The firm that sells a vegetable side dish every two seconds

Mash Direct turned to convenience because of poor returns on wholesale vegetable sales

Tracy, Lance, Martin and Jack Hamilton, of Mash Direct

Tracy, Lance, Martin and Jack Hamilton, of Mash Direct

 

In 12 years, food company Mash Direct has gone from supplying local stores in Northern Ireland to a turnover of €19 million and 180 employees.

Earlier this month, Mash Direct beat off stiff competition from some of the biggest names in the food and drinks business – including Weetabix and Coca-Cola – to win the top award at the Food Manufacture Excellence Awards in London.

“The awards recognise outstanding performance and innovation in manufacturing businesses throughout the UK and it’s phenomenal to have been recognised at this level,” says Tracy Hamilton who co-founded Mash Direct with her husband, Martin, in 2004.

Today, it’s a family affair with the couple’s sons Lance and Jack also in the business.

The Hamiltons have been vegetable growers on the shores of Strangford Lough for six generations and mainly cultivate heritage varieties (for better flavour) on their 1,500-acre farm. The vegetables are then harvested and steam cooked on site and become part of a 40-strong range of chopped, mashed and diced potato and vegetable side dishes.

The Hamiltons took the decision to diversify into added-value farming because of very poor returns on wholesale vegetable sales.

“We started looking at other possibilities and were advised to always do what you’re good at,” Hamilton says.

Convenience

“We knew we were very good at growing vegetables so it was a case of how we could build on that. Martin had noticed people’s shopping habits and convenience seemed to be a big thing so we started thinking about how we could make our vegetables convenient. That’s basically how Mash Direct started.”

It took about a year to develop the initial products, as the Hamiltons wanted their range to be low in salt and free from artificial flavourings, preservatives and colourings.

They also wanted the products to have the taste and texture of home cooking.

Steam cooking is the best way of achieving this but they quickly discovered that commercial steaming equipment was well beyond their budget.

“We had to be creative to get around the exorbitant cost of the machinery so we turned to a good friend and engineering entrepreneur who developed and built steam cookers for us,” Hamilton says.

“We then spent a lot of time, and still do, on tastings and going to trade and consumer shows. We believe that interacting with customers is the best form of marketing and the best place to get new ideas.”

This approach has clearly worked as Mash Direct now employs 180 people and has a turnover of €19 million. The UK is a key market and sales there have risen by more than 35 percent this year while sales in the 26 counties have risen by 18 per cent in the same period.

Mash Direct sells into 5,000 stores across England, Ireland and Scotland and the products are stocked by the mutiples as well as by independent grocers and convenience stores.

In 2016, Mash Direct became the top selling brand in chilled side dishes in the UK and the company now sells one pack every two seconds. Tracy Hamilton says her aim is to make that one every second.

The company’s strong growth has been achieved mainly by increased market coverage.

It added 2,000 new listings in the last year and, in addition to retail sales, the company also sells into food service and manufacturing. It has small but growing sales in the UAE and has Europe in its sights.

Gluten free

One of the major changes Mash Direct has made based on customer feedback has been to go 100 per cent gluten free.

“We came across so many people with a gluten intolerance that we decided that any new products would have to be gluten free,” Hamilton says.

“We also decided to revisit our existing products and make them gluten-free as well. It was a big investment in time and effort, but we felt it was very important.”

For many food companies problems emerge when the business has to be scaled up.

Tracy Hamilton says Mash Direct managed the process by “scaling up each year, investing in the right people and always being one step ahead. By this, I mean being proactive and always thinking forward about what was necessary in terms of equipment, farming and infrastructure to ensure we always had enough product to supply our customers.

“We couldn’t be in a position where, if it had been raining for two weeks, we couldn’t fulfill an order,” she says.

To this end, the company works with other growers that share its quality standards. It currently self produces around 65 per cent of its vegetable needs.

Tracy Hamilton studied business at university, but once Mash Direct had been established she set about updating her qualifications.

“I upskilled as fast as possible particularly in IT as I felt it was important to have control of as many aspects of the business as possible,” she says.

Disciplined

“We also took the decision to have a very strong board and appointed three non-executive directors from different sectors. We felt this was important, as they would ask questions that we might never even think of.

“We’re also very disciplined around board meetings and the preparation of management accounts.

“We have always had a good relationship with our banks and the key is keeping the lines of communication open,” Hamilton adds.

“When things get tough keep talking to them. We were fortunate that the recession was good for us as people stopped going out but wanted something different at home and our products are pitched at a reasonable price. Now, of course, Brexit is another challenge.

“For us, the most important thing is to maintain the common trading area with free movement of goods. It’s not in anyone’s interest to have a hard border.”

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