How McColgan’s has grown from a small shop to a strong business under family ownership 

McColgan’s is a third-generation family-owned company with deep roots in Northern Ireland and a commitment to delivering delicious savory pastries. Established by the McColgan family in 1940, the business has a unique story behind its success, having started life as a tea shop in Strabane, Northern Ireland. 

The tea shop quickly became reputable in the area, with the subsequent opening of a café, butchery, and bakery. Famous for its sausage rolls, the business began producing pastries for other businesses in 1978, which was so successful that a new site was required to keep up with demand. Today, the business has grown to produce a range of savory pastries from a state-of-the-art facility just two miles from the original tea shop.

William McColgan

In 2022, William McColgan and his sister, Grainne, both grandchildren of the founder, purchased the business from the second generation with a revolutionary vision to transform its operations. William joins us to discuss how he and his sister have brought in an expert leadership team to assist them on the journey, as well as how they’ve secured a prosperous future for the original tea shop.  

“It’s been a very exciting few years since we took on the business in April 2022,” William opens. “Our aim is to transform the business to a world class manufacturer while remaining  true to its heritage. We have a very strong position in Ireland, having survived since before the Second World War and offering opportunity in the region which has historically experienced severe unemployment. 

“From humble beginnings, we’ve grown organically into a B2B company producing for other retailers, as well as our McColgan’s products, and we’ve been a constant in the community for providing reasonably priced, yet very satisfying comfort food. We want to expand on that by continually improving our processes, investing in technology, and exploring commercial partnerships to build on our history.  

“When we took over, the business had reached a limit in terms of what our systems and processes would allow us to do,” he continues. “We’ve been through a significant digital transformation, moving away from a centralized, paper-based management system to state-of-the-art management and information systems. 

“As for the original retail location, we still operate that business,” he reveals. “We’ve moved it into its own legal entity, with a separate leadership team, accounts, and marketing strategy. It’s still a busy and valuable member of the downtown shopping area in Strabane. 

“We’ve also taken the business through a cultural transformation. While we want to retain our founding principles, we want to further professionalize the business and decouple the decision-making process from a central point. We’re doing so by developing a high performing leadership team that is empowered, and aligned around a shared vision. We’ve found that surrounding ourselves with experts from similar industries or companies has made us more of a scalable and agile operation.” 

One such individual is Nigel Cairns, who came on board as Commercial Director just over one year ago, bringing decades of experience in the food industry in Northern Ireland. “When I joined, McColgan’s already had a very strong platform from which to grow, and I was instantly impressed by William and Grainne’s growth ambitions for the business,” Nigel reflects. “The fact that they wanted somebody to help them transform operations was a new and exciting challenge for me, especially at this point in my career.  

“It’s been incredibly rewarding to watch our growth so far – and there’s still more to come. While we’re predominantly a sausage roll outfit we also lead the market in savory pies, slices, and quiches for both wholesale and retail customers. Through an extensive review of the market, we recognized opportunities in mainland UK and consequently commissioned studies to identify specific targets. 

“This led to us launching our new gourmet range to address a gap in the market for a more premium offering,” he explains. “These sausage rolls have a much higher filling to pastry ratio, or in other words, more meat content when compared to our standard products. We’ve just entered a private label contract with major retailer, Iceland, and it’s a huge success so far. As the market for ‘stay at home’ customers is already showing room for growth, we’re now embarking on a program to launch a gourmet pie range too.” 

Growth trajectory 

Turning to current operations, both William and Nigel suggest that listening to consumers, providing good customer service, and fostering positive working

Nigel Cairns

relationships are key to success. “It’s critical that we deliver on time and in full to all our customers, and to do so, we must create an environment where our operations can keep pace with our commercial function,” says Nigel. “With a strong history in the industry and local area, we have longstanding relationships with suppliers, many of whom have grown their businesses along with ours over the years. 

“Sustainability is also a hot topic for retail supply chains,” he states. “We’re collaborating with partners to find areas to reduce our footprint. For instance, with increasing demand for sustainable packaging from both consumers and legislators, we’re working closely with Coppice Alupack to find alternative solutions that meet quality requirements while reducing waste.” 

William adds: “Packaging is just one area where we’re thinking about sustainability. We now send our food waste to an anerobic digestor to generate heat and power, for instance, and we’re also collaborating with our logistics providers currently trialing hybrid hydrogen-electric trucks.” 

As our conversation draws to a close, the pair share how they’re preparing for further growth and success in 2024 and beyond. “From a commercial perspective, I’m keen to grow the brand to get a better return on investment and more control over the direction of the business,” Nigel says. “As we move up the value chain and build a new base of consumers, we’ll look to expand into other areas of the savory pastry market.  

“I’m also confident in growing our foodservice business with unbaked, frozen goods. Overall, we’re only scratching the surface of opportunities for growth in new markets and geographies for both our own brand and our private label operations. We must continue to build a team that enables us to take advantage of such opportunities and sustain our growth.” 

William agrees: “Our transformation journey is ongoing and is a challenge that will be won or lost on talent. We constantly have our eyes open to fresh talent across all our functions to ensure we’re an employer of choice for the most in-demand talent the region has to offer.  

“2024 appears rich in opportunities for us, from capacity growth to new partnerships, and we’re expecting significant double-digit growth in the year ahead,” he concludes. “We’re currently working on our three-year plan, but we hope to have effectively doubled our revenue and be pulling levers for further growth.”