How changed economic circumstances - and Brexit - prompt takeover

It was easier and less risky for Cavendish to acquire a UK business in Belfast first rather than go straight to Dublin

MCE Public Relations
MCE founder Paul McErlean with Carl Daruvalla, CEO of Cavendish, after the London firm confirmed its acquisition of the Belfast PR agency (Kelvin Boyes)

Henry McErlean was my grandfather, who died in 1941 when my dad was 13. The youngest of the four sons, dad had been at St Columb’s Derry but when his father died, he was brought back to St Malachy’s and then left school and was put to work in the family shop after he finished his ‘junior.’ I think he was 15.

That was the way of things at the time, and he was no different from many other boys and girls in west Belfast in the 1940s. At least the family had a good shop and they lived above it which, thanks to Dad’s eldest brother, my uncle Deus (his name was Thaddeus, but he was better known as Dessie) became the Glenowen Inn on the Glen Road in west Belfast.

Henry was from Clady, and he and his brother Thaddeaus (known as Teady) had decided that Henry would go to Belfast and set up business there – the Clady McErlean business having been operating since the 1700s. Our Clady cousins have called us the Belfast McErleans ever since.

Henry built the house and shop on the Glen Road in the late 1930s and had the foresight to put a good basement in below (now the downstairs public bar of the Glenowen). At first, I think it was used for storage but when the war came and rationing started, there was an opportunity to ‘import’ precious commodities like sugar and butter from Dublin.

When Henry passed, it was left to my uncle Deus and his mother to pick up the reins of the business. As some of those basic ingredients for bread were hard to get, it was clear that an opportunity for baking bread was there and after the war, the basement became a small bakery. My dad was sent to Glasgow to serve his apprenticeship as a baker when he was 17 and he worked for McErlean’s bakeries for most of his life after that.

By the mid-sixties uncle Deus had moved the bakery to Arizona Street and eventually the house and shop became the Glenowen and his business really started to thrive. When I think about it now, I remember my dad going to Germany with my uncle Deus in the early 80s to buy ovens for the bakery, which was rebuilt and expanded with the new factory opening around 1985, according to my cousin, Peter.

Not many were investing capital and creating jobs in that era in west Belfast, but Uncle Deus was fearless. He was a proper entrepreneur, and my dad always admired him and had huge respect for him.

I have been thinking about all of that because last week, after 18 years, my business, MCE, was sold to the GB-based leader in our field, Cavendish. For our team and for our clients, the opportunities ahead are massive for Cavendish Ireland, as we are now known.

While we had many good things going on at MCE – great people, excellent long-term clients, and solid, annual returns -I’d say a crucial factor in the sale was Brexit and what’s happened to this place since. The bigger prize for Cavendish is Dublin and its strategy was to expand into Ireland by going to Dublin and have a foothold in the EU, in addition to its seven offices in GB. Until we came along, Belfast was only barely on the radar.

The truth is, the changed economic and political circumstances on this island (a bit like the opportunity for black-market goods from Dublin in the 1940s) created an opportunity for a Belfast business like ours to be more attractive to a UK business wanting to get a foothold in Ireland.

It was easier, and maybe less risky, to acquire a UK business in Belfast first, rather than go straight to Dublin. That’s not a political statement on any front, it’s just a fact, though it drives me nuts when I hear the likes of Jim Allister and others bleating about the Windsor Framework when opportunities for this economy and most importantly, the young people working in it, are literally right in front of us.

My younger staff, who come from right across the community here, now have career and life opportunities at Cavendish that I could never have provided for them as MCE.

Paul McErlean.
Paul McErlean.

When he was alive, I’m not sure my dad really understood what we did at MCE and I’m pretty sure my grandfather, Henry, and his uncle Deus, probably would have had a chuckle at it all, but I do think the concept of using the macroeconomic and political circumstances of the day to advance in business would have appealed to them and I’m very proud of that.

And I am extremely grateful to all of the staff, clients, family, friends, advisors and my new colleagues in Cavendish who have helped me along the way. I am really looking forward to the months and years ahead at Cavendish Ireland.

  • Paul McErlean is managing director of Cavendish Ireland.