John McCann: ‘My father said to me, here are two or three fields for you to grow veg... let’s see what you can do'
The Big Interview
He’s a champion sailor who came third in the world championships in 1983, and the son who turned his back on the family farm on the shores of Strangford Lough — only to return and transform it into one of the UK’s most successful salad companies with annual sales of around £23m.
And at 72, John McCann MBE, the founder and managing director of Willowbrook Foods in Killinchy, is only just considering slowing down.
“I am still enjoying it. I was the sole managing director until about three years ago. Then the workload became so high that we made our production director Andrea Nelson the joint managing director. And we’re still absolutely flat out. I am still enjoying it, but my ambition is to slow down in the next year or two,” he said.
It employs around 250 people across a food innovation centre as well as two processing plants in Killinchy and Newtownards.
In the last few months, the company has experienced one of its worst crises in nearly 50 years, with supply of lettuces hit by extreme weather from freezes to floods in southern Spain. The unprecedented weather problems have led to empty supermarket shelves — and growth in the popularity of watercress as shoppers turn to alternatives.
John is visiting Murcia in Spain — where the bulk of its lettuce is grown — to talk to his growers.
“The situation is improving slowly but crops were badly destroyed. We’ve managed to maintain around 70% of supply to customers, which is rising to around 75% and 80%,” he said.
“March could still be a difficult month but we are hoping that the warmer weather means that some crops will revive. I’ve never heard of weather as bad as this before.
“Growers have never experienced it before and supermarkets are not used to empty shelves. This is hard to understand.”
John is married to Janine, with two children — Julie, who works in the business, and Steven, who owns a separate business which supplies pasta and rice to Willowbrook. The couple also have two grandchildren — “bundles of joy” Ellie (5) and Reece, who’s three.
“It was hard to combine work and family life and it still is at times,” says John. “Coming from a farming background, the whole family isn’t used to the 9 to 5. Food has short shelf-life so orders are very immediate orders, and production and shipping is immediate.”
But he owes much to the support of his wife Janine, a nurse who also studied psychology and became a trained cognitive behavioural therapist. She also trained as a shepherdess and took care of 350 lambing ewes on one of the family islands.
The deal-making and international travel of a salad business are far removed from his roots on the family farm. The family’s land also includes three islands, Calf Island, Trasnagh Island and Craigevah Island.
“My father and mother, Thomas and Amanda, were farmers in the Killinchy area and owned a mixed farm with quite a lot of vegetables. I went to grammar school at Down High and went on to do business studies at Magee University,” says John.
“I initially didn’t want to be a farmer because I saw how hard it was. It really was a tough slog. My real interest was in horticulture and growing vegetables.
“I worked in industry and decided I wanted to go back. Father said to me, here are two to three fields — you grow some veg and see what you can do.”
John’s produce grew, and he took his soup vegetables, scallions and leeks to his first customer — a supermarket owned by Anderson & McAuley on the Saintfield Road called Supermac. For John to embrace the supermarket model at that point was innovative.
“The whole country was full of greengrocers, and you had 10 of them on Saintfield Road and 10 on the Ormeau Road. There was no scanning and no labels. But I had to get labels made, so I was growing my veg, harvesting them and packing them. I eventually got help and after a year or two had five or six people.
“Every year we expanded. The next big order was with Wellworths, which had 29 big stores all around Northern Ireland.”
He won over Wellworths by offering the chain 16 dairy cabinets in which to put his products as part of the deal. Then the company went from basic vegetables to the more exotic.
“After Northern Ireland and the south, we looked across the water. We could see that Ireland had only a population of five or six million and the market was limited. We started to do a large salad contract with the Co-op in Manchester,” says John.
“For five or six years we supplied about 50% of its whole lettuce order. We were able to identify the growth in bagged salads in the late 1980s and 1990s. The market grew by about 15% to 20% so we were able to supply all the continental frises, lollo rossos and mixtures.”
The firm was able to meet orders quickly for mixed salads for companies like Henderson Group and Superquinn in the Republic, now renamed Supervalu and part of Musgrave.
“We invested heavily in washing machinery and spin drying equipment. We expanded with that growth. We were probably ahead of the curve and able to become the largest salad processors in Ireland.”
The company has also diversified into stir fry mixes, and set up another company, Willowbrook Fine Foods, specialising in ready to cook accompaniments such as mash. Now his business is spread around 70 customers, from airline caterers Alpha Catering in London which Willowbrook will supply with a range of salads such as Thai quinoa salad, lemon olive pasta and apricot tabbouleh for in-flight meals, to Germany discounters Lidl and Aldi and Spar shop operator Henderson Group.
He is nervous about the impact of Brexit on the export capabilities of the agri-food sector, and concerned about the future of business in general.
“Being on the western edge of the UK and Europe, we must export. We must embrace modern technology more and have a government which is proactive and driving the economy to make it more a friendly environment.”
John said he holds strong views on education. “I am being a bit old-fashioned, but I think the education system is not gearing people for the real world. I think the work ethic is waning and the lack of leadership in industry and government stems from reduced ambition because real success needs real effort.
“I also think we are slow to embrace change and that results reflect the effort. Moving faster with IT and automation is essential to compete in the modern world and we are getting left behind as a country.”
One of his foremost concerns over Brexit is on the future of the international workforce, and he employs large numbers of EU nationals.“These vital workers are not illegal immigrants and they are essential to our well-being and continued success of our industries and country.”
As he looks back on nearly half a century, he says: “I have enjoyed all the successes. The failures are quickly forgotten about.
“I enjoy seeing many people with ability and drive being able to develop into managers and leaders in which Willowbrook has given them the chance. It hasn’t been all about being a leader sitting in a boardroom. Our section of the food industry is about people management, innovation and giving good service.”
He admits he was in favour of staying in the EU.
“I’m a farmer as well. We won’t get farming grants and support for the agri-food industry so I am worried about the future. Nobody can tell me what’s happening.”
Inevitably for a vegetable grower, he is a healthy eater.
“I do eat a lot of vegetables. We have a good evening meal every night with broccoli but we don’t eat lettuce every night.”
And he was honoured to receive the MBE.
“It came as a total shock. I hardly knew what it meant so I had to look it up,” he adds.