Belfast Telegraph

Monday 22 December 2014

The Big Interview: John McCann, Managing Director, Willowbrook Farm

Managing director of Willowbrook Farm, John McCann
Managing director of Willowbrook Farm, John McCann

How’s business?

Business is excellent. We’ve recently secured a series of orders from major retail clients such as the Co-Operative and Musgrave/SuperValu for vegetables and salads which could be worth around £3m over the next few years.

We are experiencing significant growth in Britain and the Republic on top of our position as the market leader in Northern Ireland in both retail and foodservice sectors.

Any exciting projects in the pipeline?

Yes. We have extensive plans to develop the business and to introduce a range of new products which will strengthen our position particularly in markets outside Northern Ireland.

We’ve also received enquiries from major retailers in Britain and the Republic to provide them with own brand products as well as products under our own established Willowbrook Farm brand.

Our plans will create new employment opportunities and create further wealth for the Northern Ireland economy.

What are the long term prospects for your company?

Excellent. We have developed very strong customer relationships and a reputation across the British Isles as a leader in terms of new products and responsive customer services.

Developments in the pipeline will help to consolidate this position by enhancing our standing as a supplier of quality products to retailers and foodservice organisations. There is a strong farming element to our business.

We are growers, and we take pride in sourcing fresh produce from many local farmers and will continue to do so.

What are the biggest challenges facing your organisation?

Among the short term challenges are transport charges and a shortage of skilled people. Competition, of course, is an issue and will continue to be so. We are addressing this by developing efficiency and productivity, as well as regularly offering customers new and innovative products.

Could the government help you to do business better?

I feel that the government could and should do more in order for us all to be able to do business better. There is too much red tape. In my experience the planning service are too slow in allowing enterprises to expand in this fast moving environment.

There could also be more incentive for investment in capital projects. I believe that Northern Ireland is at a disadvantage due to the cost of energy.

I think there should be more grants available and less taxes applied as well as an increase in the availability of interest free loans.

Why should someone work for you?

Because it’s an exciting place to work in which people are valued and their opinions sought and listened to.

Our commitment to innovation means we are continually working on new products and different ways to capture the imagination — and business — of existing and potential customers.

Your views on the economy, please

I feel that banks were giving too much credit for too long due to the fact that the government has let it slip. It is disappointing that the manufacture base is on the decline and there are far less factories in towns and cities. To relay on the service industry in the long term may prove difficult to sustain employment and increase wealth. Very few people fail exams which could be due to the high success rate demands set on the college and the need for the increase of numbers in students in order to keep colleges open.

The business climate – good or bad?

The climate is becoming difficult because costs are spiralling, especially diesel. We try not to pass these on to customers by focusing continually on our own production costs.

All aspects of the business are reviewed continually to help us identify ways to take costs out of the business at source.

At the moment the business climate is highly volatile and weak.

The cost of energy in Northern Ireland is higher than anywhere else in the UK. There is no case for optimism, the health service is of a low standard and credit restrictions are stifling businesses.

What ambitions do you have on a personal level?

Make more time for family and myself, to be a market leader in my field and to maintain success as a company.

What do you get up to in your spare time?

I have been passionate all my life about Strangford Lough; and luckily, our farm at Killinchy borders on the lough. I have always actively taken part in sailing I enjoy the surrounding wildlife and nature in general.

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