What are the ingredients to drive workplaces to improve?

The role of gravy ring boy in the bakery involved the complicated task of taking the roasting hot circular gravy rings off the conveyor belt of boiling oil and dipping them in sugar

IN the summer of 1984, I got my first real job. I was 15 and I was the storeman's labourer in McErlean's bakery on Arizona Street in west Belfast. The bakery is now gone, replaced by houses and apartments, and the old St Matthias' tin chapel which It overlooked now has a very nice, modern church beside it. I deliberately drove down the Glen Road to see it all again on the way to Corrigan Park on Sunday to watch the Antrim hurlers.

I had the job for my summer break and it was a challenging enough routine for a 15-year-old. I was woken up by my dad at 4.15am and we'd be on the road for about 4.40am to make sure we had our ‘whites' on and were ready to go at 5am. I'd finish at 1.30pm but dad did two hours overtime everyday and finished at 3.30pm.

We cycled down to work together and for that summer and the following summer when I worked in the bakery again, I enjoyed nestling in behind his back wheel in the early dawn. He always cycled in front of me and there was a real comfort in that which I remember fondly to this day. Dad cycled in all circumstances, including the whole way through the winter and all the way through the troubles when there were regular impediments to his path, many of which were on fire.

For 40 years he did that cycle. He was a familiar sight on the Glen Road and I suspect a few readers of this column will remember him, bicycle clips and cap, going up that road every afternoon past St Teresa's, the Brewery and through Lenadoon and home to bed.

The storeman's labourer was almost as far down the pecking order in the bakery as you could go. Basically, the job was to manage the store and prepare the mixes for the bakers. For me, that meant lugging hundred-weight bags of flour, sugar, meal flour and other ingredients down from the store to him. There was, at least, a shoot to slide the bags down. As you might imagine, I went down that shoot myself a few times also, not very wise but it was great craic. Health and safety wasn't as big an issue in those days.

Once I got used to getting up in the middle of the night, I liked the work. The physical labour did me good given I'd spent most of the rest of my life either at school or playing football and basketball. And having spent a childhood only really getting proper time with my dad at weekends, it was also brilliant to experience his daily, working life, first-hand. Those were two important summers for me, though I didn't realise it at the time.

Eventually, I ‘graduated' to the role of gravy ring boy in the bakery. This involved the complicated task of taking the roasting hot circular donuts (for those reading this who don't know what a gravy ring is) off the conveyor belt of boiling oil, dipping them in sugar and putting them neatly in bread boards to be transported to the McErlean's home bakery shops. I'm not sure how many I made every morning but by that stage, there were probably 15 shops to supply and people in west and north Belfast seemed to like their gravy rings. In short, it was a lot.

I tell you all this not just because my dad's second anniversary passed at the weekend but also because I've been thinking about inspirational influences at work recently. What drives people to want to improve? What inspires them to go further than they really have to go? What makes them want to assist those with less experience around them to deliver even more effectively than themselves and in doing so, to impart selflessly all of the knowledge they have to allow that to happen? The answers to these questions provide some of the ingredients which can make good companies become great ones.

I've had some fantastic influences in business and in life over the years, but when I think of my dad in his baking days now, I know that one of his many virtues, which set him apart him as a leader and a friend to so many, was his utter selflessness. He was always ready to give his time and possessions to people in need or, for instance, his apprentices or colleagues who wanted to learn from him.

Creating that sort of an environment in a company, particularly when that culture comes from the top, is a very positive thing and one that inspires me when I make the time to think about these things. I don't do that often enough though.

As for the gravy rings, I haven't had one since, though I can make a decent wheaten bannock. That's another thing da taught me, so I have a lot to be grateful for.

:: Paul McErlean ( is managing director of MCE Public Relations

:: Next week: Brendan Mulgrew

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