Big In­ter­view: John Mccann

Wil­low­brook Foods founder dis­cusses the fam­ily farm, sail­ing and his salad days

Belfast Telegraph - Business Telegraph - - Front Page - @Mar­garet­can

I ini­tially didn’t want to be a farmer be­cause I saw how hard the work was... it re­ally was a tough slog

He’s a cham­pion sailor who came third in the world cham­pi­onships in 1983, and the son who turned his back on the fam­ily farm on the shores of Strang­ford Lough — only to re­turn and trans­form it into one of the UK’S most suc­cess­ful salad com­pa­nies with an­nual sales of around £22m.

And at 72, John Mccann MBE, the founder and man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of Wil­low­brook Foods in Killinchy, is only just con­sid­er­ing slow­ing down.

“I am still en­joy­ing it. I was the sole man­ag­ing di­rec­tor un­til about three years ago. Then the work­load be­came so high that we made our pro­duc­tion di­rec­tor An­drea Nel­son the joint man­ag­ing di­rec­tor. And we’re still ab­so­lutely flat out. I am still en­joy­ing it, but my am­bi­tion is to slow down in the next year or two,” he said.

But first, he’ll be pick­ing up an MBE at Buck­ing­ham Palace in June af­ter he was recog­nised in the New Year’s Hon­ours List in De­cem­ber for ser­vices to the food in­dus­try and com­mu­nity.

The firm em­ploys around 240 peo­ple across a food in­no­va­tion cen­tre as well as two pro­cess­ing plants in Killinchy and New­tow­nards.

But in the last few months, the com­pany has ex­pe­ri­enced one of its worst crises in nearly 50 years, with sup­ply of let­tuces hit by ex­treme weather from freezes to floods in south­ern Spain. The un­prece­dented weather prob­lems have led to empty su­per­mar­ket shelves — and growth in the pop­u­lar­ity of wa­ter­cress as shop­pers turn to al­ter­na­tives.

John is vis­it­ing Mur­cia in Spain — where the bulk of its let­tuce is grown — to talk to his grow­ers.

“The sit­u­a­tion is im­prov­ing slowly but crops were badly de­stroyed. We’ve man­aged to main­tain around 70% of sup­ply to cus­tomers, which is ris­ing to around 75% and 80%,” he said.

“March could still be a dif­fi­cult month but we are hop­ing that the warmer weather means that some crops will re­vive. I’ve never heard of weather as bad as this be­fore.

“Grow­ers have never ex­pe­ri­enced it be­fore and su­per­mar­kets are not used to empty shelves. This is hard to un­der­stand.”

John is mar­ried to Ja­nine, with two chil­dren — Julie, who works in the busi­ness, and Steven, who owns a sep­a­rate busi­ness which sup­plies pasta and rice to Wil­low­brook. The cou­ple also have two grand­chil­dren — “bun­dles of joy” El­lie (5) and Reece, who’s three.

“It was hard to com­bine work and fam­ily life and it still is at times. Com­ing from a farm­ing back­ground, the whole fam­ily isn’t used to the 9 to 5. Food has short shelf-life so or­ders are very im­me­di­ate or­ders, and pro­duc­tion and ship­ping is im­me­di­ate.”

He owes much to the sup­port of his wife Ja­nine, a nurse who went on to study psy­chol­ogy and trained as a cog­ni­tive be­havioural therapist. Ja­nine also trained as a shep­herdess and took care of 350 lamb­ing ewes on one of the fam­ily is­lands.

But the deal-mak­ing and in­ter­na­tional travel of a salad busi­ness

We in­vested heav­ily in wash­ing equip­ment... we ex­panded and grew and were ahead of the curve

are far re­moved from his roots on the fam­ily farm. The fam­ily’s land also in­cludes three is­lands, Calf Is­land, Tras­nagh Is­land and Craigaveagh Is­land.

“My fa­ther and mother, Thomas and Amanda, were farm­ers in the Killinchy area and owned a mixed farm with quite a lot of veg­eta­bles. I went to gram­mar school at Down High and went on to do busi­ness stud­ies at Magee Univer­sity,” says John.

“I ini­tially didn’t want to be a farmer be­cause I saw how hard it was. It re­ally was a tough slog. My real in­ter­est was in hor­ti­cul­ture and grow­ing veg­eta­bles.

“I worked in in­dus­try and de­cided I wanted to go back. Fa­ther said to me, here are two to three fields — you grow some veg and see what you can do.”

John’s pro­duce grew, and he took his soup veg­eta­bles, scal­lions and leeks to his first cus­tomer — a su­per­mar­ket owned by An­der­son & Mcau­ley on the Saint­field Road called Su­per­mac. For John to em­brace the su­per­mar­ket model at that point was in­no­va­tive.

