Climbing walls

The Wall Group

Gavan Wall, of the Belfast-based Wall Group, sees himself as a high energy entrepreneur with a plethora of ideas. He tells NR how his previous experiences have shaped his retail career.

Your wife is eight months pregnant, you’re a successful, well-known criminal barrister making good money and the future looks stable. So what do you do? Quit and start a retail enterprise.

Not everyone would have the guts to sacrifice everything, but Gavan Wall has always had a passion for business, and a decade after making the decision, his Wall Group now employs more than 140 members of staff, an eight store network – and growing – that serves more than two million customers annually. Those stores include Spar, Subway and Wall’s own creation YoggieBerrie – a niche business that serves frozen yogurt, ice cream and coffee – and the plan is clear: growth.

It all started with a telephone call Wall received about the Landscape filling station on the Crumlin Road, which at the time was a relatively small 468 square feet unit.

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“The guy was selling illegal fuel and on the 19 October 2008, I got a phone call to say that Customs & Excise were on the forecourt putting the pumps on the back of a low loader,” he says. “So I raced up to the filling station, found out what was happening, asked to see the warrants, told them I’d beaten a case in Tyrone earlier in the year and that the operator would be back in within 48 hours, and asked them what they wanted. They said they wanted to smash his ring of filling stations where he’d been selling illegal fuel. So I told them to put the pumps back in and I’ll be trading here from tomorrow. The Wall Group was born that minute.”

As might be expected of someone moving into a new industry, it was a baptism of fire. Wall encountered resistance, but was a willing learner and modest enough to realise that he needed to learn, and learn fast. Asked how prepared he was, Wall is frank: “I did not have a clue.”

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But he had ambitions, and spoke to the Henderson’s Group, his partner in the venture, who told them the filling station would be a success if it achieved 10 percent sales growth over the following twelve months. By the end of that year, the filling station had achieved 100 percentr growth. Keen to drive on with his success, Wall moved onto his next project, a Spar in Ardoyne – and given his initial success Henderson’s wanted to work with him again. Now in the last year of a ten year plan which has seen the group expand to eight stores with a ninth in the offing, the feelings are mutual.

“Henderson Group is the number one Spar group in the world, bar none,” says Wall. “They are so far ahead of the rest of the UK. They’re in it for the legacy, not the money. For me being a cog in their wheel is so much better than being the cog in someone else’s wheel.”


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It hasn’t always been smooth sailing, however. Among the success stories there have been countless failures, which Wall describes as part of his ongoing education in the world of retail. Of those failings though, Wall is philosophical: “There’s a stigma attached to failure. You learn a lot from failures, was it staff, was it location, was it me – there are a lot of variables in the retail industry and in business in general, so it’s important to learn how to tweak your outputs, learn and better things.”

The group’s first YoggieBerrie is thriving on the Fortwilliam shop parade on the Antrim Road, but the brand’s second unit, this time on the Andersonstown Road, represents the Wall Group’s most significant financial failure to date. Wall pumped huge resources into the unit, building a cave to solidify the brand, spending £200,000 on the fit-out, and yet just five months after it opened in June 2016,its doors were shut.

“We encountered a lot of resistance in the community, he says. “There was a perception I think that they were trying to protect businesses that we were competitors to. I had people phoning me up saying ‘you might get away with this in south Belfast but you won’t get away with it in the west’. Both of my parents are from west Belfast as it happens so I feel like it was a case of a mistaken perception.”

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Even early on, the store started to receive unfavourable Facebook reviews from fake accounts, many of which listed untruths about the cost and quality of the items available there, according to Wall. The team held a publicity event at the store during which they had planned to give away products for free and build some goodwill. But not a single potential customer showed up. Wall took the hint and shut up shop – a bold move given it had only been open five months. It was a difficult experience for him personally, but was aware that it was draining resources from his other businesses, and so admitted defeat. Many in a similar position may have attempted to resurrect the store, unable psychologically to accept the loss. It’s a form of cognitive dissonance perhaps many small, expanding retail owners aren’t aware of, says Wall.

