Keeping Manor Farm in the family after 240 years

MD Vincent Carton is looking to grow the chicken-processing business on many fronts

Vincent Carton: “Businesses are there to change and develop, and if one set of owners can’t develop it then it’s only right that someone else develops it.” Photograph: Barry Cronin

Vincent Carton: “Businesses are there to change and develop, and if one set of owners can’t develop it then it’s only right that someone else develops it.” Photograph: Barry Cronin

 

“I love that we can bring value to rural Ireland,” says Vincent Carton as we wash our hands for the umpteenth time at Manor Farm’s vast chicken processing factory in the sleepy village of Shercock, Co Cavan.

Some 176,000 chickens were slaughtered and processed on the day of my visit. The factory processes around 900,000 chickens a week, making Carton the biggest producer in the Republic.

It’s by no means a glamorous business but Carton is passionate about delivering healthy food and good value to Irish families each day. “It takes all sorts,” he says with a broad smile after our whistle-stop tour of the spick-and-span facility.

Chicken processing is a volume business with low margins but one that interacts with most people in Ireland, given that 93.4 per cent of the population eat the meat.

There is barely any waste in Manor Farm’s highly efficient, and almost totally mechanised operation. Whole chickens and breast fillets are the most sought-after products and are supplied to the domestic market. Chicken wings are largely exported to Spain.

“Chicken wings are only really popular in Ireland during barbecue season,” he reveals. Legs go to either to Britain, France or eastern Europe while the feet are sent to China, a market that only opened up recently. Previously, Manor Farm was paying to dispose of them.

“We’re now selling 60 tonne a week of chicken feet to China, turning a negative into a positive,” he says. The investment in equipment was just €19,000.

Carcasses go towards making soups while €2.7 million was spent on evisceration to “recover more of the organs”.

“So we’re now selling more of the chicken,” he says.

The business, which is owned by Carton Brothers, an unlimited holding company, is firmly in growth mode. Turnover last year amounted to €249 million, up from €238 million in 2014. The company has 815 staff employed at its head office in Clonee, Co Meath, its processing plant in Shercock and a nearby feed mill.

The hatcheries, where the chicks emerge from their eggs, are separately owned while 160 farmers own and operate their own chicken houses.

Manor Farm supplies the feed to the farmers and collects the chickens when they are ripe for plucking, after about five or six weeks being fattened up. It also cleans the houses to maintain quality control and to keep out bugs.

Carton and his brother Justin are now planning a €25 million investment over five years to build capacity to 1.5 million birds a week. He expects this to create an additional 600 jobs directly.

Manor Farm is also looking to expand its branded sales, which only account for 7 per cent of turnover at present.

Chicken is a big draw with consumers and supermarkets prefer to sell them as an own-label product with a picture of the farmer front and centre to give confidence over origin. You’ll mostly find Manor Farm branded products in butcher shops.

The company wants to introduce a range of convenience cuts under its own brand and has set aside a marketing budget of €800,000 for this move. This mostly involves social media and demonstration evenings with the likes of the Irish Countrywomen’s Association.

The product innovations include a cook-in-the-bag whole chicken, which has launched in SuperValu and Dunnes Stores for about €7.

“There’s no handling, no mess and no fuss. On the pack it tells you how long you cook it for,” Carton explains.

It is also trialling a cook-in-the-bag boneless breast joint, which started in Dunnes last week. “It’s steamed-based cooking so it’s incredibly succulent,” he says. “It’s a special bag that goes in the oven and doesn’t discolour or melt. It’s an expensive bag but it means that you don’t mess up the oven and it’s really simple.

“Even someone like me could cook chicken really well by following the instructions.”

According to Carton, research shows that working mums typically have 21 minutes to cook a hot meal for their children after putting their key in the front door. Manor Farm is hoping to tap into this desire for convenience cooking of quality food.

“There’s a need for a brand to be able to communicate these benefits to the customers. There’s quite a number of innovations coming down the track. If they are a success then why wouldn’t the supermarket take them on afterwards?

“We’re not looking for Manor Farm brand to take over. We’re looking for something to give people extra choice and to see that there’s value in chicken.”

Price is everything in Carton’s business and he readily acknowledges that the company is at the mercy of extreme weather patterns that could devastate feed crops and push up its input costs.

Supermarket deals

“In 2012, our costs rose by €348,000 a week because the cost of feed [increased],” he explains. “It’s that significant.”

Chickens are used by supermarkets to draw customers in and often feature on promotion for as little as €3. How can Manor Farm make money at that pricing level?

“It’s actually a profitable item for us because we get paid more than €3,” he says, adding that the average price it is paid is €3.49. “The reason for that is because the supermarkets, when they give good value like a €3 chicken, the volumes go through the roof. They increase ninefold.”

Carton argues that rather than displacing chicken sales from other retailers these promotions replace purchases of other meats, like pork or beef.

