Jim Gaffney, managing director of Randall Parker Food Group with responsibility for its lamb division, will probably not forget 12 December 2007 for the rest of his life. It was the night he saw a career in the meat industry almost go up in smoke.
Gaffney had spent the day indulging one of his favourite pastimes, shooting, and on his return home took a phone call that he just did not believe at first. The voice on the end of the phone said "The plant's on fire." As is usually the case with dreadfully bad news, it took a short while for the shock and the gravity of the situation to sink in.
He arrived at Randall Parker's plant in Andover to find it well alight. "It was like a scene from TV programme Casualty," he says. "There were 20 fire engines on the nine-acre site fighting the blaze. Eventually 35% of the plant was destroyed. I cannot describe the mixed emotions of seeing my life go up in smoke," he says of the plant where he had worked for 30 years. Ironically, he had given up smoking 12 months before. "One of the lads got me some cigars and I sat in the car having a smoke. The tears were streaming down my face. After the third cigar, I knew I had to do something. I wiped the tears away and got things moving."
First up was a call to customers to say that there would be no deliveries. "Everyone was so supportive. I had several texts come through on my phone, some of them from competitors, saying how sorry they were and offering help. Bad news travels fast in the meat industry."
Next came a management team meeting to organise production in what remained of the plant. Luckily the fire had not spread to the main production area, but everything else was out of action. "We soon had a lane full of lorries delivering generators, portable loos, even a burger bar as a makeshift canteen. Everyone pulled together to get things operational."
Within a matter of hours the plant was up and running, packing lamb, and it was at full production again just two days later. Gaffney says the night of the fire was one of the scariest of his life, but also one of the most humbling. "I learnt two things from that fire - that we're in a strong, united, supportive industry, and that any manager is really only as good as the people he has around him."
Even though the plant is running very efficiently again, plans to rebuild it are at an advanced stage, with the aim of making throughput more streamlined, improving efficiency and increasing capacity.
A life in meat
Gaffney's remit includes the Andover packing plant, formerly known as H M Bennett, and an abattoir in Powys, Wales, formerly Hamer International, but a career in meat was not on the cards when he left school at 15. "I hated school," he said. "My dad would only let me leave if I got an apprenticeship, so I got a job as a painter and decorator."
He was made redundant four years later, but was out of work for just 10 days. He got a job with Bennett's, packing hot beef offals on the night shift. "I nearly spewed up every night and thought 'What the hell am I doing here?' After 18 months I'd had enough and was going to leave, because I was fed up working nights with no girls, no beer, just beef melts.
"Unbeknown to me, my manager went to see my parents and told them he thought I had potential. So a deal was done. If I stayed on the night shift for another six months as supervisor, Bennett's guaranteed to take me off nights and teach me the industry."
Gaffney is unlikely to have the wool pulled over his eyes about how jobs at a lamb plant should be done, because he has done most of them. At that time, Andover was a three-species plant, employing 25 people, and learning the industry meant Gaffney had to work in the boning hall, the slaughter hall and get his HGV licence to become a delivery driver. The next step was joining the junior management team and working in sales, accounts and stock control. In 1988, he became personnel director of H M Bennett as a step towards becoming general manager.
Both the Andover plant and the industry in general have changed out of all recognition since the nights when he was packing beef melts. Today, as part of the Randall Parker Food Group operation, it employs 260 staff, solely packing lamb for retail.
Operating in conjunction with the Powys plant, for which he also has responsibility, the business kills 1.1 million sheep a year and has a £120m turnover. At Andover, 60% of the packing is for the retail market and 40% for export and the wholesale trade. At Powys, 40% of the lamb processed goes to Andover, 25% is contract-killed and the remainder goes for export or wholesale as carcases.
Given the weakness of sterling and the fact that Randall Parker Food Group is a recent recipient of Food from Britain's Exporter of the Year Award, it is hardly surprising that Gaffney says overseas trade is where potential growth lies.
Every recession has a silver lining and, for Gaffney, the weakness of sterling means that he has done 30% more business abroad in the last year. "The world has got a lot smaller in terms of trading. In my wildest dreams I never thought I'd be selling meat to Singapore when I started."
The company has agents in Germany, Portugal and Italy and still caters to a big market in France despite its falling lamb consumption. "The growth is exports and we have to teach the French to take more cuts rather then carcase meat," he says.
In many respects, the lamb industry faces the same challenges as the beef industry, with consumers switching from premium to value cuts. Demand has switched everywhere from legs to shoulders and breast meat. "Sales of shoulders have gone through the roof," says Gaffney.
He sees product development of shoulder and breast meat as the way forward for at least the next 12 months. Recent developments have included a shoulder oyster cut, rather than the traditional square cut, with the blade bone removed to produce an easy carving product. A mini-joint comprising half the shoulder and the neck fillet rolled together has been introduced as a mid-week meal option. And breast bones have been lifted out of the cut to create a more consumer-friendly product.
Despite the recession, or perhaps because of it, Gaffney thinks the current economic situation makes for a really interesting, exciting, but challenging time for the lamb sector. "Everything goes in cycles. When you go into a recession and when you are in it, you get the gain; people eat more at home and they become more selective about food. When you rise out of a recession, their focus goes off home food and back to buying cars and houses - and eating out more. That's when you feel the pain."
Unfazed by challenges
Thirty years of trading meat mean Gaffney has seen and done it all, so he is not afraid of the changes that challenging economic circumstances sometimes force on companies.
A different person has guided his career in each of the three decades he has been in the trade he says. First it was the founder of Bennett's, Howard Bennett, then cattle dealer Franz Buttelar. Latterly it has been the joint founders of Randall Parker Food Group, Ron Randall and Bill Parker. "They've given me the management tools to do the job," he says.
The recession has not only impacted on the type of cuts in demand, but also on prices. Lamb livestock prices are at unprecedented levels, says Gaffney. Hoggets have doubled in price to £4.35-£4.40 since last summer. Lamb shoulders have risen by £1 to £4.70. At least high prices have kept British farmers relatively quiet, even though Gaffney also buys in New Zealand lambs.
Almost all the company's British lamb is sourced direct from farms via a network of a dozen collection centres, supplied by nearly 500 farmers, set up after the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak.
"Eat what is in season" is Gaffney's motto and now is the right time to be buying the product. "As we go through spring into summer, we have a responsibility to support British," he says.