Belfast Telegraph

Devenish Nutrition: 'The demand seems to be going one way only and that's significantly up'

Devenish Nutrition chief Owen Brennan, winner of the Belfast Telegraph Cup at the Ulster Farmers' Union annual dinner, speaks to Audrey Watson

With a family menagerie of eight dogs, nine cats, 14 horses and numerous other pets, it's not surprising that animal lover Owen Brennan has forged a highly-successful career in agriculture and livestock welfare.

As chairman and chief executive of Belfast-based Devenish Nutrition he heads an agri-technology company cultivating an international reputation for the research, development and manufacture of quality feed and speciality products for the livestock and companion animal sector.

In 1997, Mr Brennan (54), who is originally from Co Carlow, led the team which acquired the then Devenish Feeds, and has since expanded the company rapidly, increasing its original turnover of £5m and 23 employees to in excess of £150m and 300 staff.

While its business headquarters and research and development centres are rooted in Northern Ireland, Devenish Nutrition now has a major global presence with six manufacturing sites across the UK, Ireland and the US, as well as offices in Dubai and India, and is currently exporting to more than 25 countries worldwide.

"Back in 1997, Devenish was relatively small and very local - more than 90% of its business was done in Northern Ireland," says Mr Brennan.

"Today, 15% of business comes from within Northern Ireland and 85% is from outside the province."

Despite a recent Danske Bank report forecasting that shrinking global commodity prices and the low euro will cause the Northern Ireland agri-sector to shrink by 0.5% in 2015, Mr Brennan remains resolutely positive.

"Agriculture is a very challenging industry," he says. "Exporting animal feed is especially challenging and costly to do and the industry is hugely competitive. That is why expansion and finding new markets has been key to the growth and success of Devenish.

"If we were to confine ourselves to Northern Ireland (which is and will remain a very important market for us), that's less than 0.2% of the worldwide market in the areas we are interested in, so it's really a case of optimising market opportunity.

"The available market in Northern Ireland - though vital - is finite.

"If you want to expand beyond a certain point, you have to look beyond Northern Ireland. And while there are risks with this strategy, it gives a broader base to work from and difficulties that arise here may not always be replicated elsewhere.

"Animal nutrition is an industry where demand appears to be going one way only and that is significantly up."

Mr Brennan's commitment to the industry stems from a strong farming and business background - graduating in 1982 from University College, Dublin, with a degree in agriculture and in 1992, an MBA from the Smurfit Business School.

"Animals have always been a huge interest for me," he says. "We've two mini Jack Russells, two springer spaniels, a cocker spaniel, an Irish red setter and two labradors - that's before you get to the cats, horses and everything else.

"It's a mini zoo at home," he says.

"My wife Alice (a professor of clinical pharmacology in Dublin) and I have three daughters and each one of us has three or four pets. Animals are something I enjoy very much."

He feels strongly that the devolution of corporation tax to the Northern Ireland Assembly and the proposed cut from 20% to 12.5% will make a real difference to firms such as Devenish and the agriculture sector in general.

"It will have a hugely positive effect," he says.

"At Devenish, we reinvest all our profitability into the growth of the business.

"If we pay less corporation tax, we have more money available for reinvestment and the more money we reinvest, the more quickly our business will grow and the more employment we can generate.

"If the proposed changes are passed, it would increase our retained profitability by £1m. Over a five-year period with normal growth, we would expect that to increase our investment in our business by £25m.

"Relatively small changes of that nature can make a huge positive difference to the growth of a business such as ours."

Mr Brennan's contribution to, and knowledge and support of the agri-food industry, is widely recognised.

He was chairman of the Livestock and Meat Commission (LMC) for more than seven years, is a member of the Food Strategy Board and in 2014 completed a third term as president of the Northern Ireland Grain Trade Association (NIGTA).

During his final year as NIGTA president he helped devise and develop the Food Fortress project with Queen's University - a testing scheme which is unique in the world and now covers 99.9% of animal feed production in Northern Ireland.

He received the 2015 Belfast Telegraph Cup at the Ulster Farmers' Union annual dinner, for his commitment to the industry.

Innovation and research is another vital part of this business success story.

"While developing new markets has been key to our success, research and development has been equally crucial," he says.

"Devenish invests more than £20m each year in research and development and I get very involved in choosing the areas that the company will focus on and making judgment on the projects that we will put further support behind.

"But my involvement is in support of the wider team and we have a very good and significant team."

One area that has really taken off in recent years is the companion animal food sector.

"It's a hugely growing part of the business and becoming a global trend," he says. "People put a lot of care into their pets' diet and welfare - and I am one of those people.

"I test all our new products on my own animals at home," he laughs.

"For a business such as ours, it's a very interesting and growing market and one of the advantages of being based in Northern Ireland is that we are a relatively small-scale supplier, which allows us to be very targeted in terms of what we are aiming for and where we go.

"Provided we are focused and get the quality right, and continue to research and develop new and innovative products, I believe that there are a lot of markets that will present long-term opportunities."

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