‘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

Belfast Telegraph - Business Telegraph - - Front Page -

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

Nick Whe­lan at his desk at Dale Farm

From left: Nick Whe­lan , with Mar­garet Sher­rard from Dale Farm, United Dairies chair­man John Dun­lop and Agri­cul­ture Min­is­ter Michelle Mcil­veen

Nick Whe­lan is group chief ex­ec­u­tive of the newly-named Dale Farm Co-op­er­a­tive

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