Being a young woman working in the largely male-dominated machinery industry, Laura Short Murphy from Omagh, Co Tyrone found her passion for business early in life.
Realising college wasn’t the right pathway for her, Laura went straight into the working world and took up an administrative role in her family’s company, AJS Promotions.
Ten years later, she is now the events manager responsible for running the spring farm machinery shows. During this time, she has also developed her own food company called Sliced, which supplies healthy, convenient meals to over 75 stores in Northern Ireland and has recently started her own marketing company.
Speaking about her career path, Laura says: “During my A levels, I just didn’t feel that the school environment was really working for me. I wouldn’t solely recommend [leaving school], but I was eager to work.”
Starting off in a low-level administrative role, Laura thrived in that busy environment.
“I saw the opportunity with events and I started building up my skills,” she says.
To gain extra experience and a certificate to back up her work, Laura decided on a business management apprenticeship alongside her full-time job.
“A lot of the things we covered I was already doing on a daily basis, but it was still great to have the experience,” she says. “I really believe in this industry; you learn so much more from just getting stuck in.”
Laura believes there is a lot of pressure on students to choose a degree and third-level course after they finish school.
“I think there is a perception from a lot of people that college is the only way, and it’s not for everybody,” she says. “A lot of the people I went to school with, that’s the avenue they went down, but I wouldn’t necessarily say they ended up any further ahead. It’s what you make of it and it just depends on where you want to go.
“Even with apprenticeships, it just depends on the career and what suits that individual.”
It was a very busy start to the year for Laura as they have just finished running this year’s spring farm machinery shows, which included six dates across three venues – including Millstreet, Co Cork; Balmoral, Co Antrim; and Cavan. This year saw 42,000 people attending.
“When I started in AJS, I was doing little bits of everything,” Laura says. “I then found my niche, which is branding and marketing, creating those experiences and [maintaining] a digital presence.
“My role was really to take that challenge and develop the spring farm machinery show brand and add to the trade shows because we have all of the leading machinery brands and service companies in attendance. On the day of the event, there is a great buzz. It is full years’ work in one day.”
One of Laura’s favourite parts is seeing the range of machinery rolled out after being polished for days. “It might be a false pretence and the cleanest that they will ever be,” she says, laughing. “That’s where you really get a sense of achievement. We have put that together and got everyone here, planned it to precision and when it all goes well, there’s no better feeling.”
Laura says that working in a male-dominated industry, and particularly at a young age, can be daunting. “It can be doubly challenging. Especially when I first came into the business – you nearly felt like you had a point to prove.”
However, in recent years, Laura has seen an increase in women entering the industry. “Some of the main dealers are now run by women, which is great to see,” she says.
Working predominantly in the events and hospitality sector, during lockdown Laura was suddenly at home and had more free time. She saw a gap in the market for a healthy fast-food alternative.
“When everything came to a stop, I found myself at home trying out healthy recipes,” she says. “When things began to open up and that long working day started to take effect again, I found myself – and my energy – slumping.
“We opened a convenience store and I was looking for a supplier to stock healthy ready-made meals that fitted a few criteria and I couldn’t find one. It wasn’t on the market and I thought, ‘This is crazy – how is this not available?”
Taking matters into her own hands, Laura decided to supply her local store on a very small scale. Having managed her family’s bar and restaurant, The Cheeky Fox, she utilised her resources and learned as she went.
“On the first day, within 10 minutes, the 25 meals we made were gone. The next day we doubled production. Again, the meals sold out. Within the first week, we did over 1,100 meals, which blew my mind,” says Laura.
“I wanted to make it easily available for people who enjoy nutritious food. I still think there is a gap in the market, the majority of [convenience] food is unhealthy,” she adds.
From creating the company in January 2021, Sliced is now stocked in over 75 stores, predominantly across Northern Ireland. With over 37 employees, they are also delivering to customers nationwide
“My vision for Sliced has always been that it is more than just a food business, I want it to be a lifestyle and a community of people who lead busy lifestyles but still want to fuel their day with nutritious food.”
Something Laura is still working on is finding a work-life balance. Since having a baby girl, Hallie, her priorities have changed.
“Myself and Martin [my partner] met nearly 10 years ago, which is hard to believe – we were so young,” she says. “We enjoy doing things as a family and really appreciate our time off. Day-to-day, things are busy and I definitely find it hard to maintain the work-life balance, especially during events season.”