'I've had knocks to my confidence but I've always felt that you have to engage to make a difference'
Declan Billington, head of animal feed firm John Thompson, talks to Margaret Canning about his early life, the business's innovative approach and his energetic campaigning
It’s been a long road for John Thompson & Sons chief executive Declan Billington, head of one of Europe’s biggest animal feed mills. Thompsons’ premises are a familiar sight to motorists coming into Belfast on the M2, but not many will be aware that it’s a major agri-food player with a turnover of £234m and pre-tax profits of nearly £5m, as well as a workforce of over 150.
Through his membership of a litany of business lobby groups, Mr Billington has also been a tireless campaigner for business on causes such as high energy costs, corporation tax and on the need for a food and marketing promotional body for Northern Ireland. He’s soon to replace Dale Farm chief executive David Dobbin as the chairman of the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association (NIFDA).
But his success and the influence he now wields were far from inevitable in his early life. “I was the fifth of seven children in a family growing up in Holywood. My father was a chemist working for the Department of Agriculture but apart from that I had no experience of or background in farming. I grew up on the White City Estate, which is a Housing Executive estate. The houses were all painted white, which is how it got its name.
“I was at St Patrick’s Primary School and I failed the 11-plus, which was quite a knock to my confidence at the time, and for many years.
“I then went to Holywood High and started to realise that if I worked hard, I could do well. And the teachers were very good — if you had any ability at all they did try to drive you. But I do remember talking to a careers advisor from the Department of Education. I told him I wanted to go and work in banking but he said to me, don’t you think you’re being a bit ambitious? Those are the types of knocks that affect your confidence.”
But Declan didn’t let anything hold him back, and went on to technical college after Holywood High, before studying accountancy and economics at Queen’s University, Belfast. He trained as an accountant with PricewaterhouseCoopers before going into industry in Dungannon Meats, Copeland in Cookstown and Thompsons, which he joined in 2005.
He believes in the benefits that a corporation tax cut can bring — “I passionately believe companies will come here” — but is more ambivalent on the subject of a Brexit. “I am a person who deals with facts. We know all about Europe, warts and all, but we don’t know the consequences of not being in it. I’m risk-averse and I see so many risks with this. I’d need to hear a really good financial argument and I haven’t heard that yet.” He added: “I am of a view that yes, Europe is imperfect, but it’s better the devil you know.”
Thompsons is the largest multi-species feed mill in Europe, and the firm has aimed to be innovative in its products. Its roots go back to a family firm in a townland outside Ahoghill in 1870, though it was taken over by W&R Barnett in 1963, and is now run by Barnetts in a joint venture with Origin Enterprises.
Its feeds are made for ruminants — such as cows, sheep and calves — as well as poultry, pigs and horses. It also makes fertiliser, grass seed, silage inoculant and secure covers. It’s the main supplier of poultry feed for Moy Park.
Declan is proud of its record on innovation because the company should be solving the problems facing farmers. “If we invest in developing new products, we build capacity of our own people.”
To use a farming analogy, he doesn’t let the grass grow under his feet when it comes to the wider business world. It was frustration with the vagaries of Direct Rule in the late 1990s which led him to join groups like the CBI, which would lobby both Direct Rule ministers and Northern Ireland politicians. It was an ear when Sinn Fein and DUP wouldn’t share the same room, “and it was depressing, to be honest with you”. He says he can still remember the first time he heard the late DUP leader and First Minister Ian Paisley talk about the economy as if it should be a concern for politicians — and said that after years of “glacial” progress, it felt like a breakthrough. And he sums up the thinking behind his policy work. “We know the consequences of bad decisions. But if we get in there first, we can have a fighting chance of telling them to do the right thing.”
He’s deeply engaged with issues affecting farmers. “Agri-food is every challenging because of what’s going on in the world. Of all industry, this is the one that’s exposed to so many different factors — exchange rates, disagreements between Russia and Ukraine, oil prices.”
And he’s realistic about the potential impact of the Year of Food and Drink 2016. “I think it’s good because it promotes artisan and indigenous production and it can support that diversification on farms to provide a second or third income.
“But it’s unlikely to be a major boost to exports because what we need to do is increase the image of the quality and integrity of what we produce. So the Year of Food will be good to promote it in UK markets but won’t lead to major growth in exports.
