Kestrel Foods Ltd. specialises in the production of premium dried fruit, nuts and seeds for snacking. Kestrel Foods is best known for the Forest Feast brand which offers an innovative range of great tasting premium snacks to satisfy consumer demand from the ‘Healthy’ to the ‘Healthy Indulgent’ snacking occasion.
Lorraine Hall is co-owner and Sales and Marketing Director of Kestrel Foods Ltd with husband Michael. Lorraine has a Masters’ degree from the University of Edinburgh, is a Fellow of Chartered Institute of Marketing and a former member of the Economic Advisory Group. After graduating, Lorraine joined the Northern Ireland drinks trade as PR and Sponsorship Executive for wines and spirits company Dillon Bass and progressed to Promotions Manager for Brewery Bass Ireland before joining forces with husband Michael to establish Kestrel Foods and create the Forest Feast and Acti-Snack brands.
Michael Hall, Managing Director is a graduate in Business and Finance from Cheltenham and Gloucester College and NISBI (Northern Ireland Small Business Institute) after which he founded Kestrel Contract Packers in 1991. Kestrel Contract Packers provided off-line contract packing solutions to blue-chip companies and local distributors on the island of Ireland which included the packing of dried food products. The entrance of UK multiples into the Irish market place reduced the requirement for local contract packing and Michael identified the opportunity to commit entirely to food manufacture with new company, Kestrel Foods Ltd. founded in 1996.
Kestrel Foods Ltd. was established in October 1996 in a rented factory in Carn Food Park with a small food grade packing facility. In 2005, a dedicated 17,000 sq ft food processing plant, also located in Carn Food Park, was purchased to facilitate further growth and today the state-of-the-art factory and offices have been extended to 35,000 sq ft with an additional 25,000 sq ft of rented warehouse accommodation. Investment in extension, improvement and automation has been on-going for the last 9 years and a dedicated technical department oversees the running of the factory to Grade A BRC (British Retail Consortium) standard to ensure the highest level of food production processes are maintained.
In 9 years, since the purchase of the new factory, Kestrel Foods has grown in excess of 200% adding £2.4M of turnover in fiscal 2014 alone, with continued growth of 15% projected to end fiscal 2016. Kestrel Foods is demonstrating growth across all key markets with less than 10% of company turnover generated in Northern Ireland and over 55% of turnover in the Irish and other export markets. Forest Feast generated in excess of 30% growth in other export markets in 2014 and export success is key to the brands’ development strategy going forward with commitment to international exhibitions in China and Europe in the coming months.Kestrel Foods is committed to business improvement, staff training and recruitment to ensure expertise in key areas of focus. Ten new positions have been created in fiscal 2015, as a result of new in-house processing capability, at both operative and management level, bringing permanent staffing levels to 72 with a further increase to 82 during the key seasonal selling period. Increased employee numbers combined with more than 90% of total sales generated outside of Northern Ireland ensures that Kestrel Foods, as an SME, is an important contributor to the Northern Ireland economy. Forest Feast has a diverse range of geographic markets and customers and is sold strategically to ensure there is no over reliance on any one customer or marketplace. The brand is represented across the UK and Ireland grocery sector from multiple supermarkets to symbol group and independent accounts. In recent years, growth has been generated in less traditional sectors including online selling, food service, travel and travel retail sectors. The generation of new business through new customers in far reaching markets and diverse distribution channels is key to the company’s growth strategy. Forest Feast offers an extensive range of great tasting premium snacks and is a leading snack brand in premium health and healthy indulgence in the UK and Ireland markets. The company has a high/low marketing strategy successfully marketing Forest Feast in concepts ranging from up-scale Premium Exotic fruit and Savoury Nut doypacks to’ £1 Pick Me Up’ and Real Value Daily Line ranges. Continued product development and emphasis on sourcing high quality, differentiated products combined with excellence in product presentation, are key USPs of Forest Feast as are flexibility and speed to market, relative to larger competitors. New product innovation, Acti-Snack, offers a healthy, convenient, nutritionally balanced snack using quality natural ingredients with a focus on taste, nutrient and vitamin added value rather than ‘diet’ or ‘light’ options. The five Acti-Snack products, Sweet & Sour Mango, Fruit, Nut & Seed, Fruit & Nut, Fruit, Nut & Soya and Nut Mix are all free from artificial additives and preservatives and the entire range is gluten free. The Acti-Snack range maximises the intrinsic values of each ingredient to help consumers meet nutritional objectives – carbohydrates for fuel, protein for recovery and a balance of proteins, healthy fats and carbohydrates for endurance. Acti-Snack was developed to target the health, leisure and pharmacy sectors in both the domestic and export marketplace.