“People ignore that they might have a problem in their business because of the stigma attached to failure. I realised though we needed to close the unit as it could have ended up having a negative impact on the rest of the business. It may have been one of the best decisions he ever made.”

Wall says one great lesson he learnt from the experience was getting to know the people on the ground – the customer base and the local community. He recognises that the YoggieBerrie brand is in a niche market, and perhaps knowing what a community wanted and expected of its retail community.

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Priding itself on helping local communities and their perceptions develop is key to what the Wall Group is trying to achieve. Wall speaks of wanting to put money back into the local communities his stores serve, and developing relations with those communities. The group itself attempts to tackle cross community challenges, and actively looks to break down age old boundaries by cross fertilising across the businesses. “We’re active in Ardoyne, Rathcool, the lower Old Park, where people would never cross paths. And we challenge them to go and work in other stores outside of their communities and they love it.”

Inherent in making these ambitious processes work is communication, a skill that Wall believes he brought with him from his time in the legal sector, and a crucial aspect of how the group performs. That’s helped with many aspects of the business, including creating good relations with external partners such as Spar and Subway and building new ventures.

“The biggest skill that I have, that I brought with me from law, is communication,” he says. “Whether that be with trading partners, staff, or my wife wondering why I’m working 16 hours a day. It’s important to try to build relationships constantly, because when you expand you’ll rely on those relationships, which means that you can get across your positivity and success in a very short period of time.”

Communication is key

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It’s by leaning on those relationships that Wall has come to enjoy fruitful growth with other brands – including Subway, Spar and the Henderson Group. These relations are crucial, he says, as he can make use of their “massive wealth of knowledge and information”.

“If you pay a royalty to Subway, or you work on something with Henderson Group, that’s money well spent,” he says. “They have fantastic processes and expertise that allows you to go multi-store. We have big plans within the group and working with partners will allow us to do that – they’ve already got a process in place and it’s a matter of me then implementing it.”

Now, Wall is working on his six year plan. It looks very different to the ten year plan he created when he started out, with the group now armed with a range of expertise to help drive it forward. And the plan is an ambitious one: by the end of those six years, the group hopes to host 28 stores across the network, and may include buying a chain and expanding across different areas of Belfast, where Wall believes the group can achieve success.

“We’re unique in that we’re trying to build a business of scale in Belfast where traditionally that doesn’t happen because there are so many obstacles – deprivation, lack of support, different communities. But I’m not afraid of failure. We will achieve it.”

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Within that ambition, Wall recognises the headwinds for retail sector in Northern Ireland: additional labour costs through the living wage legislation, as well as pension reforms taking hold this year, and cost inflation pressures on goods and utilities. Further expansion plans from Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda are always a threat to the country’s smaller retailers, as well as the likes of Amazon moving more into the food market and putting pressure on the larger supermarket chains to expand. Retailers need to recognise these challenges, says Wall, as well as the opportunities put forward by technological solutions to help the smaller players survive. He cites the Henderson Group’s trialling of Zapper – a payment system – which is early in development but could transform small retailer players’ costs structures.

Nearly a decade on from his decision to leave law behind and make the big step into retail, Wall says his wife is finally “getting over” the change. In fact, she’s fully behind the six year plan, and already looking forward to seeing the 28 stores Wall is so passionate to see under the group’s direction. “You need spousal support,” he says. “And with that I’m very much blessed.”


 Bricks in the Wall

Spar Ardoyne, 27-31 Ardoyne Rd, Belfast (Spar, Subway and Post Office)

Landscape Filling Station, 95 Crumlin Road, Belfast (Spar store, Texaco Fuel)

Spar Whitewell Road, 95 Whitewell Road, Newtownabbey

Rathcoole Filling Station, 42 Doagh Road, Newtownabbey (Spar and Daily Deli, Texaco Fuel)

Subway Fortwilliam, 551 Antrim Road, Belfast

Subway Cityside, Cityside Retail and Leisure Park, York Road, Belfast

Subway Springfield Road, 790 Springfield Road, Belfast

YoggieBerrie, 551 Antrim Road, Belfast (dessert saloon, 28 covers, ice cream, coffee and treats)




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