‘We sell venison to chefs such as Heston Blumenthal’
Lisa Smyth speaks to Denis Lynn of Finnebrogue and John McMullan from the Bryson Charitable Group after their wins at the Ulster Bank Business Achievers Awards
Denis Lynn was just 15 years old when he was expelled from school. Aged 16, he moved to London to make his fortune but returned to Northern Ireland six months later. It was hardly the most auspicious of starts — yet he went on to set up artisan food producer Finnebrogue, best-known for its venison products. The Downpatrick-based company now has a multi-million pound premium sausage supply contract with Marks & Spencer and is also behind the Paul Rankin sausage line.
Holding company Lynn Country Foods has an annual turnover of £30m, with aspirations of increasing this substantially in the next three years.
It is a phenomenal achievement for 58-year-old Mr Lynn — but the success has not come easy and, in many ways, the company has developed more by accident than design.
“It started out in 1985 and it was founded as a completely different thing from what it is now,” Mr Lynn said.
“There was never really any idea what we were going to do next, to be honest.
“The company started because I became unemployed and I needed to do something and I quite like food, I’ve always been into food.
“I packed food into my car and drove around shops. It was just me on my own.
“I didn’t even have a van; of course things were very different in 1985.
“My ambition at the start was to earn more than the £32 unemployment benefit I got.”
However, after coming into some money, Mr Lynn was able to buy Finnebrogue Estate and it was at this point that he began to farm cattle.
“I never had any cunning business plan,” said Mr Lynn.
“I went over to the place and it was a total and emotional decision to buy it.
“There were pheasants and rabbits running around and it was an absolutely amazing place, that was it, but buying it has done me no harm in the last 25 years.
“In fact, it was the best thing I have ever done.”
Despite having no farming experience, Mr Lynn made a success of his decision to purchase the 600-acre property.
However, in 1996 he made the decision to diversify into deer farming.
“They are so lean and so healthy,” said Mr Lynn.
“We went out and bought about 800 deer.
“We had someone who was going to buy all the deer from us but that didn’t work out, they didn’t buy anything.
“We had the largest herd in the UK and no one to buy them, no customers, so I had to get in the van and drive around looking for people to buy them.
“I drove round England, Northern Ireland, I spent time in New York, trying to find people to buy them.
“At one stage, the bank was was coming to close us but we kept working hard and we got there eventually.”
The hard work paid off and Mr Lynn developed a solid customer base, with customers including chefs Paul Rankin and Heston Blumenthal.
The quality of the venison and other Finnebrogue products has also been crucial to the success of the company.
A stress-free experience for the animals prior to slaughter plays a large part in ensuring a high quality product, so Mr Lynn built his own abbatoir on the estate.
Finnebrogue is also the only venison producer in the world that tests the pH of the meat.
“If you have a pH of more than 5.9 it means that someone, somewhere, has stressed the animal,” Mr Lynn said.
“If that happens, we put that meat into a burger, we would never sell it as high quality meat.
“That drives a lot of decisions for those people who are looking and transporting the deer.”
Over the years, Finnebrogue has continued to diversify, producing a huge range of sausages and venison burgers for high end retailers and chefs alike.
In fact, the company went from never making pork sausages in 2007 to being the second largest sausage producer in the UK in 2015.
“We do every type of sausage you can imagine,” said Mr Lynn.
To meet demand, they have built a state-of-the art factory — a process that has taken two years — which has the ability to produce 130 million sausages every year.
Finnebrogue is always looking at ways to develop new products and has created sausages with low meat content.
But instead of replacing the meat with water and other fillers, they have used ingredients such as pulses and butternut squash.
The company also employs a team that works solely to develop new products, although Mr Lynn plays a key part in product development.
“I love food, I love developing and testing new products,” he said.
“I have recently been working with Paul Rankin and we have launched a new sausage.
“It’s not a matter of his team and my team, we very much work together, until we have got the product that we want.”