Friday Interview: Tracy and Jack Hamilton, directors of Mash Direct
The Hamilton family has turned a traditional farm into a fast-growing food business
Jack and Tracy Hamilton on the family farm in Comber Co Down. Photograph: Pacemaker Press
Driving along the back roads on the outskirts of Belfast, one would be forgiven for thinking it a relatively sleepy part of the country, merely facilitating business in the cities. Vast swathes of land interrupted by the odd town and village dot the map of the area near Strangford Lough.
It is here, nestled in the hills to the east of Belfast near Comber and Newtownards, that the Hamilton family have turned a traditional farm into a fast-growing food business, Mash Direct
Approaching via a modern laneway, it is quickly apparent that this is far from a sleepy backwater. A steady flow of traffic – on foot and vehicular – point to a busy business campus.
Mash Direct employs 185 people locally and boasts turnover in excess of £17million. The Co Down-based family-owned farming and food production business has grown significantly since its foundation in 2004, and now sells a vegetable side dish every second. Founded by Martin and Tracy Hamilton, their sons Jack and Lance are now also involved in running it.
The departure from a traditional farming operation to establish Mash Direct was driven by necessity. Tracy and Jack explain over coffee in the company’s boardroom in the old farmhouse.
“We were growing vegetables for the wholesale market and growing the most wonderful quality of vegetables, but the return was getting less and less, and we thought ‘what are we going to do to survive as a farm’.
“We looked at lots of other opportunities for the farm. We looked at golf courses, we were approached by a big developer to create a rural village, and we were advised to do what you’re good at.
“We said ‘we know we’re really good at growing vegetables’. Martin had noticed people’s shopping habits and he suggested we try to add value,” says Tracy.
After that initial conversation the family moved quickly to establish the prepared vegetables brand. Within a year they had moved from initial planning to production. During that time they decided on a number of key things, including how they would cook the product. That confronted them with their first major problem.
They knew they wanted to steam cook the product, and after a number of trials they set about buying a steam cooker. That turned out to be prohibitively expensive.
“So we had to be creative,” says Tracy. “A very good friend and neighbour who is an engineering entrepreneur developed the steam cooker with us, and we built it ourselves.”
The company began selling its wares in two small convenience stores locally in Co Down. That has since grown to nearly 6,000 stores worldwide. As glamorous as that number sounds, the process was not easy.
Jack, a proficient marketer like his mother, explains the challenges associated with growing the brand in the middle part of the last decade.
“There were rainy days in Saint George’s market [in Belfast] when you were standing there and the people weren’t coming. As soon as people started coming, as soon as the rain went away and we started shifting [prepared vegetables], you realise this is something different and we’re on to something.”
Since then the ambition of the company and its founders has grown. And, on the day we met Mash Direct had just won a deal to supply 330 outlets of Waitrose, one of the UK’s biggest and more upmarket supermarket chains, with their convenience dishes.
It was the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Belfast Agreement, one of Jack’s early memories. The former Trinity College, Dublin, history graduate remembers – in the days before Mash Direct – the family delivering their produce around Belfast and being delayed as a result of blockades.
“[The North] has changed dramatically,” he says. “A lot of the barriers that had been put up were taken away both mentally and physically.”
“Things have improved enormously,” says Tracy, who recalls the Border of the past with its long queues. “That’s why we don’t want a hard border ever again.”
The lion’s share of the company’s business is currently done in the UK, but international markets, and the Republic, are becoming increasingly important. England and Wales, followed by Scotland and Northern Ireland are the biggest markets for Mash Direct. The Republic comes next.
With the company’s drive to internationalise, having recently secured a deal to sell into the United States and already exporting to Bahrain, Hong Kong and the United Arab Emirates, Brexit is undoubtedly a concern.
“It’s not something we campaigned for. Not many farmers in Northern Ireland did campaign for it but it is coming,” Jack says, adding that “until someone says you can’t do it anymore [sell across the Border] we’re not going to stop”.
While Brexit may not be causing the Hamilton’s to lose sleep, Northern Ireland’s political impasse is more of a worry.
“It’s embarrassing,” Tracy says, echoing the view of her son. “It’s very difficult on a day like today, 20 years from the Good Friday agreement, to have to say let’s be positive’ and then take a breath afterwards and have to talk about the eejits on the hill,” says Jack. Those “eejits” aren’t far from Mash Direct’s site. The house in which which Martin and Tracy reared their two sons overlooks Stormont.
Having married in 1980, Tracy and Martin bought the land on which Mash Direct now sits by public auction in 1987. Tracy comes from a business background. Her family, the Mackies, were involved for many years with textile machinery through engineering group James Mackie & Sons. It was a significant employer in in Belfast and a major supplier of munitions during the second World War.