– ENTREPRENEURIAL INSIGHTS –
What vision/lightbulb moment prompted you to start-up in business?
Michael: My family has been involved in food business ventures for over 100 years and as young lads my brother and I spent many hours working within our father’s business in Belfast during the school holidays. The imported foods from exotic places, the hustle and bustle on the factory floor and foreign suppliers who we regularly hosted at home, served to create a real interest in commerce in my teens. I knew that creating a business of my own was what I really wanted. By the age of 23, I had taken the first step as I set up my initial venture in Craigavon.
Lorraine: Having spent summers working in family business from a young age, I was never short of confidence and believed I had the ability to succeed in business. The moment of realisation, having generated the Forest Feast concept, was one of having to leave behind a great job in the drinks trade and commit full time to building our own business. The vision was there but the full time commitment without the security of another income was the moment of realisation that we had to make this business succeed.
How did you secure your first investment?
Michael: In 1991 with some savings and an overdraft facility, I approached our Local Enterprise Development Unit (now Invest NI) where I received a small grant. I also secured a loan from the Youth Enterprise Scheme. This enabled me to build my first entrepreneurial venture in Contract Packing to a level where I was able to use the net assets as new introduced capital to part finance the new food company venture we started in 1996. We then were able to negotiate new banking terms and grant assistance from Invest NI.
Lorraine: I went to the bank and took out a personal loan which was required as additional investment in our new business venture.
What was your “back-to-the-wall” moment and how did you overcome it?
Lorraine & Michael: Cash flow issues in our early days. The bank struggled with our youth, relative inexperience and immature balance sheet when we were still in our 20s. They were on the phone every day and we couldn’t get on with running our business. We overcame it by changing to Bank of Ireland who had a stockline product that was perfect for our seasonal business requirements. They gave us the breathing space to grow our business and we’re still with them today.
What moment/deal would you cite as the “game changer” or turning point for the company?
Michael & Lorraine: The game changer came 16 years ago with the listing of our Forest Feast Premium Exotic Dried Mango in UK multiple Waitrose, which is still listed today along with a range of Forest Feast Premium and Mini fruit doypacks. Waitrose punches above its weight in dried fruit snacking and has proven to be a ‘shop window account’ for Forest Feast.
Were there any interesting or unusual circumstances surrounding the inception of the company or its evolution?
Michael: Understanding and overcoming all the technical aspects and commodity price fluctuations for such a wide range of globally imported agricultural products within dried fruit and nuts was challenging at times as we rapidly increased our product portfolio. We needed to become rapidly familiar with import regulations and documentation, currency hedging, and forward and spot pricing of commodities. Add in the unpredictability of the weather effects on global crops and government crop purchase for political gain, we quickly had to think strategically to protect the business against price inflation.
What are the biggest challenges you face now?
Lorraine: From a marketing perspective being an innovator with a first to market mentality has created a lot of competitor interest and, in recent years, much bigger organisations have adopted remarkably similar product concepts creating a real challenge for us in the UK multiples. Our response has been to reduce our reliance on the UK multiples and develop less traditional routes to market. The change in focus has reduced our risk and reliance on a few big accounts that are not brand loyal and ultimately has created a growth opportunity.
Michael: New wealth creation in developing countries has resulted in increased global consumption of dried fruit, nuts and related wholefoods. Commodity price inflation increasingly has to be off-set through innovative snack mixes to keep prices at an affordable level.
What is your biggest business achievement to date?
Michael: The introduction of our newly built nut roasting plant housed in a purpose-built factory extension following an investment of GBP£1.5m at our premises in Craigavon, Co. Armagh.
Lorraine: As a marketer, my biggest achievement to date is the creation of two brands which are selling successfully on a global basis. Forest Feast is established, traditional and more mature in product life cycle and Acti-Snack is opening doors in the dynamic sports nutrition sector offering an exciting growth opportunity going forward. Creating concepts that the consumer can engage with and relate to is very rewarding.
What were the best & the worst pieces of advice you received when starting out?
