Bernard Matthews chief Rob Burnett reveals his bootiful vision

Rob Burnett, chief executive of Bernard Matthews.

Rob Burnett, chief executive of Bernard Matthews. - Credit: Archant

Norfolk-based Poultry producer Bernard Matthews, which also has a major processing plant in Suffolk, at Holton, near Halesworth, has narrowed its annual losses from £20.3million to £9.9m, but there is still a long way to go on the road to prosperity. Chief executive Rob Burnett spoke to Ben Woods about his vision for the company’s future.

Q: Bernard Matthews has gone through financial turmoil in recent years, but it has significantly narrowed its losses. Are you pleased with the company’s progress?

A: “The company is in the recovery position and it was good that in that first year of the new ownership structure the losses were significantly reduced. More importantly, the businesses are operating more positively and continue to do so.

“It’s encouraging that before a lot of the new initiatives – which are under way now – that the company is on the right track, evidenced by our decision to open the South Site factory all year round, a move which created 90 new jobs in Norfolk. The business has phenomenal assets which are only really employed for two months a year because of our big Christmas trade.”

Q: Turning around Bernard Matthews poses a significant challenge. What made you decide to take the job?

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A: “My first job in food was in a chicken company called Marshall in Edinburgh. It was a large Scottish chicken business taken over by Grampian.

“It then became part of the Vion Food Group empire and now most of those sites are within the poultry producer, 2 Sisters Food Group, so it is almost full circle from my first job. This is an opportunity to actually lead a team of people to effect change in a very high-profile business which I think I know something about, and have got the skills to help turn it around.

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“Another attraction for me is that I have, for a good part of the last few years, been doing fairly extensive travelling, and I thought this was an opportunity to be based in Norfolk.

“But certainly being more hands-on in the running of the business was important because in my last company it was great that we had grown, but then we had divisional managing directors running the divisions, whereas when I started 12 years ago I was in charge of the company myself and we were a much smaller entity. I much preferred a hands-on role operating and managing a business rather than managing a team of people who manage divisions. This is much more in the action which suits my character.”

Q: Nine months is a relatively short period of time in post. What impact have you made so far?

A: “I am here to grow the company – and I am here to grow the company profitably. I am not here to make it smaller, or package it up. I think what we have managed to do in a short space of time is make the people here believe that we will do that.

“I think the company was suffering from a lack of self-confidence because of the trials and tribulations of the past few years, and it’s understandable, but they do need a vision and to understand the capabilities that we have got and how that can be a winning capability.

“I’ve outlined to the wider management group a five-year plan with a clear set of objectives for each category. It’s very simple, it’s all on one piece of paper and everyone within the company will get a copy of it. I’m about to embark on a short tour of all the sites to explain what we are going to do.”

Q: What do you see as the key strengths of Bernard Matthews?

A: “In the heart of this business is a turkey farmer. It has a fabulous history and set of skills in turkey farming which in my mind can also be put towards chicken farming in a specialist way. So what we are is a brilliant poultry farmer.

“We have got a very strong brand which has been through difficult times and perhaps has not been supported in the way that you would support a brand of this size, which is still north of £100m, and which has been subject to some poor decision-making in how you manage and grow a brand. I am here with my team to sort that out as well.

“We will have a lot to talk about with regards to the brand in late summer and early autumn and I think it is something the whole company can get energised by.

Q: Can you explain in more detail why you think the brand was not supported in the right way?

A: “Brands have emotional ties to the consumers. Brands do not change materially over time. The example I would give is that Cadbury’s Dairy Milk has been purple for over 100 years – it is never not going to be purple, because if it was not purple, it would not have the emotional bond that it has got with everyone as a brand. Bernard Matthews’ brand does not bear any resemblance to the old Bernard Matthews which everyone knows and loves. It has been changed and tinkered with too much. Unfortunately it has been changed to a position where it is sub-optimal and doesn’t work on a number of levels. We are going to have to change it again, but when we do, it will hark back to the best traditions of Bernard Matthews, but it will have a forward-thinking outlook.

“Heinz had a tombstone for 150 years, Nike will never lose the swoosh, Coca Cola would never get rid of their bottle. You have built up equity for years and years, and then you completely change it? No, you cannot do that.

“It’s about using the strength of our heritage to position us for what’s relevant for today’s mums. That’s the important thing. Our brand is a brand for mums and we have been engaging with mums, which is a new thing for the company in the past few months. We have got a set of bloggers and we have been engaging with parenting website Netmums and lifestyle blogging site BritMums who are out there on our behalf advocating our products.

“We are also interacting on social media in a way that we have never done before, culminating in our Facebook launch which happens later this month.

“That’s a scary thing for Bernard Matthews to consider, that we are going to have our own Facebook page and we are going to be interacting with our consumers everyday, but we need to because the only thing out there interacting with consumers is other people’s opinions and not ours. We have got to be a little bit more confident about who we are and what we have got to offer.”

Q: Innovation is key to any business. How do you plan to take the company forward?

A: “One of the first things that we have done here is people investment. We have significantly invested in the commercial teams – the sales teams and the marketing teams with the appointment of a marketing director who has got a lot of industry experience and was previously the director of a top retailer.

“I’ve appointed a sales director and, for the first time in the company’s history, a director of new product development and innovation reporting directly to me as the chief executive. If you talk about what is great about Bernard Matthews in the past, it was first to market with so many things, and we have not been first to market for quite some time. My view is to invest in the development side, and the fact that they are reporting directly to me, they can get innovation through the company quickly without any blockages.

“We have significantly enhanced the commercial structure, competence and talent because while we are, at the heart, a brilliant turkey farmer, without a brilliant equitable commercial function we are not going to take advantage of our expertise. It cannot be one or the other – each of the functions have to be at the same level and I think that we were under-invested commercially. For Christmas, we have innovative ideas which are going to be first to market and will change some behaviours about how we enjoy Christmas day.”

Q: You have recently decided to start breeding, butchering and supplying chicken – including winning a £5m contract to supply cooked sliced chicken and turkey meat to a big-name retailer. Why have you decided to move the EDP Top100 company into this side of the poultry market?

A: “We are not going to be a large-scaled chicken producer. There are some giants out there which do a great job. We are looking at a more niche position, but we do sell a lot of chicken under our brand and, at the moment, not all of that is British. We have the opportunity to convert our branded sales or at least introduce a new proportion of our branded sales in British chicken.

“We do think that we are an extremely efficient cooked meats player – evidenced by our first win – so we hope to do more in the cooked meats own-label arena, and also from a manufacturing standpoint and a B2B food service standpoint. We can be a fully-integrated chicken producer and add value to the chicken as well.

“We are not really here to start going and selling fresh chicken, we are talking about adding value to the chicken, whether that be through breading or through cooked. We think there is an opportunity for us in an added-value sense.”

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