Belfast Telegraph

Mash Direct's Jack Hamilton: ‘We started making champ to make a profit from vegetables’

This week, John Mulgrew speaks to Mash Direct marketing man Jack Hamilton about adding value to the family farm’s parsnips and carrots, his former career in reporting and the potential impact of Brexit

More than a decade after producing small packs of champ for corner shops, Mash Direct now sells one of its pre-packaged products every second.

And while a stint working as a reporter in Nigeria for Sky News may not be the most natural start for a director of the Co Down mashed potato business, it gave Jack Hamilton a good foundation to return to the family business.

The 29-year-old is the marketing man in Mash Direct — a company which now turns over around £15m.

He’s now in change of all the Mash Direct marketing and works alongside mum Tracy, dad Martin and brother Lance at their farm and facility in Comber.

Mash Direct now sells into markets such as the Middle East, with plans to expand and sell into the US currently under way.

It was formed in 2003, when the Hamiltons were faced with an increasingly tough industry and declining profits.

“It was borne out of necessity. We were looking at what was happening in the food industry and as a farm doing produce — potatoes, carrots, cabbage, parsnips, beetroot — we were declining in profits and had to look at what we did next otherwise we were going to run in to issues,” Jack said.

“My dad went out to the market place and said, there is something which isn’t in the marketplace, and that’s champ.”

The firm started making ready-made fresh champ, using Jack’s grandmother’s recipe and began selling it into two small shops.

But demand flourished and they couldn’t keep up.

“We never envisaged Mash Direct becoming what it would be today. We weren’t thinking about the global picture,” Jack said.

“The sales absolutely took off and the stores in Killyleagh and Killinchy were saying, ‘this is flying off the shelves, how can we get more?’”

And when the products soon began popping up in small stores across Northern Ireland, the big supermarkets took notice in 2004. Mash Direct is now sold across each of the big supermarkets here, including Tesco and Asda.

The company then expanded into the Republic a year later.

Now, Jack says a Mash Direct product is sold each second across the UK, Ireland and beyond.

“We are still a relatively new company, not quite a start-up, but not far away from it,” he said.

Jack was named Young Businessperson of the Year, sponsored by Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council, at this year’s Belfast Telegraph Business Awards in partnership with Ulster Bank.

In the last 10 years, Mash Direct has transformed a small range, including mashed potato and carrot and parsnip, into a varied selection of food products which are now being exported to places like the Middle East and elsewhere in Europe. “We now have a range of 40 products to make sure that we have something that is not just mashed potato,” said Jack.

Mash Direct now has full listings across Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Waitrose, and is in hundreds of stores across England and Wales. But it’s not just the multiples, with products also on sale at the lavish Fortnum & Mason grocers in London.

Jack says demand for products in the Middle East came as a surprise to them, after being approached at a trade show in Paris.

“We can get to the shelves faster in Dubai, than we can in London because of the state of the roads in England,” he said.

Around 80% of sales are in grocery retail, but Mash Direct also supplies into the catering sector. It also sells mash into JD Wetherspoon pubs across the UK.

“We are now selling over one per second. That’s the volume we are moving at now,” he said.

“We are still at the early stages of growing the company.”

The company is now heading towards turnover of £17m and its last set of accounts had turnover of £15m.

In the year ending February 2016, the company also posted pre-tax profits of more than £1m and now employs 180 staff.

The former Down High School pupil first helped out with Mash Direct during his teenage years — from digging the first spuds that would become champ to early marketing.

“My dad told me, ‘you have to go out and do your own thing, and then come back and make a decision’,” Jack said.

The history graduate, who studied at Trinity College in Dublin, went on to do a Masters in international relations and diplomacy, at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

“That took me a completely different direction towards journalism. I ended up working with Sky News for a little bit. I was a foreign correspondent for a little bit in Nigeria.

“I worked a bit in Burkina Faso and Mali, before ending up in Washington DC.

“That was a bit different to Comber. I really enjoyed it, especially Nigeria.”