Those earlier years on the farm were good, Tracy recalls, but increasingly they felt they were not being rewarded for the quality of their produce.
That produce now forms an integral part of the Mash Direct brand. The family farm provides around 60 per cent of the vegetables used in its convenience foods. Since its foundation the acreage required to service the business has grown from 200 to 1,500, while building on site has been constant since 2004.
“We haven’t had the builders offsite yet,” says Jack, adding that “the worst thing in the world would be to bring on a big new export customer and have to disappoint them in week one”.
Jack’s road back to the family business wasn’t necessarily a straightforward one. Having studied history, “a very useful degree for food”, he quips, he ended up in Washington DC in a job looking at political risk in African nations. It was there that he realised his passion was the family business.
“I was locked outside an office one morning and got chatting to a colleague. She wanted to know what I was interested in, and I was talking about food the whole time, and what was going on in Northern Irish food and what Mash Direct were up to.
“She pointed out that at no stage of the conversation had I mentioned what was going on in Nigeria, so I said ‘maybe this isn’t for you’.”
At that point the younger son in the family returned to the business, coming in to head up its social media output. His brother, Lance, had had a much more planned route into the business, having “always had an interest in farming”, according to Jack.
That interest is one he shares with his father, according to Tracy, who notes that farming is a hobby for Martin as much as a career. “It’s like a therapy [for him] to be ploughing or sowing,” she says, before adding that he also keeps up to 40 Hereford cattle as a passion project.
On her own hobbies, Tracy explains her fondness for gardening. She manages a farm at Ringdufferin House on the banks of Strangford Lough – “a wonderful heritage garden...of great importance to the island of Ireland”. Never one to miss an opportunity, the marketer quickly reappears in Tracy who flags that she’s looking for a gardener.
For the most part, however, she does the bulk of the work at Ringdufferin whenever the opportunity arises. “I have to make time. I do it before I’m up here in the morning or after work.”
With ongoing expansion, that time is becoming increasingly hard to come by – perhaps ironically for a convenience food company.
The business is not getting quieter, and if the past is anything to go by it appears the family will diversify with every opportunity. Aside from selling Mash Direct produce in supermarkets, the company also supplies pubs and hospitals directly, including some in Dublin.
Additionally, they make pie tops, having noticed that niche had previously been served by Belgian and Dutch companies. While those businesses make up a “significantly smaller part than retail”, the future of the business will depend on diversification like that, Tracy says.
As we start in on a lunch of a variety of Mash Direct’s vegetable side dishes, Jack explains that this section of the market is one in which they want more share.
“We do exceptionally well at dinner time,” he says, noting that in the lunch market there is a severe lack of choice for consumers. “If you’re going to your local shop, there’s so little choice. There’s a big opportunity for us to work away on that market.”
‘People are busy’
That’s not to say they will take their eye off the dinner market as healthy convenience foods become an ever bigger factor in people’s lives.
“People are busy, husbands and wives are both out working, kids have so many extra-curricular things, so parents are on the go all the time. Lifestyles are flat out, but people still want real food,” Tracy says.
Its commitment to healthy convenience means Mash Direct has decided not to venture into own-label products for supermarket chains. “Consumers want to understand where their food comes from and we feel own-label is against the direction of travel where food wants to be,” says Jack.
In any event, it doesn’t appear that they need to explore this part of the market, with their brand fast becoming a household name. That’s helped by the raft of great taste awards they’ve received (19 in total), their award as UK SME of the Year from the Telegraph newspaper, and Martin’s inclusion in the EY Entrepreneur of the Year programme.
It would appear the only way is up, chasing the status of companies like Kerrygold – one of the brands they admire – as a food titan on this island.
With all this success, I wonder as I prepare to leave if they ever got around to buying that steamer they had to turn down on cost grounds when the business was in its early days.
“We’re still making them,” Tracy and Jack say.
Not for the first time it highlights that Mash Direct does things differently.
Names: Tracy Hamilton (58) and Jack Hamilton (30)
Positions: Directors of Mash Direct
Lives: Jack lives in Comber, Co Down, while Tracy lives in Killyleagh, Co Down.
Family: Tracy is married to Martin Hamilton. They have another son, Lance, who also works in the family business.
Something you might expect: Tracy has been lauded by the North’s business community and was named Northern Irish Businesswoman of the Year in 2015. Jack was married on the family farm.
Something you might not expect: Jack met his wife in an Irish bar in Washington DC. Tracy is a great card player – anything from bridge to “cards against humanity”.