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Family firm Linwoods' healthy option captures global market

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The scale of the Linwoods company's base in Co Armagh

The scale of the Linwoods company's base in Co Armagh

Linwoods managing director John Woods with Joyce Saranathan, director of Lipari Foods, USA (centre), and Joanne Hayden, Linwoods sales and marketing managertwo

Linwoods managing director John Woods with Joyce Saranathan, director of Lipari Foods, USA (centre), and Joanne Hayden, Linwoods sales and marketing managertwo

John Woods of Linwoods

John Woods of Linwoods

LiamMcArdle.com

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The scale of the Linwoods company's base in Co Armagh

Diversifying a successful company into a relatively unknown area is not something for the faint-hearted, but in 2002, John Woods did just that and steered family-run business Linwoods into the brave new world of superfoods.

It was an inspired move and today, the Co Armagh-based firm exports award-winning seed, nut and berry products across the globe.

Although entering the health food market was good for business, John Woods (73) reveals that there was also a personal motive.

"In 1996, I had a health set-back and needed a heart bypass operation," he said.

"I changed from a 100-hour-working-week man, who survived on fizzy drinks and chocolate to 40 hours and a healthy-eating regime.

"I became fascinated by the benefits of certain foods and had always remembered as a child during the 1940s and '50s, that commercial animal feed wasn't widely available and people had to grow and mix their own, adding in the odd bag of milled flaxseed.

"My mother and I noticed that the calves on our farm really thrived on the flaxseed.

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"Then in the late 1990s, I discovered a Canadian company who were trying to break into the European market selling milled flaxseed as a health food. I got some samples, which I then gave to health food stores and independent retailers to try out.

"The feedback was good and the milled version was found to be more convenient to use and easier to eat than the 'whole' version they were stocking." But back in 2002 the benefits of superfoods were little-known, but Mr Woods was determined to introduce Linwoods unique products to the Northern Ireland market.

"Education was the key," he says. "At that time people were just starting to become aware of the goodness contained within seeds, nuts and berries, and health food stores were beginning to emerge across the province.

"Initially, I began selling the Canadian milled flaxseed exclusively to independents and as more and more people became aware that our products provided a quick and natural way to add a wide range of essential fatty acids, vitamins and minerals to your diet, demand increased and we expanded into grocery stores and supermarkets."

Linwoods now exports its seeds to Spain, Holland, Italy, Portugal, Finland, France, Sweden, Norway and Germany.

The company has also cracked the notoriously tough American market and products are also on sale in the Middle East.

"The US market is actually more sophisticated when it comes to health foods," says Mr Woods. "We are able to provide a unique category of high-quality products that complement and are a natural fit with what's already available."

As well as milled flaxseed - the organic version is the company's best-seller - Linwoods also produces a range of healthy superfood combinations including goji berries, sunflower, sesame and chia seeds, hemp, nuts, bio-cultures, vitamin D and co-enzyme Q-10.

The company is also renowned for its high quality dairy and bakery products and the small shop on Armagh's Monaghan Road where it all started is still open today.

"Myself and two of my brothers registered Linwoods as a trademark in 1965," Mr Woods said. "But the business was actually started by my father, also called John, back in the 1930s.

"He began by collecting eggs from nearby farms and after the war, as well as running a farm himself, he opened a small grocery, animal feed and hardware store on the Monagahan Road, outside Armagh.

"Sadly, dad died in 1952, at only 43 years old, leaving my mother, Teresa, and 10 children.

"In 1965, myself and two of my brothers had become involved in the farm and shop and along with our mother, we registered and established Linwoods as a company.

"By that time we had seven employees and had started delivering animal feed to nearby farmers."

Linwoods progressed to cross-border and European transport and delivery in the 1970s, before starting a bread wholesale operation which delivered on a Monday (previously unheard of in 1980s Northern Ireland). Milk and dairy products were subsequently added to the business and in 2002, the company launched into superfoods.

If proof were ever needed of the benefits of Linwoods products, one need only look to Mr Woods himself.

While many would be enjoying retirement, he is planning to fit in a week's skiing with his daughter Ellen before heading to Dubai to meet potential new customers.

"I really can't envisage myself getting excited about playing golf," he says, when asked if he will ever take a back seat in the business. "Work is my excitement and I plan to keep doing it as long as I can." John Woods is the only brother still directly involved - however, his own children have inherited his passion - eldest son Patrick (28) works in the operations side of the company and younger son Joe (26) is currently in the US selling on a selling mission. Ellen (24) has also worked in the business. Currently, John Woods is the majority shareholder. His wife Winnie also owns shares and in 2002, the company gave a 20% shareholding to employees to thank and reward them for all their hard work over the years

From a handful of staff back in the 1960s, Linwoods now provides employment for almost 300 people.

Last year, the company invested £250,000 in new production lines and underwent a successful re-branding exercise.

"It's important to keep looking forward," Mr Woods said. "Being successful is a journey, it's not a destination.

"Our mission statement is to do our best for our customers and the best for our staff. And you can't do that by standing still. There always has to be continuous improvement."


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