How I got started, where we are now, and what's next
Denis is a passionate entrepreneur who for over 20 years has run successful farms and food businesses with industry leading approaches to quality and innovation. As owner and M.D. of Finnebrogue, he is responsible for delivering the financial and strategic performance of the business.
I started Lynn’s Country Foods in 1985 not because I had any desire to work for myself, or to start the business that i had always dreamed of. No, i can honestly say i started Lynns Country Foods because i had no job and a mortgage and i didn’t want to sign on after a visit to the local dole office. The dole office seemed fairly depressing, so i came home and decided if i couldn’t earn £30 a week (which was what i would have got if i had signed on) there would something seriously wrong.
And so with the help of the bank i bought a second hand car and began buying pizzas and pies from small manufacturer in Comber and selling them to shops and restaurants. I worked hard and within a few months I bought a little white van (not refrigerated but at least it was white) and employed my first employee, Tim Moore. He was only seventeen and had not passed his driving test. He crashed the van almost every week but he was hardworking and honest and everybody loved him. He was also very cheap so i didn’t sack him. He still works for the company now as Head of Logistics, and he’s not so easy to pay these days.
I eventually worked out that the best type of business to be in was where I could maximise both volume and margin at the same time. These two things don’t typically go hand in hand, particularly in a low margin area such as food. I believed that the only way to achieve this was through making a better product than anything else that was available. Things really took off when i discovered a new type of french fry. These chips were partially cooked in the factory and then chilled at plus 2 degree c. They cooked up in 90 seconds in the restaurant, which was much faster than frozen, but they tasted like fresh chips. They weren’t hollow like frozen - they were just amazing. We quickly became the largest customer of Lord Chips in Europe and got the agency for all of Ireland.
I made some money through catering food distribution and bought Finnebrogue Estate in 1991 and sold the distribution and chip side of the business to O’Kanes Poultry in 1993 and decided to retire from business into beef farming. I figured out how to farm beef cattle and became concerned at the level of grant being paid by Europe to farmers and felt that I would rather be in a real market situation and be controller of my destiny. So in 1996 we sold every single cow, fenced the entire estate and overnight became the largest deer farm in the UK and Ireland. I realise that this goes some way to prove that I am quite mad. I was also listening to friends, family and the general public struggling to come to terms with the impact of BSE and saw an opportunity to provide healthier meat.
I began selling to top end restaurants around Ireland. As ever, it was important for me to offer something different and superior to anything else available. The restaurant trade was full of poor quality and inconsistent wild venison and there was a real opportunity for something that gave chefs more confidence that the quality would be right every time. On a personal level, I believe that animals deserve as good a life as possible and that, as a farmer, it is my responsibility to make sure this happens and communicate it to our customers.
I began by looking at the factors that influence meat quality and it became clear that the age of the animal and control of stress would be critical to delivering a consistently great product. Once I had these things sorted, the product was quickly snapped up by restaurants and retailers and featured heavily by newspapers and TV programmes by people like Rick Stein and Jimmy Doherty. To make sure I could deliver this quality consistently, repeatedly and at scale, we custom built a processing plant to supply M&S (even if it was half empty for the first few years).
Once this model proved successful, our wee team set out to do the same for sausages, burgers, stuffings and other products. This approach has enabled us to secure £6M of premium sausage business from another M&S supplier and the transfer of Paul Rankin sausages to our factory over the past 18 months. Our turnover has grown from £4.5M in 2008/2009 to £8.9M in 2009/2010 with ambitious plan to finish this year on £11.5M. Finnebrogue has grown by at least 40% every year since 2001 and, if pace continues (and there is no reason to suggest it won’t) then in another 10 years we could be looking at a turnover of £380M and see us positioned as a leading manufacturing of ethical quality foods.
This is what I’ve learned along the way:
Offer something truly different and unique. Really understand your competition and work out how to do it better.
Once you know how to do it better, then sell the story. Nobody will buy your products unless you can articulate your unique selling points.
Deliver both margin and volume. Avoid getting into the commodity trap by selling cheap basic products at low margins just to get volume through the factory. It’s a downward spiral.
Never Stop. Innovation is a continual process. Keep working on the next big thing and put as much energy into the long term as as the short term.
Get a reality Check It is easy to get caught up in the world of innovation and product development but unless you connect back to the real world, and the customer, then you can drift off course. Listen to the customer. Don’t innovate for innovations sake. Ask good questions and listen to real people.