Sinead Heffernan: from bakery bookkeeper to bakery boss
Ireland’s high streets may have taken a battering during the recession, but the past few years have also seen an upsurge in the number of bakeries, cake shops and cafés opening across our towns and cities. As sourdoughs, spelts and gluten-frees stack up in the shop windows, our new love affair with baking is also played out on TV, with programmes like The Great Irish Bake Off drawing large audiences. It’s easy to forget that the bakery has always been a part of daily life in Ireland, with loyal customers keeping many in business despite the rise of the supermarkets and convenience shops.
Established in 1969, in the north Dublin suburb of Drumcondra, Thunders is the embodiment of the small family bakery that thrives on its ability to meet the needs of the local community. The unusual name came from an unusual surname – Mr and Mrs Thunder set up and ran the business until they passed it over to their nephew Tony Lonergan in the 1980s when they retired. Training in bakery in Switzerland, Lonergan played to the business’s strengths, expanding to the nearby suburbs of Clontarf and Phibsboro, where Thunders quickly became a focal part of the community.
In 2004, as Lonergan prepared to exit the business in his turn, he faced a dilemma. Property developers were eyeing up Thunders’ sites as prime for redevelopment, and selling would mean an almost certain end to the business he felt he had been entrusted with.
A solution was close at hand, however. In 2008 when Sinead Heffernan stepped in to buy the business with her husband Stephen, it was the culmination of two years of debate, discussion and planning.
Heffernan had come to know Thunders over the previous decade as the business’s accountant, but, aside from understanding its finances, she says the only other qualification she brought was a passion for cake-making and decorating. However, with the property boom a memory, there was now an opportunity to revitalise and expand what was, at its heart, a sound business model.
She recalls: ‘I knew how to bake, not in a commercial sense, but I knew what a cake should look like and what you would spend on it, and what a customer would part with. Stephen had also worked for Kerry Foods and some other food companies, so he had a huge amount of production knowledge, which was very valuable. But it was a steep learning curve from the moment we stepped in. We had to take out a large loan and we knew there was no way our family could survive on what we would take out of the business for at least five years. The idea was that I would manage the business and Stephen would stay where he was.’
Buying the bakery was also, at least in part, the fulfilment of a childhood dream. ‘I grew up in north County Dublin and I used to pass Thunders Bakery on the bus going to school. I’d often see it with the lights on in the bakery in the morning and think wouldn’t it be wonderful to be in there.’
Knowing the company inside out as its accountant, Heffernan says she was under no illusion as to the scale of the challenge. ‘We were paying for goodwill. We knew, coming in, that the business would need a huge investment, but we also knew the staff had an appreciation for it – it wasn’t just a job to them.’
The business had been running at about 70% capacity for years, which meant there were opportunities to grow and » make efficiencies as it expanded. She says that from the moment they took over the bakery they were ‘bombarded with offers’ by estate agents. But rather than sell out they decided to open a Thunders on the southside for the first time. When a unit came up in Windy Arbour in Dundrum, they went for it.
The new outlet was an immediate hit with the nearby business park, although gaining traction with the local community was clearly going to take a little longer. ‘The locals didn’t buy into us as a bakery until they believed we were going to stay,’ she says. ‘The Saturday local trade took years to build, but we are now at the point where it is busier than Drumcondra.’
Since 2008, Thunders has opened six other shops around Dublin – in Crumlin, Dundrum, Lower Drumcondra, Finglas, St Margaret’s Road and Prussia Street. Recognising the risk inherent in having all the baking done in one facility, they also developed a second facility in Phibsboro, where the head office is now based.
In 2013, Thunders moved into the coffee shop market, opening its first café in Clerys department store. In 2014, a second followed on Mespil Road in Dublin 4, and a third in Liffey Valley Shopping Centre.
Heffernan admits the move has provided a whole new learning experience. ‘I thought initially that the cafés would be our original business plus seats but it’s not – it requires a whole other approach. You have to be much more streamlined and efficient in terms of stock and waste management. Everything has to be exactly what the customer expects, regardless of the person doing it.’
