O'Kane Poultry Faring Well in the Recession

NORTHERN IRELAND, UK - In an interview with Belfast Telegraph, Tony O'Neill, managing director of O'Kane Poultry, says his company is keeping abreast of the downturn and in a good position to help supply the extra food that will be required by a growing global human population.
calendar icon 11 September 2009
clock icon 6 minute read

It is estimated that the world will need 50 per cent more food by the middle of the century and this should present many major opportunities for O'Kane Poultry, according to an interview with the company's managing director by Belfast Telegraph.

How do you assess current business conditions?

Mr O'Neill: "Food is a staple and people need to eat no matter what. Provided a company is able to offer a value proposition to its clients or consumers, then I believe deals can be made and sales can grow.

"The demand for poultry meat is increasing globally, so from this perspective the economic climate is working in our favour. In the UK last year, poultry meat was by far the favoured choice of consumers – accounting for around 60 per cent of total meat sales, and this trend was largely echoed across Europe.

"I believe Northern Ireland is in an excellent position to grow its already thriving food industry and take advantage of market growth, provided that government policy creates the right conditions for this to happen."

Could the Government do more to help?

Mr O'Neill: "Definitely. We look to the Executive to enter into partnership with the agri-food sector to build on Northern Ireland's reputation for high quality food produce. We also have a number of planning applications in the system – for O'Kane Poultry as well as for the Rose Energy EfW plant – so for us, a priority being given to significant business projects by the Planning Service would help greatly.

"The Executive must make some ground-breaking decisions as far as waste management in Northern Ireland is concerned. The recent decision by Belfast city councillors to vote against an EfW plant on the North Foreshore represents a lack of decisive action and a complete denial of the harsh financial penalties in store if we fail to meet EU landfill targets.

"I would call on our politicians to take decisions for the greater good rather than getting caught up in the NIMBY [not in my back yard] mind-set, otherwise we will all pay the price."

What direct challenges has the recession posed to the business?

Mr O'Neill: "The recession has forced us to cut our operating costs wherever possible, in order to increase efficiencies and remain competitive.

"Our customers are also looking for better value, so this has had a direct impact on our profit margins. However, the industry we operate in has traditionally been fiercely competitive and we must meet challenges on an ongoing basis, so on this premise I believe we are well placed to cope during a recession, and I am also confident that we will come out at the other side a stronger company.

"It is hard to predict what lies ahead but I imagine the economy will show signs of recovery next year and banks will gradually open the door to lending again. As an expanding business with significant investment plans this will be a welcome development for us."

Do you have any big projects in the pipeline?

Mr O'Neill: "We have plans to undertake a multi-million pound investment programme across our factories and poultry farms. However, this investment is very much dependent on the industry’s ability to meet existing and emerging EU legislation. Along with Moy Park and Glenfarm Holdings, we are undertaking a new venture – Rose Energy – and have submitted plans to build an Energy from Waste (EfW) plant fuelled by poultry litter and meat and bone meal (MBM).

"This project would allow the agri-food industry to comply with the EU Nitrates Directive and go a long way in enabling Northern Ireland to meet its renewable energy obligations. We are working on a project to upgrade and extend our Ballymena plant by 40%. We are also looking to expand our grower base and work with our farmers to continue to enhance our already high welfare standards. This expansion will allow us to cope with increasing demand for our products and also to develop new markets."

Is the company still growing?

Mr O'Neill: "O'Kane Poultry has been achieving steady annual sales growth of around 20 per cent over recent years. However, our challenge lies in achieving profitable growth in an era where both retailers and consumers want to cut costs.

"We also face ongoing challenges in the form of EU legislation from Brussels which affects our business directly and indirectly.

"Currently, our farmers face restrictions on the amounts of poultry litter which can be spread on land, and also on how this material is stored. The Rose Energy project offers the only viable solution to this legislation at this time, and it must be progressed quickly in order to ensure the survival of the industry here."

How is the company using technology to improve business?

Mr O'Neill: "Technology has become much more affordable in recent years and we can now apply it in areas considered impossible a few years ago. For example, we now use scanning technology to ensure top product quality and use computer-based systems to trace, weigh and label every product manufactured in order to provide the highest levels of customer confidence.

"We strongly encourage the promotion of science-based training for young people in order to meet the needs of Northern Ireland’s food industry, now and in the future."

What are the long-term prospects for the business?

Mr O'Neill: "The long-term prospects are encouraging. The agri-food sector, as a whole, is thriving in Northern Ireland, and in fact it represents one of the only growth industries in a time of global economic turmoil.

"It is estimated that the world will need 50 per cent more food by mid-century. This clearly presents major opportunities and should place food security firmly at the top of the government agenda, although, so far, scant attention has been paid to this issue."

What ambitions do you still have?

Mr O'Neill: "I'd like to build on the foundations of what is a very strong business and take it to the next level and help to secure the future of food production in Northern Ireland.

"I sincerely hope that government and industry can work together to ensure we are best placed to take advantage of growing demand for food globally and to achieve food security locally."

What is the best bit of advice you have ever been given?

Mr O'Neill: "I was advised by my boss many years ago, "Be prepared to listen, you will always learn".

"I have never forgotten this early lesson, and while it is sometimes difficult for strong-willed people like me to actively listen, I believe it has helped me enormously in the position I hold today."

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