“The whole coun­try was full of green­gro­cers, and you had 10 of them on Saint­field Road and 10 on the Ormeau Road. There was no scan­ning and no la­bels. But I had to get la­bels made, so I was grow­ing my veg, har­vest­ing them and pack­ing them. I even­tu­ally got help and af­ter a year or two had five or six peo­ple.

“Ev­ery year we ex­panded. The next big order was with Well­worths, which had 29 big stores all around North­ern Ire­land.”

He won over Well­worths by of­fer­ing the chain 16 dairy cab­i­nets in which to put his prod­ucts as part of the deal. Then the com­pany went from ba­sic veg­eta­bles to the more ex­otic.

“Af­ter North­ern Ire­land and the south, we looked across the wa­ter. We could see that Ire­land had only a pop­u­la­tion of five or six mil­lion and the mar­ket was lim­ited. We started to do a large salad con­tract with the Co-op in Manch­ester,” says John.

“For five or six years we sup­plied about 50% of its whole let­tuce order. We were able to iden­tify the growth in bagged sal­ads in the late 1980s and 1990s. The mar­ket grew by about 15% to 20% so we were able to sup­ply all the con­ti­nen­tal frises, lollo rossos and mix­tures.”

The firm was able to meet or­ders quickly for mixed sal­ads for com­pa­nies like Hen­der­son Group and Su­perquinn in the Republic, now re­named Su­pervalu and part of Mus­grave.

“We in­vested heav­ily in wash­ing ma­chin­ery and spin dry­ing equip­ment. We ex­panded with that growth. We were prob­a­bly ahead of the curve and able to be­come the largest salad pro­ces­sors in Ire­land.”

The com­pany has also di­ver­si­fied into stir fry mixes, and set up an­other com­pany, Wil­low­brook Fine Foods, spe­cial­is­ing in ac­com- pani­ments such as mash. Now his busi­ness is spread around 70 cus­tomers, from air­line cater­ers Al­pha Cater­ing in Lon­don which Wil­low­brook will sup­ply with a range of sal­ads such as Thai quinoa salad, lemon olive pasta and apricot tab­bouleh for in-flight meals, to Ger­many dis­coun­ters Lidl and Aldi and Spar shop op­er­a­tor Hen­der­son Group.

He is ner­vous about the im­pact of Brexit on the ex­port ca­pa­bil­i­ties of the agri-food sec­tor, and con­cerned about the fu­ture of busi­ness in gen­eral. He voted Re­main. “Be­ing on the western edge of the UK and Europe, we must ex­port. We must em­brace mod­ern tech­nol­ogy more and have a govern­ment which is proac­tive and driv­ing the econ­omy to make it more a friendly en­vi­ron­ment.”

John said he holds strong views on ed­u­ca­tion. “I am be­ing a bit old-fash­ioned, but I think the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem is not gear­ing peo­ple for the real world. I think the work ethic is wan­ing and the lack of lead­er­ship in in­dus­try and govern­ment stems from re­duced am­bi­tion be­cause real suc­cess needs real ef­fort.

“I also think we are slow to em­brace change and that re­sults re­flect the ef­fort. Mov­ing faster with IT and au­to­ma­tion is essen­tial to com­pete in the mod­ern world and we are get­ting left be­hind as a coun­try.”

One of his fore­most con­cerns over Brexit is on the fu­ture of the in­ter­na­tional work­force, and he em­ploys large num­bers of EU na­tion­als.“These vi­tal work­ers are not il­le­gal im­mi­grants and they are essen­tial to our well-be­ing and con­tin­ued suc­cess of our in­dus­tries and coun­try.”

As he looks back on nearly half a cen­tury, he says: “I have en­joyed all the suc­cesses. The fail­ures are quickly for­got­ten about.

“I en­joy see­ing many peo­ple with abil­ity and drive be­ing able to de­velop into man­agers and lead­ers in which Wil­low­brook has given them the chance. It hasn’t been all about be­ing a leader sit­ting in a board­room. Our sec­tion of the food in­dus­try is about peo­ple man­age­ment, in­no­va­tion and giv­ing good service.”

And help­fully for a veg­etable grower, John is a healthy eater.

“I do eat a lot of veg­eta­bles. We have a good even­ing meal ev­ery night with broc­coli but we don’t eat let­tuce ev­ery night. I’ve seen enough of it to do me.”

And he was hon­oured to re­ceive the MBE. “It came as a to­tal shock. I hardly knew what it meant so I had to look it up,” he adds.

John chat­ting with some of his staff at Wil­low­brook Foods. The com­pany is work­ing on sup­ply­ing in-flight meals such as Thai quinoa salad and lemon olive pasta for air­lines

John Mccann has been able to main­tain let­tuce sup­ply lev­els at 70% dur­ing a cri­sis brought on by ex­treme weather in Spain

John Mccann said he was shocked to re­ceive an MBE

Tras­nagh Is­land on Strang­ford Lough in Co Down, which is part of John Mccann’s fam­ily farm and used for sheep rear­ing

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