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How duo took Dunbia from a note on the back of an envelope to a multi-million meat industry giant

By John Mulgrew

Published 04/08/2015

From left, Ben Thirlwall of American Express presented Jim Dobson with an Institute of Directors award at a ceremony last year hosted by former politician Michael Portillo

Jim and Jack Dobson’s business plan for what would become a meat business turning over close to a billion pounds a year was jotted down on the back of an envelope. And when your father is a cattle dealer in Co Tyrone, it’s likely you’ll end up following a similar career path.

In the last four decades, Jim and brother Jack Dobson have grown their small Dungannon butcher shop into meat giant Dunbia, with sites throughout the UK and Ireland, turning over almost £800m each year.

Set up in 1976 after the brothers bought over a small frozen meat shop in Dungannon, Dunbia has grown to employ 4,000 staff — 1,200 working in Northern Ireland — across a dozen sites, selling and exporting beef, lamb and pork across the globe.

Back then, the pair were shifting two cattle a week at their lowest sales point. Now, Dunbia sees 7,000 cattle, 50,000 lambs and 15,000 going through its sites.

The former Dungannon Royal School pupils went straight into the trade after school.

Jim began working for a meat firm, while Jack started out as a cattle dealer — following in his father Fred’s footsteps.

“We were buying livestock for a firm in Dungannon, doing 20 cattle a week. He was going blind, and decided to sell the shop,” Jim Dobson, who is now Dunbia Group managing director, said.

That was in 1976, but within two years the pair were down to just a tenth of that business.

“We sat down and said, we are losing money. So we starting selling a bit of beef wholesale.”

Now, around half of the company’s business involves selling meat, primarily beef and lamb, to the major supermarkets across the UK — including Sainsbury’s, one of the firm’s first big customers.

And the 62-year-old has consistently shrugged off any suggestions the company could be put up for sale, or that Dunbia would ever consider floating on the stock exchange.

“It hasn’t been offered to me. It’s not a job for us, it’s a way of life. If you love what you’re doing, what else would you do?

“We haven’t considered (going public). We never sit down to plan things like that.”

But his business savvy has been lauded, and Jim was named director of the year for a large company at last year’s Institute of Directors Awards. Mr Dobson was praised as a “very innovative and focused leader with a strong understanding of the market and competitors”.

Earlier this year, Northern Ireland poultry giant Moy Park was sold to Brazilian food group JBS SA in a deal worth almost £1bn. Some speculation has tipped Dunbia as a target for JBS.

But on the question of Dunbia’s prospects, Jim remarks: “You can’t get married until you are asked. If we were going to shape ourselves to do that, we wouldn’t be running the business as we are.

“We have fantastic training to make people better. That’s investment in the future.”

And Jim Dobson is keeping it in the family, and says he’s no plans to retire.

“Sure, what else would I do?” he said.

“I got a set of golf clubs for Christmas and I’ve still never played. They are still clean. (Retiring) isn’t even on the agenda.”

His sons Matthew (32) and Steven (37) have both worked for the company from a young age.

And his nephew Stuart — the son of Jack — has been managing the growth of subsidiary Elmgrove Foods, a specialist in “fifth quarter offal” products for beef, lamb and pork.

Since 1976 Dunbia has battled with countless hurdles, including BSE and foot and mouth disease — something the firm managed to weather by diversifying and snapping up new sites.

“With BSE it didn’t do us any harm. At that time we were just a single company. There was a lot of hype and worry, but we were just going day by day. But others were much more affected because they were big into exports.

“But with foot and mouth, it was difficult financially. We bought Oriel Jones & Sons in Wales — we supplied his customers and he did our UK work, and that’s how we got into negotiations to buy the firm. There’s an opportunity in every crisis.”

In its last set of accounts, Dunbia edged close to a £769m turnover for the year ending March 2014 — up more than £40m on the previous, while profits for the company fell during the course of the last financial year — dropping by almost £3m to £4.6m.

And it’s the rise of the discounter — such as Lidl and Aldi — that’s having the greatest impact on producers and processors like Dunbia, according to Mr Dobson.

