Dramatic background to SuperValu Barbican

If you’ve had a day out in Newcastle, chances are you’ve paid a visit to the Barbican forecourt and store on the main road into the town – and indeed out of it –  for those last-minute snacks, treats that are part of any road trip.

There are few forecourts and convenience stores with a backdrop as impressive as the this one on Newcastle’s Dundrum Road. In the shadow of the majestic Mournes, the 1.5-acre site has been part of the Heenan family business for more than three decades.

David Heenan outside his SuperValu store in Newcastle

Scooping the SuperValu Store of the Year award in May reinforced the Barbican’s credentials as an innovative and customer focused business which services both the local community, and the thousands of visitors who flock to the sea-side town each year.

At the helm is David Heenan (53), who established the business with his father, a successful cattle breeder with a farm in Tollymore Park, and something of a pioneer.

“The farm went back several generations and he was a bit of an entrepreneur,” explains David.

“He brought the first Holstein cattle into Ireland in the 1950s from the US and that was the start of it. He was never scared to try anything, and wasn’t terrified of failure. Somethings aren’t going to work out, but you can’t let that stop you from trying things.”

This ethos has been David’s business mantra since Barbican began trading, and his seen the then-modest forecourt expand to the award-winning retailer it is today.

Inside the Barbican SuperValu, Newcastle

“I’m one of seven sons, and he reckoned at the time we couldn’t all farm. I had been to Greenmount agricultural college and he had bought this property just as I was finishing. I was the next in line so that’s what I came to do in 1983 and I’ve been here ever since.

“What I’ve worked out over the years is that if you think you’ve got the shop right, then it’s time to move on! There’s always something else happening out there and the market has changed so much over the years, particularly in the latter years.”

Barbican SuperValu Newcastle.

From day one the family were innovating, and concentrating on what areas of the business they could improve on. Never standing still and constantly trying out new ideas and concepts – one of the earliest initiatives being an early version of the 21st century mainstay, the Drive-thru

“The first major development was probably within a couple of years, when we put in a chip shop. I believe it was the first drive through chip shop in Ireland at that stage which was quite successful but hard to run.”

Establishing early on that the convenience end of the store was actually performing better than the chip shop, David planned to use the extra space taken up by a car service area and after knocking it through, the shop was expanded and has continued growing.

“Back in those days we made our own ice cream as well,” says David. “But we just kept focussing on the shop, expanding the range of fresh foods and also concentrating on what we’re good at rather than worrying about what other people are doing.

Fast forward to 2017, and the 9,000-sq ft store, employing more than 50 full and part time staff is now a landmark in the town, with a BP forecourt and SuperValu convenience store supplying everything from Petrol to Pinot Grigio.

“We’ve been with BP for many years,” says David. “And whenever SuperValu came to Northern Ireland we were one of the first to join them in 1998.

“With any supplier it’s all about a partnership, and while a lot of people complain about symbol groups that one is better than the other, it’s really down to how you get on with people and make the most of it.

“They can’t do everything for us, and we have to very much use our own skills but it’s great to have somebody like Musgrave behind you. They’re very innovative, always coming out with new ideas and new challenges, but I like to think that it’s a two-way street and we challenge them and they challenge us to be better.”

The deli counter in SuperValu Newcastle

The partnership has worked well, and David credits the range of produce available for widening the customer base. With a deli counter, butchery, newsagent, grocery and even an off-license there’s plenty to tempt shoppers. This reporter came home laden with BBQ goodies strategically placed in-store, blinking in the sunlight of a glorious County Down day and conjuring up images of a mouth-watering summer feast.

“The lovely thing about a shop like this is we don’t have a customer profile – anybody can use this shop and it applies to every single person in Newcastle and beyond.

“We’re blessed to be in the number one seaside town in Northern Ireland,” he jokes. “It’s a town that everybody wants to come to as soon as there’s a bit of sunshine and we’re on the premier road on the way in so it has become a bit of an institution.

“People know the Barbican. They know where it is, that they can get parked, they know the offering and we’re very fortunate in that.

“Our core business is the local community and that’s number one so we make sure we look after our local customers.

“Tourists and people passing through are vital to our business as well particularly in the summer time, we would tailor things more towards what everyone is looking for.

The addition of the on-site off license 11 years ago has added another dimension to the store, and one David has studied closely.

Some tasty soft drinks

“I didn’t know much about wine when I started, but I quickly worked out that if you’re only selling what everyone else is selling then options are limited.

“We try to do things differently from the multiples in that we offer a wider range of exclusive wines that you’re not going to see in every other shop in the country.”

“A number of employees including myself have taken wine course and we’ve built up our knowledge in lots of different areas. Too many retailers just treat wine as a grocery line, whereas it’s not. It’s much more individual product than that. If you treat it as such there are rewards to be had.”

And those rewards aren’t just limited to the ringing of the tills. David is an employer proud to invest in his team, the day after this interview he was taking them out en masse to celebrate the SuperValu accolade.

It’s a reciprocal process, with many of the team having been with David for more than 20 years. There’s a low staff turnover, and ongoing development programmes.

There’s no doubt he occupies one of the most enviable trading locations in Northern Ireland, if not the UK. And he says he’s inspired by the mighty mountains on his doorstep, and the ease of his commute.

“I do know I’m very blessed living and working in such an area.  On a very bad day, I might have to stop at one set of traffic lights on my way to work.”

With two sons away at University, it’s likely to be a while yet before the third generation of Heenan’s takes the reins. Until then David will continue to innovate and enhance the customer experience at Barbican, while adhering to his own rules of business.

“It’s all about Integrity, being straight with people, and it’s all about relationships whether that’s with customers or suppliers.

“I like to treat others the way I would like to be treated,” says David, “And there’s no circumstances where that doesn’t apply.”

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