Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Weekend

NI’s self-made sausage millionaire on his weakness for supercars, his devotion to family life and why a cancer diagnosis gave his life a new perspective

He shared how the tragic death of his engineer father in a plane crash led to him take over the family business at the age of 27 - and why he loves spending his fortune as fast as he earns it

Kevin McWhinney outside his Lisburn home
Kevin McWhinney outside his Lisburn home
Kevin’s dad Ken with one of his planes
Kevin and Elaine in their sitting room
The pool room
Kevin shows off his cars
Kevin McWhinney with wife Elaine

By Stephanie Bell

He famously made headlines across the UK when he was fined a few years ago for parking his Ferrari in two spaces and with his love for supercars and luxury homes, Kevin McWhinney is happy to admit that he does enjoy living life in the fast lane.

Proud to have been once dubbed "King of Irish sausages" the 53-year-old self-made millionaire is at heart a devoted family man, albeit one that enjoys a lavish lifestyle.

Making money from a business that produces 100 million sausages a year has allowed him to live in a way that for many is the stuff of lottery jackpot dreams.

Kevin lives by the simple principle that no matter what he does in his life - be it in business, building a new home or buying a new car - he strives to do it the best that he can.

"I think success and wealth go hand in hand, if you are not making a profit you are not succeeding," he says. "The way I go about it is I make the best sausages I can. I work out how much they will cost and add my margin on and then sell them at that price.

"It is not about how cheaply I can make them. If people want quality they come to me, I am not interested in supplying the cheap end of the market and it is the same when I build a house, I want it to be the best."

Talking of which, his current home, which is soon to go on the market, could be described as a one-off in terms of its extravagance.

Worth £2.5m, Legacurry Mill, in Lisburn, comes with three separate bespoke properties (one for his mum, one for his son and one for him and his wife), a supercar garage, a spa, an indoor heated swimming pool, cinema, games room and cocktail bar.

He is currently building a new home by the sea in Bangor which will have most of the above although this time there will be no swimming pool.

Kevin is married to Elaine (53) and has one son, Scott (29), who is a barrister.

There is tragedy too in his past. The story of how he became the biggest manufacturer of quality sausages in Northern Ireland is tinged with sadness as it was prompted by the untimely death of his father at the age of just 54.

But his roots go back much further as he is descended from a long line of butchers. His great-great grandfather Hugh McWhinney first set up shop in Comber in 1898. McWhinney's has been in the village square ever since.

However Kevin's late dad, Ken, did not inherit the family business. It went to his cousin but, true to family tradition, he opened his own butcher's shop in the town called Ken McWhinney & Sons which soon became famous for its pork sausages.

A young Kevin was only seven when he started linking sausages in the shop and by the age of 15 he had learnt all the skills of butchery.

"Dad's shop was very famous for its pork sausages and I was a child when I worked in the shop after school," he recalls. "Dad would have had me standing on a box linking sausages when I was seven or eight and because my hands were so small they always looked like cocktail sausages.

"He would put them in the window with a sign saying 'linked by my son Kevin' and people would come in and ask for my sausages."

It was just three days before his death that Kevin's father bought an empty factory shell. A keen pilot who also built stunt planes, the late Ken McWhinney was such a gifted engineer that he lectured at Queen's University in Belfast even though he left school with no formal qualifications at the age of 14.

Indeed, the university's school of mechanic and aerospace engineering launched the Ken McWhinney Prize in his memory.

And Ken (left) died doing what he loved most - flying his planes.

He had attended a number of air shows on the weekend of his death where he performed stunts. It was while taking off to return home that he took a heart attack and crashed his plane.

And Kevin only learnt after his father's death that he had put finances in place for him at the bank to develop the factory in the event that anything was to happen to him.

"Dad built airplanes in his spare time, he was a great engineer," explains Kevin. "He was selling one of them the weekend he died. He bought the factory on the Thursday and went off on the Friday for the weekend around five different air shows.

"We never really knew what his plans were for the factory. His death was the biggest shock of my life. I was 27 and overnight I had to be the boss of a crew of men and it was a very hard transition.

"My dad was a hard but fair man. He never praised you too much and always pushed you to be better than you were and I think that is why I am where I am today.

"Dad built a plane called a Pulsar, which was a little stunt plane. He went off to the air shows and thought he was Evel Knievel doing loop-the-loops and rolls in the sky. He wasn't wearing the proper suit which you need to protect your body from the G-force.

"He was at Spanish Point in Co Clare on the Sunday and not feeling too good. He got in the plane to go home and apparently he was really white and didn't look well. He took off, had a heart attack and the plane came down.

"He had passed a full medical the week before and was fit and healthy but the manoeuvres he did at the air shows must have put pressure on his body."

Kevin's family - mum Shirley, who is now 81, sister Donna (51), who runs a horse riding school, and brothers David (58), who works in security, and Barry (54), who has a patio laying business - were left devastated.

However, there was some comfort for Kevin in his dad's final words which he admits were eerily prophetic. He recalls: "He came into the shop on the Friday before he left and said 'If I ever die in my airplane don't mourn me because you will know I died happy'.

"That really helped me through. He wanted us to celebrate him. I think I took three months off with my family and then had to get back in the saddle again and do what we do which is work and build.

"It was a bit eerie because when I did return to work and went into the bank, the manager called me in to her office.

