headquarters in Armagh, 45 per cent of our business is international. We have a business in Waterford, Brennan Refrigerated Transport, which we acquired 80 per cent of two years ago. Over the past year, that business has done really well with sales up 42 per cent and employee numbers up by 15 per cent. We plan to further expand across Ireland with another cold store in Dublin, and expansion in Carn, Portadown. We are also open to acquisitions in other parts of the country if it is the right fit.

What are the big disruptive forces in your industry?

Given the nature of our industry, the biggest challenge is always going to be the price of fuel. That said, another factor is the workforce and finding the right people has its challenges. Brexit, and its unknowns, has the potential to be a large disruptive force but we are well positioned with bases in both the Republic and Northern Ireland to deal with most Brexit-related things.

Peter Hamilton

Peter Hamilton

Peter Hamilton is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in business