Glens of Antrim Potatoes may be operating in its most testing climate yet but business is on the up, Mary McKillop tells Emma Deighan
Glens of Antrim Potatoes is marking its 50th anniversary this year and while the backdrop to those celebrations may be its most challenging yet, director Mary McKillop says its future is full of potential.
Glens of Antrim Potatoes was set up in 1972 by Charlie and Kathleen McKillop on a family farm in Cushendall.
Today it is run by Mary, the founders’ daughter-in-law, with her husband Charlie, and his brother Michael alongside “a very strong management team”.
The evolution of the business would’ve been unimaginable back in 1970s Northern Ireland, when it provided the humble spud to retailers, Mary says.
“It’s a massive achievement for a business to go through all the hurdles we did and still be standing and still growing.
“We are very proud of that growth, and proud that we are a family-run business in the third generation.”
Mary joined Glens of Antrim Potatoes 21 years ago.
She says her decision not to go to university — to the dismay of her parents — is one she will never regret.
“I’m very happy with the way things have turned out,” she says.
“When I joined this business, there were 18 staff, now we have 85.
"Sometimes I ask how that happened.”
Mary embarked on a host of job-specific training programmes, “Finding my way around the business and covering when managers went on maternity leave and learning new roles”.
“It was the best education, working in all departments and that’s what we continue to do here — train people up and provide many different opportunities.
"We do like to see our team doing well and offering those chances you wouldn’t ordinarily get another business.”
Today Glens of Antrim — both the potato and crisp business — is mostly based on the family farm in Cushendall.
Another facility opened in Ballymena recently to accommodate storage.
“Our facilities have changed so much with changes in legislation and hygiene and the production world has moved on 10-fold, if not more.”
It was the 1980s when the firm began its ascent. It was already supplying its potato varieties to the original Northern Irish supermarkets, which Mary says paved the way for listings in the UK multiples when they came to the market in the 1990s.
“We continued to concentrate on our potato business and then, in 2017, we noticed a gap in the market for more premium, locally produced crisps,” she says.
“We invested £900,000 into facilitating that, but only after carrying out a lot of market research and understanding market trends here and in other countries.”
And so, Glens of Antrim Crisps became the snack arm of the business.
The brand plays on the company’s heritage, with the family farm’s landscape strewn across the packaging. “That packaging is our vista at the farm and it’s a great selling point for us,” Mary adds.
She says that wholesome image paired with Ireland’s reputation for the “staple and humble potato” served it well when navigating export markets.
Today, Glens of Antrim crisps are exported to the Republic, Dubai, Singapore, Malaysia and South Korea, with America coming onboard more recently.
Locally the brand can be found in independent grocery retailers including Spars, Eurospars, cafes and bars.
One of the firm’s biggest coups has been its recent deal with Tesco here, which sees its crisp range listed in 35 Northern Ireland Tesco stores, marking the first time the Glens of Antrim crisp brand has made it onto the shelves in a large multiple here.
“That’s been a great for us, to get our own branded product in there and Tesco is the first supermarket to take it.”
As to whether Brexit and subsequent challenges in getting regular brands from Great Britain to shelves in Tesco here played a part in the deal, Mary says: “I don’t know. They didn’t say Brexit had any part to play but we have been trying to get in there for quite some time. We wore them down,” she laughs.
The company’s separate Shindigs product, which was launched in 2019, is a share box of crisps which secured listings in Sainsbury’s stores.
This product is one of many innovations the company has had up its sleeve since entering the crisps sector.
“We’re about to invest a further £500,000 in an additional fryer and extra bagging machines,” Mary says.
And she says shifts on the crisp side of the business have doubled, such is the demand for the products.
“With crisps there is so much more potential, and we have more room for expansion.
"A potato is a potato, and we are very good at storing it and looking after it and getting it out the door and we will continue to do that but there is so much more room for development in the crisp sector.”
Indeed, recent research would indicate that the appetite for crisps in the UK is high.
In 2020, the crisp and snack market in the UK grew to £4.47bn, with £173m more spent on snacks compared to 2019.
Figures from Mintel’s UK Crisps, Savoury Snacks and Nuts Market Report 2021, also showed that brands who bring out more flavours and varieties are the most appealing on the shelf.
But it’s not all going to be plain sailing for the firm, as it deals with a host of issues that have put pressure on the food manufacturing sector.
Mary says that in her two decades working at the business, the past three years have proven to have been the company’s most challenging. Brexit, Covid-19 and inflation have meddled with everyday operations, while recruitment in an increasingly hybrid working world also poses challenges.
“There have been things in the past including recessions but this, what’s going on now, is one problem after another.
“We had Brexit, we got used to what that would mean then the pandemic came along and now there has been massive inflation.
“We could never have foreseen the logistical issues caused by Brexit and that would be our most pressing issue right now.
“We have had delays on packaging and what would have been a six-week lead time before Brexit has now become a six-month lead in time.
"It’s crazy and it means we must order a lot more stock and keep it in storage to allow for future delays.”
However, these changes and challenges are all in a day’s work for Mary, who adds: “People see potato production as being something quite easy, but it’s not. There is a huge amount of work that goes into producing potatoes including the the process that we go through, but I love this industry. It’s fast-paced and is always changing.
“And this business has a heritage, it’s trusted, and we’ve done potatoes all our life, it gives people a confidence and the expectation that whatever we launch will be quality.
“Yes, inevitably there will be challenges with costs. It’s all we hear about, but we will always explore ways to produce more efficiently and put out the same quality we’re known for. Inevitably prices could go up, but that will be across all sectors.”
Development: Mary McKillop with some of the products made at the factory
Success: Glens of Antrim Potatoes director Mary McKillop pictured at their factory in Cushendall
‘But I love this industry … it’s always changing