Ipswich: Memorable Cheeses owner Neal Gordon relishes a challenge

Neal Gordon at Memorable Cheeses, Dial Lane, Ipswich.

Neal Gordon at Memorable Cheeses, Dial Lane, Ipswich. - Credit: Andrew Partridge

Neal Gordon owns Memorable Cheeses in Ipswich and is director of Uticibo. SARAH CHAMBERS spoke to him about his cockney roots, and going into business for himself after many years with insurance firm Pound Gates.

CHEESE shop owner Neal Gordon relishes a challenge.

After two decades of working for an insurance firm in Ipswich, he decided to go it alone and take over an independent store in the centre of town.

He is keen to work with other business owners and enhance the vibrancy of the town, which, like many others, has been struggling in the face of the post-Credit Crunch collapse of national retail chains and lack of consumer spending.

“I’m someone who believes that if people collaborate and work together then you can achieve a lot. You can achieve far more with collaboration than with one person trying to do everything on their own. You need leadership, but actually, no one can do it on their own,” he says.

Neal owns Memorable Cheeses in Dial Lane and Uticibo, supplying cheese to caterers and other retailers. He is always busy, and always on the go. Since he left his previous job to set up his own business, he has spent many hours pounding the pavements sorting out customers and networking with other local shop owners, and can often be spotted in Ipswich town centre talking to customers or to other retailers. He feels strongly that the independents need to find their voice, and they can, as a group, create a flourishing retail environment for themselves and the town.

“I’m trying to use some of those principles and leadership and collaborative principles in where I’m going with the shop in terms of interaction with other businesses and authorities. That’s a big subject – the relationship between independent businesses and the authorities,” he says.

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Neal is a supporter of Ipswich Central and thinks the organisation is doing a lot for the town. He is currently co-ordinating independent businesses within it to create a forum for them to interact with Ipswich Central and the borough council and make the most of the opportunities around them.

He sees his role as “evangelical”, and says he doesn’t want to carp from the sidelines, complaining about everything that’s done.

“It’s my job to extol the benefits of the town and to highlight where things are being done well,” he says.

Aged 49, he is originally from London – a real Eastender born within the sound of the Bow Bells. After he left school, he joined a store management programme with Woolworths and cut his retail teeth as manager of its Islington branch where he remained for about three years. Later, he worked for CFK, an insurance broker in the City, and stayed there for about five years.

“My director at that company was a chap by the name of Allan Pound. When I first joined CFK Insurance I was interviewed by eight people in one go,” he recalls.

“Seven wanted to employ me, and the one of them who didn’t was Allan Pound. I turned him from someone who didn’t want me to someone who offered for me to come with him to Ipswich to set up a company.”

One of CFK’s clients was Ivan Gates, who owned a freight forwarding insurance agency in Felixstowe, not too far from Allan Pound’s home in Colchester.

“Allan and I had become very good friends with him,” explains Neal.

“Eventually, Allan cracked and could not be bothered to commute into London any more and decided to set up a company out here.”

Ivan and Allan launched insurance broker Pound Gates, supported by Debbie Sharman and Neal, in 1988, and as a result Neal moved to Ipswich.

“At the time, my title was claims manager and the idea was I was going to handle all the insurance claims. In truth, in the first year 18 months, I did anything. I won business and handled claims in those early days. By Christmas we had employed three people,” he says.

“By the following year I think there was about 12 of us. I became a director there in 1993 and a shareholder.”

Sadly, Ivan died in 2001 and there was a management buyout in 2002 as a result, led by the finance director and Neal. Neal had a 7% share in the original company and a 10% share in the new company, where he was operations director. He left in 2011. By that point, its turnover exceeded £3million, it had six offices and it employed 85 to 90 staff.

“I’m quite an operational person. My sleeves are rolled up. I very rarely don’t have my sleeves rolled up both figuratively and in reality,” he says.

Neal left the company with a desire “to do something different” and challenge himself. By the time he had handed in his notice, he had agreed terms on an already established Ipswich town centre business, Memorable Cheeses, following careful research to ensure this was the business for him. He sold his shares in Pound Gates, which gave him the funds to buy the retail business.

“I did truthfully want to do something different. I was bored with the politics of a financial services business,” he says.

“I thought: ‘I’m going to be 48 so if I’m actually going to have a go at something, if I don’t do it now my opportunity will pass.’ You could argue I should have taken the opportunity earlier.”

Neal is a father-of-three, but wife, Lorraine, was supportive when he decided he wanted to trade the security of his salaried post for the challenges of being self-employed.

“I think the key thing for Lorraine is essentially she wants to see me happy and whilst the family needs what the family needs, there’s a certain level of material worth that’s worth foregoing in place of happiness. If I can make it work, it could be the best of both worlds,” he says.

Neal’s view of what he wanted to do on leaving Pound Gates was fairly fixed.

“For very many years if I was not doing what I was doing then this would be the kind of business I would want to run. If I didn’t need to work, I would work for Amnesty International because it’s an organisation I have affinity with in trying to do justice for people where there is not justice,” he says.

The business had been run for 15 years by Peter and Sarah Forster. It was originally based in the Walk in Ipswich, and eight years later relocated to larger premises in Dial Lane.

When searching for a business, Neal was drawn to the idea of food retail, mainly because it was an area he was interested in and felt he knew something about.

“I’m quite analytical. I did a number of courses. I got myself formally trained in cheese by the Guild of Fine Food. I got myself a diploma in charcuterie from the Guild of Fine Food as well,” he explains.

It was a rigorous selection process. He visited a number of businesses on the market and looked at what they were doing.

“I drew up a list of attributes and compared them against each other in a very statistical way. The key aspect was it (Memorable Cheeses) was purely retail, it was long-standing and it had a very good reputation,” he explains.

His plan was to develop the commercial trade such as the provision to cafes and caterers, but what he hadn’t appreciated was there was an opportunity for him to sell to those same people the catering element of their cheese and dairy provision.

“I knew there was an opportunity to sell artisan cheeses to go on their dessert menu. What I had not appreciated was to sell bog standard cheese for catering purposes. I actually didn’t realise that from a cost perspective, I could be that competitive. I discovered that I can,” he said.

Uticibo, his catering arm, is growing fast and is already about a third of his turnover, from virtually a standing start. He saw a slight drop-off in the shop turnover last year to 2010 levels, but sees that as natural as the business is very seasonal and much of it floods in during the three-month run-up to Christmas, with December alone representing a third of the revenue.

“In truth, what I would like to do is to flip the business on its head,” he says. “Throughout the year it’s the commercial side that keeps the business going and it’s the retail side that’s the cream.

“That for me is the ultimate objective with that business, then no one has to worry if the shop has a slow day.”

The commercial businesses he supplies are very cost-conscious, so he aims to be competitively-priced.

“What a lot of people desire is a local supplier. There’s a good network of people in Ipswich.

“Amongst the businesses, especially amongst the independent businesses, there is a very good network of individuals and people who do as much as they can to work with each other and supply each other where it makes sense to do so. I give them the ability to work with someone local who’s also quite cheap.”

Neal employs five people. Keeping on top of the admin side is something which comes naturally to him, he says.

In Austerity Britain, times are tough on the high street, but Neal seems energised and ready for the challenge. He may have bought his business in a downturn, but he certainly doesn’t appear to regret the choices he has made.

“This is very much a case of me wanting to challenge myself. I have always relished a challenge,” he says.