Private Business Awards 2018 finalists - Bob & Berts

Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year: Colin McClean

In the second part of our Private Business Awards Finalists’ series, we met Colin McClean from Bob & Berts, who has been nominated for the Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year award.

The bright and welcoming chain of coffee shops, which he launched in 2013, delivers local produce across Northern Ireland and is about to take on its biggest challenge yet.

Colin’s personal journey, his guts and gumption, show why he’s in the perfect category. “When I left university in 2002 I became a geography teacher. I worked for five years in a private school in England. But at the same time, I started up a clothing business in Leeds. I would work on that on my day off from teaching and then as it grew I gave up teaching and took it on full-time. It grew a bit and did very well, and when I was 27 I sold it on – and then realised I was unemployed!

“My wife and I came back to Portstewart and found a little bakery in the town which was called the Good Food Company. We ran this for around six years, and we also took on a coffee shop and another café. The combination of running all three was quite a challenge so we put them all under the one rook and, in 2013, it became Bob & Berts.

“During this time, I came up against one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced to date. Six years after I had sold the lease for the clothing shop, the landlord suddenly demanded £75,000 of unpaid rent. I had assumed the responsibility went to the new tenant but under English law the landlord can go after the original owner of the lease which was of course me. It was a very scary time – I ended up paying £17,000 – which was everything I had at the time.”

After that, Colin turned to his father who had experience in business, for advice on contracts and, since opening the first Bob & Berts, has watched it grow rapidly.

“We have 16 stores in Northern Ireland at the moment, with another due to open before the end of 2018. Things have gone so well for us here, so we’re in a position now to grow across the water. We’re opening three stores in Scotland between now and Christmas  - in Falkirk, Dunfermline and in Kirkcaldy. In 2019, we’re opening a further seven stores in Scotland. It’s a pretty big roll out – we’re going to have a new store opening every eight weeks for the whole of the year.

“The challenge is building up the team who can do everything we ask of them. Finding and retaining staff can be difficult and we’ve adapted our business model to make the reality of the situation work for us rather than against. At the start we used to try and employ chefs but they’re very difficult to get now so we de-skilled the kitchen. I now develop all the menus with the idea being that if I can do it – as I’ve never had any formal training – then we can teach anyone to do it. And we find that by giving people core skills when they perhaps thought all they would be doing is pouring a coffee, they tend to stay for longer.”

Clearly proud of his roots, Colin made a business decision that continues to this day. He uses only Northern Ireland produce – and when the stores open in Scotland, nothing will change.

“I am proud to be from Northern Ireland, and proud to be in a position where I can support other local businesses. We won’t buy from anywhere else.”

Asked for advice for anyone tempted to go into business on their own – it’s the voice of experience which comes out.

“I was told this is a marathon, not a sprint. If you think you’ve got an idea thats going to work in one or six months, you are probably wrong. It is going to be a longer-term project and if you want to last, you’ll have to weather it out.”

This is, remember, the man who almost got cleaned out when his old landlord chased rent left unpaid by another tenant.

“There will be really bad times. You will have no money. You won’t get any wages. You won’t even be paid yourselves – that’ll be the least of your worries – you’re going to be the last person to get paid.

“But – at the very end of it all – if you believe in your idea, put those tough hours in, and work for it in the right way, I believe it will work in time."

Colin McClean

Colin McClean, founder of Bob & Berts

The Private Business Awards take place on September 13th 2018 in The Brewery in London and the Northern Ireland companies that have been shortlisted for the finals are:

Social Enterprise of the Year

  • John McMullan, Bryson Recycling

Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year

  • Colin McClean, Bob & Berts

  • Ciaran Devine and Stephen Devine, Evermore

  • Sinead and Adam Murphy, Shnuggle

About the Private Business Awards

The UK Private Business Awards sponsored by PwC celebrate the best in the private sector and highlight the achievements of individuals and companies. The event recognises the importance of private companies to the UK economy and is attended by CEO’s and entrepreneurs from every region of the UK.

The Private Business Awards are co-sponsored by Ford Sinclair, The Supper Club and Business Growth Fund. To find out more about the awards visit

You can also follow @PBA_Awards on Twitter to learn the latest news about the awards.

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