Irish people eat about 35 kilos of pork and chicken each year, with beef at 22 and lamb about 1.9. “Fish is just 0.5, it’s tiny.”

At present, about three million chickens a week are purchased here but almost half are imported, largely for the catering and foodservice sectors. This brings with it questions over quality and provenance, and Carton sees displacing imports as a potential area of growth.

Ironically, the collapse of the Irish economy in late 2008 was good in round terms for Manor Farm, prompting customers to seek out value in their grocery shopping.

“Chicken sells well in a recession,” he says. “What was happening was, up to then, 2007, if six people sat around a table in Ireland, there were 3.4 different meals served. Then the crash came and two things happened.

“People went back to basics. They went back to the way they ate in the olden days, everybody sat down together and they had roasts or casseroles and for both of those, the cheapest cut is chicken.

“They also really wanted to support Irish jobs so the more we plugged Irishness, the more we were gaining. What happened is that we grew in the recession. If I remember rightly, we were about 500,000 chickens a week in 2007 and we grew to 750,000 by 2014.”

Manor Farm has been in business since 1775, before American independence and Beethoven’s fifth symphony, as its adds remind us.

It has survived various wars and recessions and is just one of four producers left standing on the island. There were 14 as recently as 1998.

Nowadays, its operation is based around Cavan and Monaghan but the company’s roots were originally in inner city Dublin. The operation was just a stone’s throw from the Four Courts until his father took the reins in 1968 and decided to move it north.

Eighth generation

Vincent and his brother Justin are the eighth generation to own and run the family business, which once also produced the likes of turkeys, butter, tea and spirits.

The brothers are Dubs and Vincent continues to live in Donnybrook in spite of the company’s operations being based well outside the capital.

The seed for his “passion” in the business was sown at an early age, when he was brought to the factory in Cavan one day to help tighten some small nuts on one of its production lines.

“I think I was aged nine . . . we were staying in the holiday home at the [nearby] lake. My dad said to come in and help out so I did. Health and safety didn’t exist at the time. It was a great experience. That was my first interaction with the business.”

Strangely, Carton rarely ate chicken as a child. “My dad didn’t like chicken because he was living with it so we didn’t get it as kids. Today, I adore it. I love chicken thighs. A barbecued thigh. No bones. Thigh meat is gorgeous.”

Why thigh?

“Breast meat, while very, very low in fat and extremely healthy isn’t particularly flavoursome in itself. I like the bit of fat in the thigh meat, which gives it the flavour. It’s much juicier meat.”

The “assumption” within the family was that Carton would join the business, which he did on graduating from UCD with a BComm in 1979.

“Within two weeks I knew I’d made the mistake of my life,” he says. “This was a very old-fashioned business, poorly managed.”

He studied cost accounting by night, and left in 1983 to work for the Penn tennis ball company in Mullingar. He later worked in insurance for a company that is now part of the Zurich group.

By the time he returned to the business years later, his father had given his half share to Justin. Vincent ended up buying the other half from the widow of another family member and he and his brother set about modernising the business.

Between them they have eight daughters and Carton readily accepts that none might want to run Manor Farm when the time comes to pass on the baton. But the brothers would like the next generation to run a family business and have set up an entity called Carton Sisters to invest in food products.

“One of our jobs in the next number of years is to bring on the next generation. It might not be in chicken but I don’t see that as a problem. What they’ve indicated to us is that they’d certainly like to develop a food business but maybe not commodity chicken. They would much prefer to be involved in the health and wellness space.”

He’s fine with that and the idea is that capital will be freed up from the successful chicken business to invest in other food products, including ‘Proper Pops’, a healthy snack that has been developed as an alternative to crisps.

In the meantime, he’s focused on delivering on the five-year growth plan for Manor Farm. That will take him to age 63. What then for him and the chicken business, especially if his daughters and nieces don’t want to take it on?

“I can’t answer that. I don’t know what the future will bring,” he says, although he doubts that business would interest an international buyer given the small size of the Irish market.

For now, the two brothers will continue to own and operate the business but he’s open to bringing his daughters and nieces in as shareholders over time. He is also open-minded to management possibly taking on the business in the longer term.

“Businesses are there to change and develop, and if one set of owners can’t develop it then it’s only right that someone else develops it.

“We have succession planning within the business and we have a really good management team who are well able to run this business and take over my job. I’d get as much kick out of seeing them developing the business as I would my own family.”

CV

Name: Vincent Carton

Job: Managing director, Manor Farm

Age: 58 later this year

Lives: Donnybrook, Dublin

Family: Married with five daughters. “It’s my path to poverty.”

Hobbies: Tennis and gardening

Something we might expect: He eats chicken at least five days a week.

Something that might surprise: He’s a daily watcher on the web of seismic activity globally. “I really enjoy mad stuff like hurricanes and volcanoes and earthquakes. I follow those sorts of things. There’s a website that gives you the seismic activity around the world every day. It’s one of my first ports of call each day.”