"She told me that my father had been in on the Thursday before he died to arrange the finances for the new factory unit and had asked her to ensure that if anything was to happen to him, I would be given the money he was borrowing to develop the factory."

Still only in his mid-20s, Kevin found himself the owner of a large empty warehouse with no clue about what his father had planned to do with it.

With a 20,000 square foot building bought and the money lined up to develop it, Kevin didn't waste any time deciding to turn it into a sausage factory.

And today one production line in his factory is capable of making 36 sausages a second. The business grew on its reputation for quality and now produces 100 million sausages a year which are distributed throughout the UK, mainly to hotels and restaurants.

With that success has come great wealth and Kevin has enjoyed spending his money to ensure that he and his family enjoy a good quality of life. He and his wife Elaine (53) first met when they were just 11 years old and, for Kevin, it was love at first sight.

By pure coincidence, she too has a family history going back five generations of butcher shops in Belfast's Shankill Road.

The business was started by her great-great-grandfather, James Stewart Mercer, and Elaine was the second woman to become a qualified butcher in Northern Ireland.

Now married 33 years, Elaine was Kevin's first and only girlfriend.

Though he fell for her when he was 11, it took some years for him to pluck up the courage to ask her out.

"We met at school when we were 11 and I fancied her something powerful," he smiles. "When we were 15 my father needed someone to pack sausages that summer and I said I know a girl who could do that. I asked Elaine and she agreed. It took me six weeks to get a date and we were engaged at 17. We couldn't afford a mortgage and my father told me at 18 to buy my first house.

"I remember it cost £18,500 and we only had £500 deposit and could only borrow £9,000 and got the rest through co-ownership."

As his business took off, Kevin has enjoyed building homes for his family to his own exacting specification. Currently, he is building four luxury homes overlooking the sea in Bangor - one for himself and his wife and mum, and one for his son. The other two properties at Brompton Road in Bangor will be sold and the houses are so luxurious that even before he has put them on the market he has had interest in them both locally and from across the water in England.

One of the first homes he built for his family at 53 Chatsworth in Bangor is currently on the market.

True to form, it has a snooker room, bar, sauna, private gym and cinema room and during Kevin's time living there it played host to a "who's who" of the snooker world. Celebrity sports stars such as Jimmy White, Alain Robidoux, Mark Williams, Joe Swail and the late Paul Hunter all visited the house as Kevin is a keen snooker player with the Bangor league.

Some might feel it is all just a little ostentatious, but Kevin is unapologetic about his love of luxury. Both his homes and his cars are among the best money can buy.

And while he has a weakness for supercars - he has driven everything from a Lamborghini to a Maserati, Bentley and Aston Martin - his astute approach to buying them means they haven't cost him a penny!

"I have never asked anybody for anything in my life and I don't have masses of savings because I spend my money as fast as I earn it," he says.

"The way I look at it is if at the end of my life I haven't lived then I've wasted it. I do live life in the fast lane and I think everybody should strive to have what they can in life. Not everyone wants a swimming pool or a big home but people should strive to get their dream.

"I never try and keep up with the Joneses but I put 100% into everything I do in life.

"I love supercars and that part of my life looks a lot flashier than it is. I've had a lot of them in my life. I'm not a dealer but I buy them and drive them and enjoy them and then sell them again and I have a simple trick for anyone buying second-hand supercars.

"If you buy them in the winter and sell them in the spring or summer, you can sell them for more than you bought them for.

"In the last decade my cars have not cost me a single penny because of that and people think I have spent a fortune on them.

"I bought a Ferrari for £68,000 in January and sold it in April for £90,000. It looks very extravagant but if you are clever with it you can make your hobby work for you."

It is the same when it comes to property. Even though he settles for nothing but the best, the quality shines through when it comes to selling his luxury homes. His current home has just gone back on to the market. It sold last year but Kevin was forced to take it off the market when he took ill. A cancer diagnosis and a recent diagnosis of coeliac disease have made him put the brakes on his life which he says he has always lived at 100mph.

Even in illness his natural business mind is ticking over and he is currently developing a new gluten free sausage.

He adds: "I've had to change my whole diet and I have really missed the flavour of my sausages.

"I am currently trying to manufacture the same product but for coeliac disease. I have always worked hard in my life, usually 102 or 103-hour weeks. Then every eight weeks you need to unload your brain and I would book a holiday to get a break away from it, just to stop and reset otherwise your head would explode.

"Working 100-odd hours standing at a butcher's counter I have worn my hip out and I'm currently waiting on a new hip.

"Also everybody in the world knows someone who has had cancer and at the end of last year I was diagnosed with colon cancer.

"You've no idea how much it puts life in perspective. I do enjoy my work but I think it is time for me to slow down and give more of my time to my family.

"So I am going to try and take my foot off the pedal a bit. I am feeling better and the cancer is now thankfully under control. My wife's father had died of colon cancer and she recognised the symptoms in me.

"I am terrified of doctors and have a terrible needle phobia beyond anything you have ever seen in your life. I would cry like a baby if somebody came near me with a needle.

"My wife put me in the car and took me to a private clinic and they rushed me into hospital last November. I had surgery in January to remove the cancer and luckily I did not need chemotherapy."

And he adds: "If one thing comes out of me doing this interview I would hope it would be to give people the message that no matter how scared you are, if you don't feel well, get yourself off to the doctor.

"Life is short and you never know. My wife saved my life and I would say to people when it comes to their health 'don't be a silly sausage' - which is what my wife said to me!"

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