Belfast Telegraph

'It's a good partnership... my wife and I gel well'

This Week: Maurice Surphlis and Michael Hall

ByLisa Smyth

The health and fitness industry generates billions of pounds around the world every year - and Kestrel Foods Ltd is one of the companies reaping the rewards.

Michael Hall, the founder of the Portadown-based firm, spotted a gap in the market and established the company in 1996.

Fast forward 20 years and the company, which creates premium quality dried fruit and nuts, has an annual turnover of £14m.

It is an incredible achievement for 48-year-old Mr Hall, who set up the company with his wife, Lorraine (47), two decades ago.

Prior to Kestrel Foods, Mr Hall set up a business packing for the food and drink industry.

However, the business suffered a downturn with the arrival of the big supermarket chains in Northern Ireland and Mr Hall decided to turn his attentions elsewhere.

At the time, Mrs Hall had a high-flying position working as a sales and marketing director, but she was convinced by her husband to come and work with him.

"It was challenging getting her on board," he said.

"Back then she had a great job with a good salary, pension, company car, working for Bass.

"I put it to her one day on holiday that I was going to start this new business and I wanted her to come on board.

"I told her I couldn't pay her very much but there was great potential for us to develop the business over the years.

"I think she left her job that had a budget of more than £2m for marketing and went to a position where she had £20,000 to spend.

"It was a shock to the system."

However, Mr Hall said his wife rose to the challenge and has played a vital role in the success of the business.

"She really is the marketing brains, she has been a wonderful business partner," he said.

"It was a risk, it wasn't easy by any stretch of the imagination in the early years.

"We started in 1996 and our daughter, our first child, was born in 1998 and Lorraine always reminds me that she was walking round Sainsbury's looking at samples the night before.

"She was back from maternity leave after a few weeks. It was a crucial period for us to keep momentum going with a new, fledgling business and she was playing a crucial role in it.

"Basically I could bring all the products in the world from anywhere and package them up no problem but we needed her skills in sales and marketing in order to make it work.

"It has been a good partnership, we gel well together."

Kestrel Foods Ltd started off with one van and employed four people.

Now it offers a diverse range of products under the Forest Feast and Acti-Snack brands.

Its award winning brand portfolio is made up of more than 160 unique flavour combinations and exports to 36 countries worldwide, including Russia, Hong Kong, Norway, Mongolia, Italy, Poland, Iceland and the United Arab Emirates.

Mr Hall added: "We've most recently started exporting to the USA and we believe that could be very big for us in the next year or so."

The company's products are also stocked in Tesco, Asda, Waitrose, Dunnes Stores and SuperValu, as well as a range of independent stores.

Kestrel Foods Ltd also supplies British Airways.

"If you're flying from here to London and you get nuts, they would be ours," said Mr Hall.

"We also supply quite a number of coffee shops."

Product development is also important to the success of the business.

"If you sit on your laurels you're dead," Mr Hall said.

"You have to constantly being looking at innovation, coming up with exciting flavours, new packaging and design, consistently creating something new to excite the consumer.

"Our products are essentially impulse buys, they're not like milk and bread. Our research and development department does a lot of experimenting.

"Our bestselling fruit would probably be dried mango and that's great because we get that from a Fairtrade organisation, so it is good to know that they are benefiting too.

"In terms of nuts, we are very big in almond and cashew nuts.

"To give you an idea, we pack about 1.3m packets of dried fruit and nuts every month.

"We want to increase turnover from £14m to £20m in the next three years and we have a very definite business plan in place to achieve that.

"There is no substitute to proper planning.

"We've always had a business plan on the go, we know where we're at with cash flow so nothing is going to crawl out of the woodwork and if it does we can pinpoint it right away.

"Cash flow is always going to be the biggest challenge that any small business has, but I think that if we can budget accordingly and offer something creative then you can through it."

Belfast Telegraph