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It's inspiring what you can do with a spud, says Wilsons boss as it reports profits of £450,000

 

By Michael Sheils McNamee

Wilsons Country boss Angus Wilson has said new product innovation is paying off as the company announced a near-doubling of pre-tax profits to £450,000.

When you think of potatoes, the word 'modern' may not spring to mind.

That is something that Mr Wilson, the founder of Wilsons Country - based in the Carn Industrial Estate outside Portadown, is determined to change.

In the year since his company launched its 'You Say Potato' range - which includes fresh chips, microwave-ready peeled potatoes, baby potatoes with Irish herb and garlic butter and sweet potatoes - turnover has seen a 10% year-on-year increase to around £13m.

Profits are also up, with the pre-tax figure of £448,469 at the end of July 2016 - up from £225,347 the year before.

"I have been doing this for 30 years now, and probably what I am passionate about is getting new products out onto the market and making the potato relevant to today," Mr Wilson said.

"People like choice and they like variety.

"The potato - the Irish potato - has always competed with rice and pasta and everything else. That is why it has to be marketed.

"It has to be made trendy and modern as well."

Mr Wilson first stumbled onto the idea that he might be suited to the potato industry after a brief turn selling goats milk after returning home from college to his family's dairy farm in Richhill, Co Armagh in the 1980s.

"I was looking for something that was a bit different," he said.

"A neighbour was growing potatoes without fertiliser. It was obvious that they tasted a lot better that way without fertiliser, and no one was growing potatoes that way at that time.

"In days gone by people grew specifically for yield and the spuds didn't necessarily taste the best."

Wilson carried this lesson into his business, and while it isn't practical for every potato used to be grown without fertiliser, his firm still puts a premium on ensuring that the potatoes maintain their taste.

"The taste of a potato is all about flouriness or waxiness. Some people love floury potatoes and some people like waxy potatoes - so that's what we're looking at with the flavour," he said.

Since his chance discovery 30 years ago, Mr Wilson has grown his business to work with 20 Northern Ireland potato suppliers and employ more than 70 people directly in a variety of different roles.

For the year ahead, Mr Wilson is optimistic that the good weather and bouts of rain will ensure a good crop. But it isn't always the case. "The weather dictates the size and the quality of the crop," he said.

"A good season will produce a good potato crop which will generally push the prices down. If it is too cold, or too hot or dry across Europe, that'll push prices up.

"It's all our lives. That's just the way it is for people in the food industry. If you sell ice cream you want the sun to shine.

"It really is a big part of the food industry that is related to the weather."

For Mr Wilson, an ideal season hits three targets: firstly growers should get a return on their crop, secondly prices should be at a level where his business is able to make a profit, and thirdly those prices should still be low enough that consumers feel the product offers value for money.

Another reason for giving potatoes a new lease of life, as Mr Wilson sees it, are that they "nutrient-dense".

"There are so many products that aren't as nutrient-dense as the potato - really they aren't fattening unless you add stuff to them that is fattening," he said.

Mr Wilson knows that part of the challenge is to create products that are more convenient, and to reach new customers.

"The customer base out there, the consumer is changing and they need products quicker and more convenient," he said.

"You might have someone who has only eaten British Queens or Comber potatoes their whole lives, and then you have you might have younger people who maybe don't cook very much.

"We are very fortunate that we have a product you can do so much with, you can boil them, fry them, mash them, make them into chips, wedges. You can do a huge amount with them.

"It is an incredible product and a bit of imagination is great because you have that raw material to work with.

"I think it is inspiring what you can do with a spud."

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