‘We must get our sense of pride back for the future’
Dale farm boss nick whelan on his ambitions for the dairy co-operative and his promise to its members around northern ireland
He’s been at the helm of Northern Ireland’s biggest dairy cooperative, Dale Farm, for five months and already he’s made some major changes. Nick Whelan relocated from the Republic to Belfast with his GP wife Sandra and three daughters, Aoibhe, Maeve and Sorcha. Nick succeeded David Dobbin, one of the industry’s best known figures, following Dr Dobbin’s retirement.
Nick has changed the name of Dale Farm parent company from United Dairy Farmers to Dale Farm Co-operative. The firm owns some of the biggest brands in dairy produce in the UK — Dale Farm ice-cream, Dromona cheese and butter, Spelga yoghurt and Fivemiletown Cheese, as well as the Rowan Glen and Loseley yoghurt brands in Great Britain.
He’s also been trying to steady the nerves of the company’s suppliers around Northern Ireland who, in 2015, protested over a steep fall in milk prices.
Large numbers of dairy farmers have reportedly left the industry as a result of the difficult times.
Nick’s promise to farmers, however, is: “Dale Farm will be a very safe place to be, with no currency fluctuations, no trading tariffs and a business very focused on its British credentials.”
While a relative newcomer to Dale Farm after leaving his post as Glanbia Ingredients Ireland commercial director, Nick has been involved in the agri-food business for 22 years.
His career has included 12 years with the Kerry Group, which owns brands including Coleraine cheddar and Golden Cow butter.
He worked for Kerry Group in the UK and “graduated through a number of different ranks to be the general manager for one of Kerry’s UK ingredients businesses”.
“While in Kerry, I was approached by Glanbia, which was based in Kilkenny. It was an attractive proposition as both my wife Sandra and I are from dairy farms in Wexford and in Kerry, and we were expecting our first child (Aoibhe, now 10),” he says.
“I joined Glanbia 10 years ago and thoroughly enjoyed my time there too. That turned out to be a great move, and then I was head-hunted by Dale Farm for this post which, to be honest, was never on my radar. Dale Farm has significant potential and I am quite excited with the opportunities that exist within the business,” said Nick.
He adds: “It’s got a number of real assets including a very loyal and ambitious farm member base. They have been incredibly loyal to the cause. The farmers have a real passion for the evolution of the society. In my first few weeks I went out and met the farmers at meetings and on their farms. They are very proud of what they do and want to succeed.”
Dale Farm is owned by its 1,300 suppliers and the group turns over £420m per year. Nick has big plans for growth. “We have plants that have capacity from autumn to spring and we want to fill that capacity. There are a number of farmers that can help us with that.
“I am trying to connect with the members that Dale Farm is not some corporate organisation that just buys their milk, it is their business.”
One of five children, Nick grew up on a farm in Co Wexford. Two of his brothers own a pharmacy while another is a farmer at home with Nick’s dad. His sister works at Allied Irish Banks in Dublin.
Nick took a Bachelor of Commerce degree at University College Cork before joining Kerry Group’s graduate programme, which meant an early start, working as a milkman from 5am until noon, before management training in the afternoon. But the industry has been transformed since his early days — and Dale Farm has led the way. “I was really surprised by some of the plants we have in Dale Farm. We have the most efficient cheddar plant in Europe (at Dunmanbridge in Cookstown). It is world class, with a brand new whey facility. There is a complete packaging business around it.
“We have one of the most advanced slicing lines in Europe. The quality of our products are exceptionally good. Retailers say they see us as one of the best. There was an absence of pride in the business in the past and we must install that going forward.”
He adds: “We are now willing to accept suppliers from other processors should they want to join us.”
Brexit is altering the landscape. “There is a genuine concern from our customers around security of supply of British product onto the British supermarket shelves.
“If you take cheddar for example, there are about 270,000 tonnes going through the retail shelves in the UK per year, and almost 100,000 tonnes of cheddar comes into the UK from the Republic.”
Dale Farm is not some corporate organisation that just buys members’ milk, it is their business
While Article 50, to start the UK’S withdrawal from the EU, has not yet been triggered, the effects of the devaluation of sterling against the euro have made themselves felt for companies like Dale Farm.
Nick, though, spots opportunities as Brexit is likely to bring a greater focus on regional and national products. And with around 40% of the UK’S cheddar consumption from imports, he thinks Dale Farm will be able to increase its cheddar sales here.
However, he is acutely aware of the potential of Brexit to bring a sharp hit to farmers. “Brexit will also affect us come 2020 if the UK government does not carry on with a support mechanism to replace the Single Farm Payment. If they don’t, then that has the potential to wipe out the entire industry. Also, 23% of our workforce are non-uk nationals, and we want to hold on to them.”
He vows to pay good prices to farmers. “I am making the commitment that milk price is a priority and we will not be at the bottom of that milk table. Our focus for the future is to make more profit and reward the farmers that we have with better milk prices.
“Milk price is now a priority for us in here and that is a commitment I have given the farmers. We are a farmer owned business. We have in here a real understanding that there has been two years of genuine hardship. A number of our suppliers have been supplying at under cost for up to 18 months.
“Our goal here is to deliver the best price to farmers. We are currently paying an average of 27.5 pence per litre to our farmers, which is a base price plus bonuses for winter production and quality.
“This includes a 0.3 pence per litre bonus each month for loyalty and four pence for every litre that farmers produce extra in October through to December over their production in the same period in 2015,” he said.
He denied that Dale Farm has suitors waiting in the wings. “No, there are no plans for any takeover bids here at Dale Farm. I have been given this post to move the co-op forward into the future. My goal is to improve the milk price paid to farmers. A potential takeover is certainly not on the table right now.”
Dale Farm has softened its traditional stance of not allowing members who have left the society in the past to rejoin.
“There was precedent set in the past that we would never take back anyone who left the society. What that manifested itself into was us having a milk pool that was shrinking every year,” he says.
“What some people missed was that 2 to 3% of our milk pool was retiring and naturally leaving us. We also lost suppliers to other milk processors.
“Culturally, there was a real issue here and one of the first things I had to do was agree with my board a strategy for the future.
“We have found a good compromise on this. We are now allowing suppliers back into the society, not as members, but as suppliers who supply milk with a contract that includes a 12 months’ notice.
“We will now formally accept suppliers from other processors if they can pass a specific set of defined criteria which has then to be approved on a case by case basis by our board. Farmers will join us because we are about to embark on a competitive milk price journey over time.”
We are now allowing suppliers back into the society, not as members, but contracted suppliers