Draperstown Tel: 02879 628999 Magherafelt Tel: 02879 301404 Castledawson Tel: 02879 469700 Maghera Tel: 02879 642072 info@tonersstores.co.uk

History

Now aged 50, Paddy Toner has spent his entire working life in the retail trade in and around his native south Derry. These days, he owns four substantial convenience outlets in Castledawson, Draperstown, Maghera and Magherafelt – all of them trading under the Nisa/Food Force Ireland banner – but he readily recalls exactly where it all began: “When I was 16-years-old I got a job as a shop boy in Robert Taylor’s Draperstown VG store,” says Paddy, “and I can remember to this day that my first job was picking the labels off Club biscuits that happened to be coming off promotion at the time.”

In the years since, Paddy has worked with both the Henderson and Musgrave symbol brands for periods and he’s operated as a true independent too. He made the switch to Nisa in April 2004 - re-branding all four stores with the new fascia - and now says that he has no intention of switching allegiance again in the foreseeable future.

Paddy stayed at Robert Taylor’s store and Post Office in Draperstown until 1988, by which time he had been promoted to manager and the store itself had shifted symbols from VG to Spar. Then the Henderson Group offered him the licence of one of its stores in Maghera – ironically, the same premises from which Paddy now operates one of his Nisa outlets.

When Paddy told his employer of his plans, Robert Taylor offered to rent him the Draperstown store instead and Paddy accepted, turning down Henderson’s Maghera proposal. That was November, 1988 and in May of the following year, Paddy agreed to buy the store outright from his former employer.

“I can remember that Frank Gordon was the Spar sales manager in the area at the time and he helped me to put together a business proposal that I could take to the bank,” says Paddy. “That business plan was just three pages long – that would never do these days!” They were successful, however, and Paddy took on the 2,500 sq. ft. store.

Its former owner had been a devout Christian and this was reflected in many of the store’s traditional business practices. It never opened on a Sunday, it closed at 6pm each evening and half-day on a Thursday and it didn’t sell cigarettes.

“When I took it on, I asked Robert if I could change some of these things,” says Paddy, “We began to open on Sunday and to trade to 10pm each evening and so on and within a very short time, trade in the shop had easily doubled.”

That store – in Draperstown High Street – has been extended twice during the intervening years. In 1992, it went to 3,500 sq. ft. and Paddy became one of the first retailers in Northern Ireland to introduce a hot food bar to his in-store offering.

In 1994, it was extended again to 4,500 sq. ft. with more space devoted to the store’s signature fresh fruit and vegetable displays – in fact, sales in the fresh food categories account for around 50 per cent of the takings from the Draperstown outlet. 

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Growth
The next store to be added to Paddy Toner’s portfolio came just the following year when he took on a 2,700 sq. ft. premises at the Diamond Shopping Centre in the busy market town of Magherafelt. And in 1996, he added the 1800 sq. ft. store at Main Street in Castledawson.

All these stores were initially Spar branded and Paddy remained with the symbol until 2000, when Hendersons again offered him the 5,500 sq. ft. store in Maghera. 

At that time, however, Paddy, who enjoys motorsport, was spending time in the Republic pursuing his hobby and he had begun to notice the Musgrave Group’s SuperValu stores.

”I remember thinking that if they ever expanded into the north then I would consider shifting over to them,” says Paddy. Subsequently, he did re-brand to SuperValu in April, 2002 and shortly afterwards, he oversaw a £300,000 refurbishment programme at the Maghera store. A third of that investment was spent on new back-ofhouse cold room and freezer facilities at the store and a second entrance was added at the side of the building.

After only two years, however, Paddy says that he was forced to consider shifting his brand allegiance again, citing a significant erosion in profit margins as his main reason.

“Nisa had always been knocking at my door and although I thought they seemed like an attractive brand, I’d never considered their offering to be comprehensive enough,” recalls Paddy. “But around that time, my accountant spoke to me about our drop in profitability and mentioned a couple of his other clients who were Nisa retailers. With their permission, he showed me their figures and their margins were very attractive.

“In the end, we did switch to Nisa in the middle of 2004 and I have to say that we began to see the benefits almost straight away. The group’s promotional activity for one thing is second to none. They’re very competitive, even against the multiples, which is what we need and we get very good margins with all these promotions. 

“And as well as that, of course, there’s Food Force Ireland, which all Nisa traders in Northern Ireland automatically become a member of. They handle all their own NI promotions with the local suppliers and there are massive benefits in that for any retailer,” continues Paddy.

“Everything is taken care of for us. When it comes to promotions, we find out 10 days in advance of when they are going to start and that gives us time to make sure that all the tills are programmed and the pricing is updated.

"When I was 16-years-old 
I got a job as a shop boy in 
Robert Taylor’s Draperstown VG store"

“And at the end of the year, we get a lovely rebate cheque from FFI. My margins have increased by seven plus per cent or more since I move to Nisa/FFI and on top of that, we have complete freedom to buy from any supplier we choose.”
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In-store 1

Pressures
Paddy has no firm plans for expansion going forward and like all retailers these days, he’s conscious of the economic pressures faced by consumers:
“There’s no doubt that many businesses are getting it tight at present,” he says. “But I’m very lucky to be able to say that this group at least is in growth. Castledawson, for example, has seen tremendous growth of around 18 per cent since last year.”

“The focus now is on making sure that the margin growth we’re enjoying stays with us and we’re working hard on all fronts to ensure that’s the case. We’re particularly focused at present on our fresh fruit and veg and our dairy and we’re talking to a variety of local producers in order to tailor our offering to our customers’ needs.

“Over the next five years, I don’t see myself taking any big decisions regarding new stores. You can never rule that kind of thing out, of course, but I think we’ll probably be sticking with what we have for now. What I am sure of is that we’ll be sticking with Nisa and Food Force Ireland because there’s no better symbol brand out there in my opinion.

“Other than that, we’ll be doing our best to stay one step ahead of everyone else in this very busy and competitive sector…”