“It’s about how we build the brand of Northern Ireland food as natural, healthy, in harmony with everything.”
He wants a food marketing board to focus on promoting that brand, similar to the Republic’s Bord Bia
On why he campaigns, he says: “My view is that there’s no point in complaining about energy prices or policy — you must have engagement on how it can be done better. Because of that philosophy, I find other people pushing me forward and encouraging me to take on similar roles.
“How can you stand by and see that something is wrong without trying to engage to fix it and make it better? I can’t accept standing by and doing nothing when something is wrong.”
He thinks Northern Ireland harbours huge potential but needs as dynamic an Executive as possible. “A devolved Executive was something I was always in favour of because I thought that they’d always have to work together. I thought at the outset that the Executive had the advantage, that there was no one outside the tent, throwing rocks, but unfortunately that hasn’t happened in the way I thought it.”
But he champions the progress it has made and compliments First Minister Arlene Foster. “She is very competent and she gets it, and that’s because she’s coming from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI), and the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP). But the Executive is needed to drive through change.”
He’s always rushed to embrace challenges in his career, and enjoyed his work in Dungannon Meats — and observed the fall out of the so-called ‘mad cow disease’ crisis, when external sales plummeted.
But he was itching to learn more, so moved to new foreign direct investor, Emerson Group, as financial manager at its Cookstown plant, Copeland, which made compressors The American owners of the firm wanted him to know the business inside out. And he absorbed what he feels is the most important lesson in business — not to ignore things that are going wrong simply because they’re not in your official job description.
And while he’s a champion of a cut in corporation tax, he’s worried that we are not investing enough in skills. And he attributes his own success to opportunities, luck and hard work.
“There were always people who for one reason or another, helped me and developed me. I’ll always be grateful and I do feel an obligation to do the same thing. But things were much more regimented then and choices are much more open now.” As a father of three children — Declan jnr (18), who loves drama and acting and is finishing his A’levels, John (16), who’s into computers, and 12-year-old Ellen, who he describes as “hard working”, his ambitions for his kids are straightforward.
“My desire for them is to encourage them to do what they love,” he says.
This time it's personal
Q. What’s the best piece of business or life advice you’ve ever been given?
A. Don’t walk by problems just because they are not in your remit or wait to be given the authority to improve. Assume the authority and challenge your colleagues to do the same.
Q. What advice would you pass on to someone starting out in business?
A. How you plan your future and where you end up are likely to be very different. At each step of the career progression be patient and “serve your apprenticeship”. Listen and learn from those with more knowledge and experience. This builds solid foundations and in later years for the more senior roles where you will already know the detail and therefore what is and is not important to pay attention to.
Q. If you weren’t doing this, what would be your other career?
A. I have not given it any thought. In whatever I do however, if capable of doing more than just the basic job, I will always seek through to have a positive impact on those that work for me, on my customers and in my community.
Q. What was your best business decision?
A. To work with Invest NI to develop a research and development capability within the production facility of an American inward investment project. This was an unusual occurrence with the global manufacturing philosophy of the multi-national but helped us secure the rights to manufacture a new range of products for a developing market in Europe. The work we did helped improve product quality and new product development and implementation. Indirectly we built a formidable skill-set, as a result of the in depth knowledge we gained, the products we built outperformed the same products built in different factories produced elsewhere in the world.
Q. What are your hobbies/ interests?
A. My work and family leave very little time for any real hobbies. Jogging and cycling over the summer in Donegal tends to be my main pursuits and, if I find a good book, time to read it.
Q. What is your favourite sport and team?
A. Unusually I have no particular sport or team I follow. However, I do love to watch major football and rugby events.
Q. What was your last holiday and where are you going next?
A. I tend to holiday in Donegal. I got tired of package holidays in tourist traps. I prefer the slow pace of life that I find in the Donegal countryside.
Q. If you enjoy reading, can you recommend a book?
A. I enjoy reading a wide range of books and recently read South, the book about Ernest Shackleton’s expedition to Antarctica. A very matter of fact approach to dealing with years of adversity as they struggled to survive.
Q. How would you describe your early life?
A. As a child, carefree, in secondary school, reserved and studious, as a teenager, single minded focus on competing in martial arts events to the exclusion of all else, at least until the time arrived when I had to choose between sport and pursuit of career.