Martin and Tracy Hamilton: Directors of Mash Direct
Making a mashing success out of a cottage business
How has Mash Direct evolved down the years?
Mash Direct has evolved from a small cottage-style business created to add value to the farm’s own raw materials to a sophisticated world class food company. We have grown from nothing to a £6m business in just six years. We started with five people and now we have 50.
What has been your recipe for success?
I think the answer almost lies in the question. Wholesome additive-free products that drive the company forward. We are fortunate to be able to benefit from excellent cooks and chefs from both inside and outside the company.
Our innovation has been recognised in both Northern Ireland and Great Britain and our most recent accolade was the All Ireland Marketing Award.
We are encouraged by the consumer’s delight with our products and we receive many emails and hand written letters praising us for producing products of such quality and variety.
Competition on the shelves is fierce, how do you cope with that?
This is a part of the business that needs daily monitoring and considerable thought by using innovation to be one step ahead of the competition and to also retain regular customers. Quality, consistency and authenticity are key.
Also ensuring our products are always available on the supermarket shelves is of paramount importance. The provenance of food from the farm grown and made by five generations of farming stock supported by six gold star awards from the Guild of Fine Food gives us a marketing advantage.
Is marketing a tool you have embraced?
Marketing is absolutely key to growing the company. It is critical to produce top quality products all day every day but equally important to go out and sell them. The quality of the marketing has to match the products.
At Mash Direct we invested in a double-decker bus ‘wrapped’ with the company graphics and fitted it out to the highest food safety standard to allow us to attend shows, supermarket events and private parties providing sausages, mash and our other vegetable accompaniments. It has become a regular visitor to Northern Irish events.
We have also had extensive radio campaigns both north and south of the border.
The Mash Direct tasting team can often be seen in supermarkets doing tastings and also at consumer shows such as Balmoral, the Hillsborough Garden Festival and Garden Gourmet in the Botanic Gardens. We often say that if a consumer tastes our product, he will definitely buy it on the next visit to the supermarket.
Do you export any of your products? If so have you identified any new markets?
Yes, export is very important to us as it is vital to attract overseas funds back into Northern Ireland. It is a win-win for the country as we produce raw materials from the ground, sell abroad and bring the money back into the country to fund further expansion.
At present we export extensively to Scotland and England. Further afield we export to Scandinavia and are in negotiations with a French supermarket chain.
What has been the highlight for your company to date?
There have really been many highlights the most recent being the entry of the next generation into the business, bringing new ideas and different dimensions. It is rewarding to think that the business will continue on in their hands.
Also within the last nine months Mash Direct has won The UK Food Manufacture Excellence Award for Best Small Company, The Ulster Bank National Award for the best Family Run Company and Overall Winner and Product of the Show Award at Catex.
Mash Direct has this week achieved an A star in our BRC unannounced audit , the very first company in Ireland to have achieved this.
What are the long-term hopes for the company?
To achieve a UK National brand listing and to significantly grow exports to countries which can then enjoy natural Irish food.
I think from the question before that it is gratifying that the food business is going into the second generation and the farming knowledge now goes into the sixth generation. As a complete team at Mash Direct there are no boundaries or borders that we cannot deal with.
What advice do you have for someone hoping to expand their business?
Ensure a strong, hard-working team around you and put in place robust systems. Every aspect of the business needs capable managers and team leaders with huge dedication. You need people who pay considerable attention to detail and ensure the customer is always given an answer. Within our team we have many people of this calibre.
Recession is a challenge for businesses but it can also help companies emerge stronger when the economy returns to growth. What positives have you identified?
We feel that we were a very price aware company before the recession hit, therefore it has not had the devastating effect that other sectors of the industry have felt. There have also been huge opportunities opened for us by this recession.
Rather than going to a restaurant many people have chosen to dine at home. Time pressures tend to become greater in a recession and our totally natural products have a comfort and homely taste which is a great benefit.
Have you any new projects in the pipeline?
There are many, many, projects, the trick is to make sure that they are in the right order. We continue to enhance our production facility to meet the ever increasing price pressures of our customers.
New products, following our tried and tested theme of authenticity and simplicity — nothing added.
What have been the highlights of your career to date?
Producing the first products from Mash Direct and seeing them on the shelf and then being asked to bring more the next day as they had sold out.
To see the people’s reaction when they try the products for the first time and their excitement.
To be sitting at a very glitzy awards dinner with hundreds of people and to hear Mash Direct’s name announced as the winner of the Best Small Company.
What is the best bit of advice you have ever been given?
It is vital to do what you are naturally good at, don’t try to do something you know nothing about.