Turning points for a successful Food & Agri business

23 February 2016

In November last year we hosted a dinner which was attended by a number of leaders within the Food & Agri sector held in Stamford, Lincolnshire. The guest speaker was Graham Baker, founder and now chairman of Butcher’s Pet Care, based in Crick, Northamptonshire. What he gave us that evening was a unique insight into the growth and development of a family food business into an international operation.

I’d like to highlight some of his key themes in this blog because I believe they have a more general application to the industry as a whole. And I’ll focus on what I’m going to call the ‘turning points’ of the business. As you will see these turning points also relate closely to risk factors within the business – and that’s maybe a subject I’ll return to in another blog.

Crisis

Butcher’s Pet Care was set up in 1987 to take the ever increasing offal from Graham’s family businesses - who were award-winning farmers of beef cattle and were leading suppliers of fresh meat products to retailers across Europe. In 1996 the BSE crisis had an overnight dramatic impact on the meat business. They met the aftermath of the BSE disaster by doing all they could to continue trading and splitting up the family business.

Graham took his part of the organisation into pet food, applying the family expertise to a niche market of entirely meat-based products. Over the years that followed the business created brands such as Butcher's Choice and Butcher's Superior dog food and the classic cat food product, supported as well by own-brand supermarket products. 

Innovation

Having overcome the first obstacle, that of survival, attention shifted to expanding the business. This was Butcher’s Pet Care’s second turning point. The biggest boost to growth, in fact, came about almost by accident. The business had developed a small but successful brand of dog food, based, unusually, on tripe. Spotting a potential new market, Mars also entered the fray with a tripe-based dog food, as part of its Pedigree range. A large marketing budget from the food giant, however, did not secure the anticipated success. Graham developed his own marketing activity and his Butcher’s product made the breakthrough and made the move into the big league.

The company is now exporting into Europe, notably Poland and, recently, it has tapped into the discounter retail market, becoming an important supplier to Aldi and Lidl. 

Investment 

Until five years ago, however, the business was operating out of its original production site. This was putting a break on growth. More modern production methods also necessitated a brand new manufacturing operation. Turning point three involved major capital investment and the building of a state-of-the-art manufacturing centre next door to the existing factory.

Graham is the first to admit that it wasn’t all plain sailing. The operation demanded split-second timing and planning. Investment needed to be phased in. Business continuity meant that the chain of production to existing clients had to be maintained while the old factory was phased out. Key staff needed to be kept on-side. 

In retrospect Graham believes that a few teething problems could have been avoided. For instance, despite moving into newer and safer premises, there was an initial spike in the number of employee health & safety incidents over the transition period. The cause was diagnosed as relating to changing processes as well as the expansion of staff. Better targeted training and education finally ensured a smoother transition. 

Butcher’s Pet Care now employs more than 300 people. They pride themselves on retaining the family atmosphere whilst moving forward in the vanguard of the retail environment. In particular, working with Lidl and Aldi has convinced Graham that the market has changed for good and that other supermarkets and their suppliers will be forced to adapt their proposition very quickly. And Graham and his management team are ahead of the curve in anticipating the next tuning point for their business.

The Stamford industry dinner was attended by many leading players in the sector, including: Openfield, Belvoir Fruit Farms and JDM Food Group.

For further information, please contact Jon Miller, Head of Regional Food & Agri Practice on +44 (0)121 676 7806 or email jon_miller@jltgroup.com

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