Farming Insight: Derek Kelly talks turkey on the father-son relationship

DEREK KELLY, founder of Kelly Turkeys in Danbury, reflects on the father-son relationship and how belief in his son Paul’s abilities has meant they have avoided the pitfalls of succession planning

IN more than 40 years as a family business in traditional Christmas turkeys, we’ve found considerable benefits in working together as a team — but you need to avoid the pitfalls.

My business started in 1971 at Danbury in a very modest way after I’d spent 12 years in senior management with three international poultry breeding companies. This proved invaluable, not least because it gave me an insight into the need for a deep pocket when producing for the commodity market.

Commodities have a tendency to be either making good profits or losing a lot. A more secure niche market was needed and I saw just such an opportunity in the traditional Christmas turkey trade. To distinguish the product from the commodity sector it would need to be based on a slow growing breed, grown to maturity and then hung for two or three weeks to develop flavour.

A lack of adequate capital restricted our growth for the first 10 years, and it was then that we were able to see a future for son Paul. He was sent on a poultry course in Scotland and then for a year on a turkey ranch in California, before starting with us in 1984.

In the meantime we came to see the bronze feathered turkey as an opportunity to develop an affordable brand for our Traditional Farm Fresh turkeys. Bronze turkeys all but disappeared from the UK market when the white feathered birds arrived from the USA. We set about collecting all the remaining bronze turkeys that were available — always in very small numbers — from Inverurie to Pembroke.

Paul’s youthful influence was evident when we came up with a slogan for our bronze feathered bird — ‘Look for the designer stubble to guarantee a true farmer’s turkey’. This was a reference to the black stubs that were left after hand plucking the bronze turkeys, and they became an initial hallmark for our brand. The butchers were a little sceptical at first, but came to see the benefit of Paul’s logic in the end.

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At this stage Paul’s elder sister, Lynne, was my ‘right hand man‘, having left a job in accountancy for a role on the farms and in the hatchery. Indeed for a short period all four children — Lynne, John, Paul and Adam, were working with the family turkeys.

It was a satisfying situation for my wife, Mollie and me. At this stage the company was big enough to give each child an area of responsibility, to avoid any sibling arguments! This also allowed Mollie and I to play a wider role in helping to promote turkey, in her case through developing and demonstrating new ways to cook and serve turkey while I became involved more in the industry’s political affairs. However, this family El Dorado did not last. Lynne started a family, Adam was tempted into occupational therapy, and John started a hog roast business with much spare time helping out at busy turkey times.

In the meantime Paul had spent years working his way through all sectors of the company and became general manager. The company, although only employing about 10 full time people (plus another 15 in the hatching season and 50 at Christmas) was fully integrated and growing. There were activities from genetic selection and egg production to hatching, growing, processing and marketing both to butchers and final consumers.

Paul took on more and more responsibility, and my wife and I were able to devote some time to poult delivery which was our favoured activity in the business. Often this meant one or two (very long!) days, each week, taking a van to all parts of England, Scotland and Wales, and meeting many customers who became our friends. This lasted for about 12 weeks of summer and sometimes we spent a night at a farm B&B.

The father/son relationship was beginning to bear fruit so that eventually Paul successfully led our executive committee representing production, sales and accounts.

I’d started in business when I was 41 and had always thought that it would be appropriate to bring Paul into partnership when he reached that age. That time had come!

Deciding to also give him the position of managing director was proving difficult. For the position to be meaningful I would have to accept that there would be a new culture in the running of the company, and that I wouldn’t always agree with decisions made. Retaining the position of chairman, with the ultimate veto, certainly did not mean I could ignore the spirit of devolving control.

In fact the experience has been almost devoid of anguish on my part. It has been quite easy to accept the moves made without my endorsement ... and often without my knowledge.

In case I was tempted to call Paul in each morning and explain how I would have done things differently the previous day, I embarked on a beef venture which is taking much of my time. But there are two small areas of the turkey company that I still cover — PeriodiKelly, the in-house magazine that we produce twice a year and the 26 KellyBronze Farmers who franchise our brand throughout the country.

Of course, it helps when you have faith in your son’s ability to manage, and it is even satisfying to see him doing certain things much better. In particular, his skills in public speaking and his lack of nerves in front of a camera have brought an added spark into our lives. And it was very gratifying this autumn to see Paul receive an honorary doctorate degree at the University of Essex for his services to agriculture.

One way and another, we seem to have found a consensus with responsibilities and future planning which has, I believe, brought great strength into how as a family we manage the business.