Ask Newry businessman David Crilly what his favourite sweet is and he’ll open up a bag of rosy apple boiled confectionery from a desk drawer.
“I really love the tangy and real apple flavour of the sweets,” he explains. And he should know all about boiled confectionery. He’s a director of Crilly Confections, now the only manufacturer of boiled sweets in Ireland and among just three in the United Kingdom.
In addition to an extensive portfolio of boiled confectionery, Crilly’s, a successful family enterprise, produces such longstanding favourites as jelly babies, jelly beans, cough drops, wine gums and vanilla fudge, all of which are handmade in the factory at Flagstaff, just outside Newry. Pear drops remain the company’s biggest seller.
While much of the confectionery appears under the Crilly’s own brand, a broad range of sweets is also made for other manufacturers in Britain and Ireland. It also has a thriving export business especially in China. “We’ve won some really exciting orders in China in the last few years,” Mr Crilly continues. “It’s become our fastest growing international market because of our reputation for high quality sweets. Our most recent export order from a leading distributor in Shanghai and was worth around £200,000,” he says. “We are confident that our business there will double by 2021. We’ve provided bulk wrapped boiled sweets as well as a range of pre-packs to the distributor for a vast network of retail stores including pick and mix outlets, which are popular there,” he adds. “Our customers in China are attracted by the quality of our sweets, the natural flavours, the ability to respond quickly with innovative products and our focus on customer service. As a result, we are now being approached by them to develop novel types of confectionery for their shops.”
He attributes the growing business in China to “an extensive marketing and resource intensive campaign in global markets”. In addition to a presence in Great Britain, the family company sells to the Republic of Ireland, the US, Australia, Germany, Italy, France and the Czech Republic.
Export success has encouraged the company to expand its production operation to enable it to double output. Invest NI has weighed in to support its growth with funding for increased productivity, new kit such as packaging equipment and to grow sales especially in dynamic global markets such as China.
Mr Crilly joined the business in 1999 and now shares decision making with father Peter, the founder of the company, and brother Ciaran. Peter set up the business in Newry in 1974 on the back of experience with Mars in Slough and from making traditional rock and boiled sweets at Blackpool. He had gone to England from Newry, his home town, at the age of 16 to seek a decent job.
“My father set up the company here when the troubles were raging and it was a difficult time for business, but he had a determination to succeed. Basically, it meant working as sweet maker, van driver, cleaner, packer, everything,” he adds.
The early stages of the small business included the production and marketing of huge chocolate eggs for special events such as raffles here. It subsequently
switched to boiled sweets and moved from the city centre to its current rural location, near Flagstaff, and has never looked back.
“Our business has grown as the sweet industry has changed over the years. We’ve become a nimble company close to our customers in key markets. This enables us to stay abreast of trends and to seize opportunities quickly that we pinpoint,” he continues.
Expertise in developing its own recipes for sweets also means it can respond with original products such as the current trend towards alcohol-styled sweets like gin and tonic, mojito, whiskey and cola, and prosecco gums.
The company, which still uses the old traditional methods of mixing sugar and glucose and adding natural flavours, currently produces 50,000 bags of sweets every
day, 12 million a year. It has also developed gluten-free varieties. Currently employing 22 people, Crilly’s is reaping the benefits of a sharp focus on Britain and has recently won substantial business from discount retailer B&M Bargains for its chain of 600 stores in the UK and Ireland.
“Great Britain remains a hugely important market for us,” he says. “We are investing time and resources in a marketing drive to grow sales there especially over the next 12 months,” he adds. “As a direct result of this initiative, we’ve identified significant opportunities there for our product range,” continues Mr Crilly. “While we aim to continue developing exports, the stronger presence in Britain should help offset whatever a no-deal Brexit is likely to throw up.”