Belfast Telegraph

Fivemiletown Creamery staff facing threat of redundancy thrown lifeline

By Clare Weir

The new owners of the troubled Fivemiletown Creamery have said that they will seek a "positive solution" for 50 people whose jobs are at risk after the company fell into financial difficulties.

Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster confirmed she met senior representatives of Kilkenny-based Glanbia Ingredients Ireland Ltd (GIIL) yesterday for what she described as "very positive" discussions.

Last week more than 80% of the shareholders of the Fivemiletown co-operative, which was formed back in 1898, agreed to sell their 25 million litre a year milk supply and cheese brands to GIIL. Staff have now entered into a 30-day consultation process with the company in order to negotiate redundancy packages.

And a new campaign to save the jobs, brands and a cheesemaking industry in Co Tyrone has also been launched.

Those behind the campaign – mostly longstanding Fivemiletown employees – say that the cheeses, which have been sampled by world leaders and first class passengers on the worlds' leading airlines, and the careers of those who helped craft them, must be saved. Facebook and Twitter campaigns were launched at the end of March. Ms Foster said that she will push for the best possible outcome for the employees and Northern Ireland.

"I had a very positive meeting with Glanbia during which they reaffirmed their commitment to Northern Ireland and I took the opportunity to urge the company to work together with Fivemiletown Creamery to ensure the best possible outcome for the employees," she said.

"I also had a useful discussion about the continued manufacturing of the Fivemiletown brands of cheese in Northern Ireland and have been assured that all opportunities will be explored to seek a positive solution."

Industry figures have also rallied around. Michael Bell, executive director of the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association, said: "NIFDA supports any attempts to retain jobs in the local dairy industry and we hope that the established Fivemiletown brands can be saved."

As a result of the sale, international brands such as Ballybrie, Ballyblue and Ballyoak transfer to GIIL while Fivemiletown's award-winning goat's cheeses, Boilie and Cooneen, will remain with Fivemiletown to sell on.

Fivemiletown will retain ownership of the cheese manufacturing site, and of its retail store, Ballylurgan Hardware.

The future of the Causeway flavoured cheddars, bought by the creamery in 2012 from its original Co Antrim owners, is unclear.

Any loss of cheesemaking facilities in Co Tyrone would leave only four speciality cheese producers in Northern Ireland, all of which are very small companies – Kearney Blue, part of Farmview Dairies in Castlereagh, Leggygowan goats' cheese in Saintfield, Young Buck blue cheese in Newtownards and Dart Mountain in Maghera, maker of Sperrin Blue.

Fivemiletown's branded cheeses are listed by Harrods, Harvey Nichols, Sainsbury, Tesco, Asda, Ocado and Morrisons as well as over 2,000 delis across the UK.

British Airways and Emirates Airline served Fivemiletown cheese to first class passengers, while even world leaders attending last year's G8 Summit at Lough Erne Resort enjoyed the products.

A LOVED BRAND IS HOLY GRAIL OF BUSINESS SO WHY ABANDON THEM?

Sacrificing the future of the Fivemiletown cheese brands could well be a decision that will be regretted later.

In the very competitive grocery market, products and brands that can command a premium, no matter how small, and that can also build on some consumer loyalty, are increasingly rare but also increasingly valuable. At a time when Northern Ireland is leveraging its positive image and growing reputation, we need to spread these assets across every sector, especially food production.

Fivemiletown, with its 116-year-old heritage and cheesemaking skills, should be able to join forces with our growing image and reputation to carve out a niche position. These products are a valuable commodity, with skills and quality ingredients combining to deliver a competitive advantage both in reality and in branding terms. The ownership of unique brands will always be a valuable asset to producers not wanting to be totally enslaved to a commodity market like liquid milk production.

Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster is right when saying that it would be a “great shame” to lose these brands. The sourcing and creation of product quality like this is exactly what Invest NI is promoting. Combining the quality output with the image and heritage that we increasingly have for Northern Ireland products should not be dismissed lightly.

Tony Axon is a brand expert and media director at agency Navigator Blue

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