“It’s much harder because of the discounters, and consumers are winning. Farmers and processors are getting pressed. They are fighting for market share all the time, and how they run their business is very efficient. But it leaves the farmer and processor under serious pressure all the time.”

It’s efficiency and research which Dunbia is using to ensure the business remains buoyant,  growing and profitable.

But he said it’s “going to get more difficult” as time goes on.

“The more efficiency you have — we are constantly working on that. We are investing a huge amount into IT to get information to management, and improve the business.”

Mr Dobson said consumer tastes had also changed considerably over the last decade, moving away from the traditional Sunday roast.

“The consumer is always changing, and more of our product is being ground into mince for burgers, diced, kebabs and things like stir fries.”

And exports also make up a big part of Dunbia’s trade.

“We have a massive export trade. We do a lot of offal to the Far East, and then we also have lots of exports to Europe in lamb and beef,” Mr Dobson said.

Looking into the future, the firm is focussing on efficiency, as well as putting big money behind research and development into new products.

“We invest a lot in innovation and research. The way we sell our meat is changing, and Sunday roasts are a thing of the past,” he said.

“We have a whole team of meat scientists and chefs to create fresh ideas.”

This time it's personal

Q: Do you prefer the town or country, and why?

A: Farming and agriculture is in my blood so no doubt about it, country.

Q: How has the meat industry in Northern Ireland changed in the last decade?

A: Ten years ago, we saw the lifting of the BSE ban and the end of a difficult time for the sector. I believe we emerged from that crisis as a stronger and more robust industry. The lifting of the ban has seen the opening of export markets and positive opportunities. Equally, one of the biggest changes we have faced is globalisation. We’re no longer operating in our own backyard and as such, we face the impact of global markets trends. The sector has also had to deal with the impact of changes in the EU CAP reform over the years, with current forms of subsidy support no longer encouraging production through productivity subsidies, but moving to a fixed Single Farm Payment.

Q: How do you foresee it growing in the next decade? Where is our industry placed in the grand scheme, globally?

A: The next decade, as with the past, will continue to show price volatility. Delivering to our customer and consumer needs will be key, and this will be achieved through adopting innovation throughout the complete supply chain. The Agri-Food Strategy Board has set out the vision for the Northern Ireland agri-food industry in its Growing for Growth Strategic Plan. There are ambitious targets set, with growth in sales by 60% and export sales by 75%, but I believe the will and drive is there from industry and government to meet these targets. Key to growing export sales is two-fold — we need to ensure we are competitive to reach into those markets in the first instance and ensure every effort is made and opportunity taken to open new markets, particularly BRIC countries. 

Q: Have you any career advice for anyone trying to work within the sector?

A: The agri-food industry offers a wealth of career opportunities, but it is perhaps underestimated. It is worth almost £1bn to the UK economy, employs over 3million people and offers jobs in every discipline imaginable, from production and processing to food development. Finance, supply chain management, IT, sales…the list is endless. There are a range of entry points into the agri-food industry, from A-Level upwards. Our universities and agricultural colleges offer degrees relevant to the industry, for example, food science and technology of agri-science. 

Q: What was the last book you read, and what was it like?

A: I read a portion of the Bible every day. My favourite book is Proverbs: The Book of Wisdom. I find this helps me in my day-to-day business decisions.

Q: What was your last holiday, and what will the next one be?

A: A four-night break in Lake Como, Italy, at the beautiful Villa D’Este, meeting up with friends and acquaintances — wonderful. I’m not sure about the next one, probably my favourite place where we have been returning to for 25 years — Longboat Key on the Gulf of Mexico, Florida — when you arrive, you sigh and think to yourself, relax, chill-out time.

Q: What is your favourite band/album or piece of music, and why?

A I’m pretty middle of the road when it comes to music. I usually just listen to whatever is on the car radio, which is set to Radio Ulster for the business news.

Q: What is your favourite sport and/or team? And have you ever played any sports?

A: I’m a big fan of football, supporting Chelsea, and rugby, supporting Ulster and Ireland. Dunbia has sites in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales and an office in Paris, so the Six Nations gives us plenty of opportunity to get the banter going between workmates.  They say in my younger day I was very competitive on the football pitch.

Belfast Telegraph

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