The managing director of top Northern Ireland food and drinks business SHS Group is stepping down. SHS Group, which has a portfolio of fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) including drinks WKD and Shloer, said Michael Howard will retire at the end of the year.
Mr Howard joined the business, which is based at Airport Road West, as group financial director early 20 years ago and became managing director in 1999.
He will stay on as a non-executive director after retiring in December.
The company said Mr Howard had helped the group evolve from a traditional family-run sales and marketing company into a multi–national with 10 operating companies and 700 staff.
When he joined, the firm had turnover of around £50m, which had since mushroomed to over £400m, with profits of nearly £20m in 2013.
Chairman Joe Sloan said: "During his tenure as managing director, Michael has driven forward significant growth and firmly positioned the company among the elite in the FMCG sector.
"He has been the architect for the current business model, leading our successful brand acquisition strategy and improving all areas of the group's business effectiveness and competitiveness."
Mr Sloan said Mr Howard had instilled an "innovation-focused culture" in all the group's divisions, helping broaden their reach into lucrative markets.
"He also developed the Belfast centre of excellence, which continues to go from strength-to-strength and underpins the group's efficiencies.
"Michael leaves the organisation in exceptional financial standing and with four well-equipped divisions that are ready for future growth and development."
The group's massive success with premium packaged spirit WKD in the early 2000s helped fund its acquisition trail.
SHS snapped up Merrydown Cider, Bottlegreen cordial British Pepper & Spice, Dublin companies Maguire and Paterson, which produces matches, and distribution firm Clayton Love, as well as ESA Market Research, a small company in St Albans.
SHS Group was founded in 1975 by Joe Sloan and the late Geoff Salters. As well as the brands it owns outright, like Bottlegreen and Farmlea, the group's sales and marketing divisions distribute brands like Jordans, Ryvita, Finish and Mars Drinks.
SHS Group is also the largest private label supplier of herbs and spices and so-called 'wet condiments,' a category which includes products like mint sauce, cranberry sauce and mustard.
It is also a major supplier of milk puddings in Great Britain.
In an interview with Business Telegraph in 2011, Mr Howard said the group was around 50:50 own brand and agency.
He also described the challenges for its herbs and spices division of keeping up-to-date with trends in consumption, such as the spike in popularity of a spice after an endorsement from a celebrity chef.
"Our worst nightmare is that Delia does something on around December 3 because the supply chain is about 12 weeks for herbs and spices," Mr Howard said.
"They have to be treated, packaged and sent out to the retailer so if Delia (Smith) decides pine nuts are the big thing on December 3 we've got a huge problem.
"Cloves you expect to be big at Christmas but it's the ones that you don't know are coming," he said.
Two years ago, Mr Howard was awarded the Institute of Director's Lunn's Award of Excellence for his contribution to the success of SHS Group's business and employees.