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Lucky Jim

January 26th, 2015 | by LCN Editor
Lucky Jim
Features
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Jim O’Neill has been building drinks businesses in Northern Ireland for more than 55 years and he’s still at it. He’s been telling LCN the secret of his success…

Sometimes in business, you meet people who seem to have that knack for decision-making – whatever they turn their hands to seems to prosper and grow.

Jim O’Neill is one of those individuals. A stalwart of the UIster drinks trade for more than half a century, he’s still as active today as he was when he signed on as an apprentice barman at Daly’s on the Falls Road in Belfast in 1956.

He is, perhaps, best known as the founder of Lurgan-based drinks wholesaler United Wine Merchants (UWM), which he set up in 1985 and ran for more than 20 years before eventually selling it on to ill-fated UK drinks group, Waverley TBS.

These days, he and his son, Conor, are kept busy with Botl, a wine and spirits supplier that they established in 2010. It’s the main arm of the modern business and both men have worked hard to establish its credentials, reeling in a succession of familiar and prestigious agencies including The Kraken, Skipper Rum, Jose Cuervo, VAT 19 and Kingfisher beer. They also own the global rights to their own golden rum product from Trinidad, 19 Spiced.

“The past year has gone extremely well for us,” declares Jim. “For a small company with just six sales people, I certainly think we’re living up to the expectations we had for ourselves…Four years we’ve been going now and we have a turnover of £15m which isn’t bad in a market that isn’t really growing.”

Jim shows little inclination to consider retirement, in fact, two years ago he took the decision to move into the retail market, taking on an old Wineflair outlet at Clandeboye and converting it into a Nisa Local outlet.

“We’ve more than trebled our business there since, it’s been an absolute success,” says Jim.

Botl on Bouchers Road. Pictured: Conor O'Neill. donnie wright

Jim’s son, Conor, with the company’s 19 Spiced product.

 

Despite coming from a family that was already in the pub trade, Jim O’Neill was determined from an early age to carve his own niche:

“My father had always told me never to work for my own and I didn’t,” he recalls. “I went my own way and I worked at Charlie Daly’s for five years or so.”

After that, he moved to White’s Tavern in Winecellar Entry which, at that time, was owned by the former Irish Bonding Company and Jim eventually went on to work for the parent company, transferring into Diageo when it swallowed up the IBC in the mid-90s.

He was with Diageo for more than a decade, eventually moving to Hollywood and Donnelly as assistant managing director. In 1978, he became MD of the company and remained there until 1985, at which time he felt conditions were right for him to launch a venture of his own. He left Hollywood and Donnelly that year – taking the agency for VAT 19 with him – and established United Wine Merchants.

“Since I began working, the drive for me was always to work for myself,” he says. “I wanted my own business and I eventually did that for 20 years with UWM. After I’d sold that, the motivation for doing it again was that I wanted to get things up and running for my son and he is taking over more and more now.”

The logistics of keeping Botl up and running keep both men busy. Based in a warehouse facility on the Boucher Road in Belfast, it operates a seven-days-a-week delivery service – something which Jim says has been invaluable in helping the fledgling company grow:

“People know that we are always available to help, we even did deliveries on Christmas Day to customers that had been caught short,” he adds. “When you’re in a small business like this, you have to go that extra mile if you want to be able to compete with the bigger operators.”

Botl on Bouchers Road. Pictured: Botl warehouse.

Jim’s long tenure in the local drinks trade gives him a bird’s eye view of the market and he remarks on the substantial change that he has seen in recent years. Times are still very tough, he maintains, and only those operators that have invested in their businesses will be seeing any real benefit at present:

“Being in business is really a battle of the fittest at the moment,” he adds.

Trends too, are always changing. Strong consumer demand for cocktails is driving sales in sparkling wine, champagne and Prosecco, says Jim, while there’s almost no need these days to stock the likes of sherry, port or Vermouth.

19 Spiced, the golden run which Jim and Conor own and import from the Caribbean, is one of Jim’s pet projects. He took the brand into the GB market via an alliance with London-based HT & Co. (drinks) Ltd., and now has listings with Aldi in the UK, Sainsbury and Tesco and Dunnes, the BWG Group and SuperValu in the Republic.

This year, however, they are adding another rum to the portfolio – Butterfly Cane and Butterfly Cane Spiced, which also comes from Trinidad. It gets its name from the butterflies who descend on the ripe sugarcane to feast on the sap and Jim hopes to see the new offering go out to the trade here by Easter.

Jim has been married to his wife, Betty for almost 48 years. They have six children and 13 grandchildren, but Jim shows little appetite for taking things any easier at work – he claims he’s “working smarter” these days and letting Conor do most of the heavy lifting:

“I don’t want to retire,” he says simply. “The day that all this becomes a toil is the day that I will pack it up, but I enjoy it too much for that, I get a real buzz from work. And if I wasn’t doing this then I don’t know what else I would do. Play more golf, perhaps. I love getting away to Portugal four or five weeks in the year for that, it’s the one wee joy that I have.”

Jim’s advice to those who might just be starting out in the trade is to know what you want and have confidence that you can achieve it:

“You have to believe in your dream,” he says. “You need to get one and go for it, that’s what I tell people in here, the harder I work, the luckier I get. I know people that are better educated than I am and more capable but they don’t apply themselves in the same way. I have done that continuously over the last 55 years, there’s no shortcut, you have to put in the work if you want to get the results out.

“But thank God I’m still going, my health is my wealth and as long as I have that, I’ll keep going. Anyway, I find at my age that it isn’t really wise to look too far into the future…”

 

Botl on Bouchers Road. donnie wright

 

 

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