After getting a degree, Heffernan cut her teeth working as an audit junior while studying for her ACCA Qualification by night. She then worked for several years as a management accountant before setting up Advanced Accountancy Practices with her husband. The idea was to focus on small businesses that didn’t need a full-time accountant, so she could juggle work and family life.
Her experience as an auditor eventually drew her back into full-time work in that area, until the raising of audit limits in 2006 meant many of her clients were exempted. With a growing family, Heffernan was happy to work on a more ad hoc basis, and it was in this capacity that she began bookkeeping for Thunders.
She adds that her ACCA Qualification, far from being sidelined by her new career, plays a central part in driving the business forward. ‘If I didn’t have the accounting background, I think I would be running the business fairly differently,’ she explains. ‘I am absolutely and utterly in control of the finances, which means I can make a decision very quickly. Once you have that control, you can go beyond the day to day and plan ahead without worrying. You don’t have to employ a consultant when you are doing a business plan, and you can present your plans knowing that banks will understand your figures, so, yes, I rely on the ACCA Qualification every day.’
Planning and forecasting are skills she shares with her staff. ‘There are simple ways of making sure staff have an awareness of the financials, where you are growing, and how you are doing compared to the same time last year. It means our store supervisors have targets they can budget for and forecast around.’
The role of managing director in a company that has moved from decline to growth has also given Heffernan some keen insights into leadership. The key, she says, is to give people ownership of what they are doing. ‘It’s about putting a value on everyone around you and coming up with the solution that’s best for everyone. Trying to do it all yourself is never going to work. When you are leading a team of people who are involved in the process of change, they are invested in it; and once people feel they are allowed to contribute and that you invite it, that’s when you start building a team of leaders.’
Last year, after listening to staff feedback, Heffernan parked the annual Christmas party and hosted an awards ceremony instead to celebrate the achievements of her employees. On her office wall, she points to a set of frames, each containing a door key. ‘When I give a key to the building to a supervisor, it means I would utterly trust them to run the business if I wasn’t there.’
Against stiff competition from other artisan bakeries as well as the in-store bakeries springing up in many supermarkets, Heffernan believes Thunders has an enduring appeal. ‘Thunders is traditionally Irish and affordable. Every item is handmade and is going to be a little different from the one beside it. This isn’t high-end, couture bakery for once a month or an occasional treat; it’s a bakery for people to enjoy three or four times a week. We do sourdough breads as a weekend line and lately we’ve introduced spelt and gluten-free breads. But, at the end of the day, Thunders is local and for people who want quality and value from their bread.’
That’s not to say she doesn’t recognise the importance of moving with the times in terms of brand. She credits much of the direction she brought to this with her involvement in Going for Growth, an Enterprise Ireland-led mentorship programme for women in business. ‘It really brought me all the way back to our mission statement, how we introduce and explain our business. What came out of that was that our brand image was dated and our shops were old-fashioned.’
A new store concept is being rolled out, while a new striped logo features prominently on everything from delivery vans to cake boxes. The message of the new brand is simple: ‘You get the cake you expected to get, knowing we have handmade everything.’
The logistics of supplying fresh bakery products means that, while the business has further opportunities to expand in Dublin, a move beyond the capital would need further infrastructure investment. ‘We are looking to go beyond Dublin in five years plus, but to serve those outlets we will need to look at baking in different regions of the country.’
For Heffernan, freshness is central to the brand. ‘There’s very little we do that we could pack and sell five days later. Sometimes we are offered products that will, say, make a sponge last for a week, but my attitude is that I don’t want a sponge to last for a week.’
Having made the switch from accountant to business owner, Heffernan’s advice to anyone looking to do the same is: ‘Know what the vision is and what the end result is going to be. Be aware you’re going to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at the beginning. You need to have it clear in your mind why you are doing it and to keep feeling that. You can have a five or a 10-year plan, but you have to have a monthly and a weekly one too. Success isn’t just the goal achieved in five years – you have to recognise and celebrate the successes as they happen.’
Donal Nugent, journalist
This article was first published in the Ireland edition of Accounting and Business magazine in July/August 2015