Belfast Telegraph

Willowbrook's one-man show has sprouted into a top firm

By Audrey Watson

Growing beansprouts is no easy task - especially in the ever-changing weather climate of Northern Ireland. However, Killinchy-based Willowbrook Foods have perfected the art of cultivating the delicate Asian crop and are now reaping the rewards of increased demand for oriental cuisine.

"We started growing bean-sprouts about 20 years ago when we noticed that consumer eating habits were changing," said John McCann (right), Willowbrook's founder and managing director.

"The vegetable has always been popular for stir-fry dishes and mixes in restaurants and retail outlets.

"It was very hard to get good quality sprouts in Northern Ireland and because they are so sensitive to temperature changes, they are very difficult to transport via chilled lorry.

"The best option was to start growing our own, so I headed for America to see how it was done and discovered a unique computer-controlled hydroponic (pure water) growing system which offers a safe, hygienic and highly efficient production facility."

The company invested in the system and last month spent a further £40,000 in heating and control equipment upgrades at its 'sprout' factory in Newtownards, which produces 10 tonnes of beansprouts per week.

Such is the growing popularity of the vegetable, Willowbrook has also appointed Ewan Zhu as a dedicated beansprout sales manager.

"Growing bean-sprouts was a very big step for us at the time," said Mr McCann (70). "But it paid off as demand for ready-prepared stir-fry mixes has continued to grow.

"Consumers, especially in Northern Ireland, are becoming much more adventurous and also much more convenience-orientated - the two go hand in hand- but convenient doesn't have to mean unhealthy and tasteless."

As well as beansprouts, Willowbrook is the largest producer of bagged salad in Ireland and its product range also includes: prepared vegetables, mash, deli salads and cooked products including pasta, rice and grains.

Last year, the company launched an offshoot - Willowbrook Fine Foods - to make freshly cooked meal accompaniments and just last month, created 55 new jobs in preparation for a new range of high-end ready meals.

The business was officially established in 1968 when Mr McCann began growing vegetables on his father's farm and selling the produce in local markets and shops.

"I really didn't want to be a farmer when I left school - I knew it was a hard way of life," he said. "I studied business at Magee College in Londonderry and then worked in industry for a few years.

"However, I could see the opportunity coming for growing vegetables and marketing them in a pre-packaged way, so started cultivating parsley, celery, leeks and carrots, fixed up a shed in the yard, and started from there."

The old Supermac store on Belfast's Saintfield Road was the first large retailer to stock Willowbrook products.

A few years later, when Wellworths (the indigenous chain which was bought over by Tesco) opened stores around the province, it proved much harder to get products on to the shelves, but Mr McCann came up with a shrewd and clever business proposal.

"In those days, refrigeration counters and cabinets for vegetables were pretty much unheard of, so I offered to buy the units myself and give them to the stores in return for them stocking Willowbrook produce," he said.

"They said 'yes' and then from 1978 we supplied products to six Wellworths stores for almost 10 years."

From a one-man operation back in the 1970s, Willowbrook Foods now employs almost 300 staff, produces approximately 400 products and has an annual turnover of £23m. These days, the Willowbrook label can be found throughout the UK and Ireland in supermarket chains, Lidl, Aldi and Tesco, as well as SuperValu, Spar and Centra outlets and also restaurants and hotels.

Willowbrook Foods' Killinchy factory expanded to include a 'Mash Plant' in 2004 and a third factory in 2009 in Newtownards.

In 2008, the company redeveloped its Killinchy site and in 2011 a 60,000sq ft food production factory opened.

Alongside the new factory, the Willowbrook Food Innovation Centre opened in 2011, to develop new products and solutions.

However, even further expansion into the UK market is vital for the future growth of the company, Mr McCann said.

"In theory and in practice, it's hard to export fresh foods to the rest of the UK. There are much higher distribution costs, but we have to expand into England, Scotland and Wales because the population is there, therefore the market is much larger.

"To keep the company at the top of its game and pave the way for further development, we have to exploit any larger markets there are.

"Also, when supplying across the water, because we are so remote, we have to be that bit better at customer service and efficiency."

Now in his eighth decade, Mr McCann is finding it hard to slow down.

"I am starting to delegate a little bit more," he said. "And I have a great team at the top, including my son Steven, who now works in the business.

"They all share my ideas and my desire to keep the company growing. We can't stand still. We have to keep developing new products and driving forward."

Belfast Telegraph