Stories of Growth

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It’s an addiction, opening stores

Colin McClean and David Ferguson, co-founders of Bob & Berts
Food & drink | Northern Ireland
  • Introduction
  • The partnership
  • Expansion
  • Work-life balance

Colin McClean (above, right): At school, I was always interested in business, but I knew that if you want to succeed as an entrepreneur, you need a safety net. I studied geography at university and at the end got asked the question: what will you do? The government had brought in a new bursary for teaching. I thought I’ll do that for a year and that’s why I became a geography teacher.

I wasn’t the most enthusiastic teacher in the world, but I learned a lot about the importance of preparation. If you walk into a class of 30 kids and you’re not prepared, you’ll have an unruly class. That’s a lesson I apply in the business.

Because I had the safety net of teaching, I was able to start my own company. I ran a business selling men’s clothing for four years before going into hospitality in 2007 and running three or four coffeeshop brands. It all came to a head eventually. I had two laptops on my desk – teaching kids and watching emails coming in for the business – and after two years I hit crunch time. You have to be in it or not, so I became an entrepreneur full-time.

David Ferguson (above, left): I met Colin when I was 14 and he was 16. He was dating my older sister and then they got married, so that’s how we know each other.

He set up Bob & Berts in Portstewart, Northern Ireland in 2013. The idea was to compete with the big, branded coffeeshops with a fresh, hot food offering – something that lacked in Caffè Nero and Starbucks.

I’m from Ballymena but was working in London at the time – in finance for Deloitte – and was doing quite well, going to far-flung places with consulting. But I always felt it was not really my thing, and that I’d rather build my own business than work for someone else.

I always had an interest in hospitality. Colin would visit me in London, I would show him what was on-trend, and we had many conversations about what we could do together – and then it all just happened. There were two Bob & Berts stores at the time. We came together and decided to open more. We got to ten sites and then, in 2017, we got investment from BGF and expanded into Scotland and England. We now have more than 20 stores and our ambition is to get to 50.

When I broke the news about going full-time to build my own business, there were some eyebrows raised by my peers, but I have a supportive wife and family, and that’s all that matters.

BGF and Bob & Berts

In 2017, BGF invested £2 million into Bob & Berts to accelerate its roll-out of new stores. As part of the deal, restaurant industry expert Mohan Mansigani joined the board as non-executive chair.

We opened in Belfast city centre, our first major city centre store, and we looked at each other and said, ‘Wow this can really go somewhere.’ It was a brilliant feeling.

Colin: Bob & Berts reflects all the best bits of the businesses I had previously. I had a bakery shop with a counter of freshly baked goods and coffee, and that inspired Bob & Berts to bake everything fresh in the morning. Another business had a fully operational kitchen, so you can see where I have pieced things together into one business.

The reason Bob & Berts exists is that I had five or six different brands, and operationally that’s difficult to run, so I took the best bits and put them all under one banner.

David: For me, the best part of the business is opening a new store. We opened in Belfast city centre, our first major city centre store, and we looked at each other and said, ‘Wow this can really go somewhere.’ It was a brilliant feeling.

Outside of new site openings, getting investment from BGF was special. It’s interesting – a lot of people ask how we got here. There was no grand plan at the time, it all just came together. We just focused on making sure the basics were right: Is the product right? Are customers happy? The rest fell into place.

We have been fortunate to move on quickly from sites that don’t work – it’s only happened twice. Another sleepless night was the Covid outbreak and what would happen to the business in lockdown. We moped for a week or two and thought the world would end, then we got bored of that and started to develop a takeaway business, which we always wanted to do as part of Bob & Berts. We designed a bespoke app over six weeks and reopened for takeaway, collection and delivery, which was a success. We were shocked – we thought people would only want to order food delivery but people were ordering coffee and cake at 9pm at night. We came out of Covid with another string to our bow.

Now, we have come out of the pandemic pretty strongly and are seeing opportunities to grow in a market where weaker brands have fallen away.

Why Bob & Berts chose BGF

“I didn’t have any finance background so when BGF came on the scene, the deal was built on personality,” says Colin. “I felt they would invest but had no interest in taking control. When we realised we wouldn’t lose control, we were relaxed.”

The business can be all-consuming, but we are both of the personality that this doesn’t feel like work. If it felt like work, I would need downtime, but I don’t feel like it’s a job.

Colin: We’re lucky in that I would describe us both as laidback. Before the investment, we didn’t have defined roles but after the investment we made it clear who does what. I look after operations and marketing and David looks after new developments and opening new sites. We have very separate roles but work closely together and speak six times a day. We have never had any big bust ups.

The business can be all-consuming, but we are both of the personality that this doesn’t feel like work. I enjoy going to stores at the weekends. It’s easy. If it felt like work, I would need downtime, but I don’t feel like it’s a job.

David: We like to be at the heart of the community. Our stores are those places where families have brunch at the weekend together, where elderly and lonely people come out in the mornings and interact with our staff, where friends meet up. Our staff know people’s names and their orders.

It’s an addiction, opening stores. We get a buzz from expanding the brand and building new sites. Our ambitions have grown with that. We’re doing ten sites in England next year and we’ll push on from there. What’s driving us is the love of the brand and the love for what we do. It’s never boring, every day is a new day with new challenges.