Both: Probably the best and the worst advice was that we should stop working in our business and start working on our business. A strategic growth and development plan which is constantly under review is a must but we are both hands-on business owners and enjoy being customer and supplier facing and interacting with the team. Maintaining a balanced approach between strategic planning and implementation is the challenge but it doesn’t have to be all or nothing.
What top tips would you give entrepreneurs starting out today?
Michael & Lorraine: There’s no substitute for hard work. Proper planning prevents possible poor performance. Be strategic, be objective and be results driven.
Were there any early signs that you would eventually follow an entrepreneurial path?
Michael: I was constantly buying and selling penny shares and had a subscription to the Investors Chronicle while still in my teens. Before I graduated, I had created three separate business plans with full projections for each.
Lorraine: I was always creative and struggled to comply with existing rules always looking for a fresh approach or a different way of doing things. My creative, non-compliant, approach was not always seen as a strength during my school days but now I would say that originality in thought process is my key strength in business.
Has anyone acted as a mentor to you?
Michael & Lorraine: Both of our fathers were entrepreneurs and businessmen so to a certain extent entrepreneurship was in our genes and running an SME was very much the norm in our households when we were growing up. As we started our own business and didn’t follow our fathers into family business, they gave encouragement and support but let us get on with making our own mistakes and enjoying our own success.
Has your “Irish-ness” contributed to your success?
Michael & Lorraine: Kestrel Foods is a very international business both in terms of sourcing and selling and it’s difficult to overstate the Irish-ness of the brand. We have, however, had a 20 year association with Irish priest Father Shay Cullen from whom we source our delicious PREDA Fair Trade Mango and this relationship has been very important to the success of Forest Feast. We have a great foundation in the Irish market both in terms of employees and consumer support and this has given us the scope to successfully launch our brands to international markets.
How do you generate new ideas to stay ahead of the curve?
Lorraine: identification of new and emerging trends and consumer buyer patterns is a key element of the product development process. Ongoing research and good observational skills are both essential.
Michael: We source globally and pack locally. I travel extensively to build excellent relationships with growers and processors around the world and it’s my job to find and develop new commodities and raw materials with a point of difference and adapt them to work for our brands.
When making a new hire, what key characteristics do you look for?
Lorraine: A different skill set and approach to existing members of the team. There isn’t just one face that fits at Kestrel Foods. In a diverse marketplace, new and diverse skills and perspectives help to keep us on trend.
Michael: I look for someone who can add value to the existing team and who will integrate well with the varying personalities in our organisation.
Have you started to feel the effects of the economic upturn within your sector/industry?
Michael & Lorraine: We have experienced year on year growth in sales of 25% and certainly feel that there is renewed and sustained interest in healthy snacking in all sales channels.
What do you believe it takes to be a successful entrepreneur?
Michael: You need vision with the ability to think strategically and leadership skills to inspire and encourage your team to be the best in the business at what they do.
Lorraine: Originality in product, concept or approach. I’m not a fan of the ‘Me Too’ school of business. I also believe in leading by example and a good work ethic is infectious.
If you were to invest in a sector, what would you consider the next “big thing”?
Michael: Technology assistance – an army of “geeks” to help the aging non-technical generation integrate their homes and devices on-call as required.
Lorraine: Technically enabled, direct-to=door delivered retailing with ever reducing delivery lead times. While online selling has been fast to grow and slow to become profitable, I think that virtual retailing is still its infancy.
What do you believe is your company’s competitive advantage?
Both: Innovation, creativity and speed to market in relation to larger competitors. As an SME, every customer, no matter how large or small, is important and we are very customer service orientated.
What sacrifices have you had to make to get your business where it is today?
Michael: As I worked very hard to build the business through my 20s I missed out on playing rugby at club level as I was unable to participate due to the long hours and weekend work needed. I also miss my family when I travel to see suppliers abroad sometimes for up to three weeks at a time.
Lorraine: That’s easy – maternity leave was definitely my biggest sacrifice. 16 years ago we just couldn’t afford for me to be off for a pro-longed period of time and I returned to work after 6 weeks with our daughter Esmée. When our son Thomas was born 12 years ago, I did plan to take more time off but the business, once again, had other ideas.
How do you recharge your batteries?
Michael: Reading, golf, skiing, and family time.
Lorraine: Skiing, socialising and enjoying warmer climates as well as supporting the kids at their various sporting activities.