Billy O’Kane obituary: Innovator helped build one of State’s largest poultry firms

Ballymena native was granted OBE award for his services to the food industry

Northern Irish businessman Billy O’Kane was a quietly spoken man with a sharp mathematical brain

Northern Irish businessman Billy O’Kane was a quietly spoken man with a sharp mathematical brain

 

Billy O’Kane
Born: January 20th, 1937
Died: August 12th, 2021

The innovative Northern Irish businessman, Billy O’Kane, has died following a long illness. Together with his brother, Desmond, he built up the family-owned O’Kane Poultry business to become one of the largest poultry processing companies on this island. In 2010, O’Kane Poultry was acquired by rival Northern Ireland poultry processor Moy Park [then owned by the Brazilian food giant, Marfrig], bringing an end to the family business which the O’Kane brothers’ father – also Billy O’Kane – started from scratch in Ballymena in 1932.

Billy O’Kane was a founding member of the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association and served as Northern Ireland’s representative on Bord Bia, the Irish food board. In 1989, he was granted an Order of the British Empire (OBE) award for his services to the food industry. He retired from the business in 2010.

After school, he decided that the best way to learn the family poultry business was to work from the bottom up rather than continue his studies to third level

O’Kane Poultry began when O’Kane’s father started selling chickens to customers in his fish shop on Bridge Street, Ballymena. When his sons Billy and Desmond joined the business, they were among the first to import so-called modern chickens [bred for eating rather than for egg production] from the United States. Farmers bought the chicks and meal from the O’Kane family who subsequently bought back the chickens from the farmers to sell to customers. The business operated first on High Street, Ballymena, before moving in the early 1960s to Larne Road to the first purpose-built poultry processing plant on this island. In the 1970s, O’Kane Poultry was renowned for being the first poultry processor to import Dutch machinery to fully mechanise the production line.

The business grew from supplying small groceries stores to later supplying supermarket chains in Ireland and across the United Kingdom. In the early 1980s, O’Kane Poultry bought Castlemahon Chickens firm in Newcastle West, Co Limerick, [and later sold it in the mid-2000s].

The O’Kane group also established a large distribution hub in Naas, Co Kildare. In 2009, the year before it was acquired by Moy Park, O’Kane Poultry employed about 1,500 people, reporting net revenues of £132 million. They were producing 120,000 chickens and 5,000 turkeys per day then. Two hatcheries, a feed mill, two processing plants and testing facilities were included in the £26 million sale in 2010. At that time, the poultry processing industry was dominated by a few big players and as there was no natural successor in the family, the sale was deemed to be the best way to secure work for long-term employees and the farmers who supplied the chickens.

Outside of work, he spent weekends on the family farm in Crebilly and with his brother-in-law, Paddy Logan, enjoyed many trips to the west of Ireland to buy stock for fattening

Born in Ballymena, the eldest of four children to Billy and Elsie O’Kane, O’Kane attended Ballymena Academy. While there, his love of history and mathematics was encouraged and his talent for rugby discovered. After school, he decided that the best way to learn the family poultry business was to work from the bottom up rather than continue his studies to third level. However, one year later, a friend and neighbour persuaded him to take up the offer of a place at Queen’s University Belfast to study economics. He flourished there, showing a particular aptitude for statistics and graduated with honours in 1959.

O’Kane then completed an apprenticeship with a large poultry film in Ipswich in Suffolk before returning to the family business. It was while “working on the lorries”, going round to local farms to collect birds for processing that he first set eyes on Mary Logan, the daughter of an Ahoghill farmer. The couple were married in 1961 and reared their six children in the family home, Red Dyke, on the Galgorm Road in Ballymena. Sadly, their son, Michael died following a road accident at the age of 13.

O’Kane was a quietly spoken man with a sharp mathematical brain. His unassuming manner made him popular with staff. Through his long career, he served on many boards, including the Belfast Harbour Commissioners, the Pig Marketing Board and the Agricultural Trust. He was also a director on the board of Ulster Bank.

Outside of work, he spent weekends on the family farm in Crebilly and with his brother-in-law, Paddy Logan, enjoyed many trips to the west of Ireland to buy stock for fattening.

He also had a lifelong interest in rugby and supported Ballymena Rugby Club, Ulster, Ireland and the Lions. In later years, he became the chairman of the board of governors at the Ballymena Academy and chairman of Ballymena Rugby Football Club.

Billy O’Kane is survived by his wife, Mary, his children, Billy, Terence, Moira, Alison and John, his 15 grandchildren and his siblings, Desmond, Elizabeth and Geraldine. His son, Michael, pre-deceased him.