Denis Lynn left school at 15 — not by choice. He had worn the wrong-colour shoes and fallen out with his teachers. “I don’t think they could handle independent thinkers,” he said.
After being expelled from Sullivan Upper School, just outside his home city of Belfast, he worked as a salesman and a food distributor — but “from an early age, I thought working for myself was probably the right way to go”, said Lynn, now 62.
He struck out on his own aged 27, buying processed food and selling it to cafes and restaurants. From that acorn grew Finnebrogue Artisan, one of Northern Ireland’s biggest meat producers. Finnebrogue innovates by making bacon and sausages without using potentially carcinogenic preservatives called nitrites. It posted £5m in pre-tax profits on sales of £78m in the year ending September 2018.
When Lynn, the son of a sugar broker, started selling pies and pizzas from a van in 1985, he had no idea it would turn into a business empire. His breakthrough came in 1988 — with chips. Lynn discovered a new method of making them, which involved partially cooking the potatoes in his factory before cooling them to 2C. Takeaways could fry them in just 90 seconds. “Phenomenal” growth followed and Lynn became the No 1 chip supplier to the Irish market. He made enough money to buy the 600-acre Finnebrogue estate in Downpatrick, Co Down, and the city boy became a venison farmer.
He turned Finnebrogue into Britain’s biggest deer farm, supplying renowned chefs such as Heston Blumenthal. But the business was haemorrhaging cash: the £1.2m cost of building a venison-processing factory was double the projection, and Lynn was losing £200,000 a year. In 2006, his lender threatened to take over the site.
Necessity turned out to be the mother of invention. Lynn expanded into upmarket pork sausages and won customers such as Marks & Spencer and Asda.
His move into nitrite-free bacon was another boon. With the help of a scientist friend, Bernd Mense, Lynn launched “naked bacon” in 2017. The Sun hailed him as the man “saving our bacon”.
Now, he is switching his attention to the environment. He and Mense are working on a plant-based bacon “that actually tastes like bacon”. “I’d rather leave my grandkids a planet than millions of pounds,” he said.
Aside from a small share- option scheme, Finnebrogue is owned by Lynn. He employs 640 people at three factories, “which is good for a small wee town in Northern Ireland”. Despite his success, he does not enjoy all aspects of running a company — especially the paperwork. “I can’t be arsed,” he said. “All I want to do is create.”
Lynn lives in a barn on the Finnebrogue estate with his wife, Christine. They have four daughters: Clare, Kerry, Tara and Ciara.
His advice to founders is: “Be honest and passionate about what you’re doing. Then it’ll be fun.”