During that time he also spoke as an expert on the hostage crisis in Nigeria in 2012.

He then moved back home and took up the reins of the marketing end of the family business.

That included revamping the company’s social media, across Facebook and Twitter.

“We are able to see serious return on investment through our social media campaigns,” he said.

“That’s not just in Northern Ireland, but in the Middle East. Realistically, we can’t get out there, but we are able to put the messages to the people and that triggers people to go to the stores.”

Mash Direct is now very much into the second generation, with Jack’s brother Lance (31) sales director for the business.

“They (mum and dad) haven’t tried to take more of a back seat, but we are determined to get them to take more of a back seat,” said Jack.

“My dad is managing director and still oversees the business. He doesn’t have to look at sales and marketing as much any more, with Lance and I being involved.

“My mum has been able to step out of the marketing department... with such a good young team involved there.”

Jack’s set to marry his fiancee, Claire — who hails from New York — in July. And when not selling spuds, he’s a keen reader — particularly history — and also plays blues on the double bass.

On Brexit, he said the UK exit from the EU “will not change anything fundamental” about the business.

“We sat down as a board, we have a board meeting every month. We said, there are only two outcomes here... we believed, like everyone else, it was more likely one outcome than the other, and were surprised by the result,” said Jack.

“But at the same time, we were planning for it then. What’s happened since then? I don’t know, it’s not going to change anything fundamental with our business.”

Mash Direct is still growing its market in Northern Ireland, elsewhere in the UK and the Republic. And it’s now trying to start selling into New York.

And Jack’s marketing skills helped him pick up a gong at this year’s Belfast Telegraph Business Awards, which took place at the Crowne Plaza hotel at Shaw’s Bridge in Belfast, last month.

“There is a huge team working behind us, not just the marketing team. I’ve no idea how we beat the other competitors. There are some really great people that I was up against,” Jack said.

“Northern Ireland has such a great business culture at the moment.”

  • Next week, the Big Interview speaks to Lawrence Kenwright of Signature Living.

 

Rejoining the family firm was a fantastic decision’

 

Q: What’s the best piece of business (or life) advice you’ve ever been given?

A: “There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure.”

 

Q: What piece of advice would you pass on to someone who is starting out in business?

A: Great companies are built on great products.

 

Q: What was your best  business decision?

A: Rejoining Mash Direct after working in Nigeria and Washington DC.

 

Q: If you weren’t doing this job, what would your career be?

A: I work with two foundations focused on agricultural development for youth employment in Sub-Saharan Africa. I would be dedicating much more time to these projects.

 

Q: What was your last holiday? Where are you going next?

A: My last holiday was my stag party (no further comment!) and the next will be going on safari for our honeymoon.

 

Q: What are your hobbies/interests?

A: I enjoy running around the fields listening to podcasts as well as playing some blues on the double bass when I get the opportunity. 

 

Q: What is your favourite sport and team?

A: I get up to the Kingspan and Windsor as much as I can, and am a big Liverpool fan.

 

Q: And have you ever played any sports?

A: I played on the wing for Down High School a long time ago until some guy called Tommy Seymour took the position.

 

Q: If you enjoy reading, can you recommend a book?

A: A few that I have enjoyed recently are: The Third Plate by Dan Barber, and Shadow Of The Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski.

 

Q: How would you describe your early life?

A: Muddy.

 

Q: Have you any economic predictions?

A: With no leadership on the Hill, an upcoming Westminster election, the Trump administration and a recent history of inaccurate polling forecasts, predictions are a dangerous game. However, the huge success of the Northern Ireland Year of Food and Drink in 2016 showed the drive and passion of local producers will mean that they will continue to thrive despite political headwinds.

 

Q: How would you assess your time in business with Mash Direct?

A: We are always growing, if you will excuse the pun, so it’s a constant learning experience.

 

Q: How do you sum up working in the sector?

A: The food industry is the most rewarding career path out there. Not only do we get to see our produce grow in the fields, we then get to do the silly things like taking drone videos or working at music festivals to get out there and sell it.

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