ENTREPRENEUR
PROFILE

Martin Hamilton

Mash Direct

Business Purpose

Mash Direct is an independent family owned farming and food production enterprise. It leads the market producing an innovative range of quality, convenient, vegetable and potato dishes ranging from traditional accompaniments of mashed potato and champ to complete ready meals. The vegetables are steam cooked to perfection to create the traditional taste and texture of homemade food. They are suitable for microwave and oven heating, free from artificial additives, preservative and colourings and are low in salt.  With five generations of farming expertise, Mash Direct is a specialist in their field.  The business grows, steam cooks, gently prepares and packages on the farm to retain the taste, texture and nutritional benefits. All Mash Direct products have full traceability from field to fork.

 

Company Profile

Martin Hamilton had been growing and selling vegetables for over twenty years.  After careful analysis of market trends in eating habits and lifestyle patterns, he diversified his wholesale farming business and in 2004 formed Mash Direct Limited in County Down, NI.  The company now leads the market, producing an innovative range of high quality and convenient vegetable and potato dishes ranging from traditional accompaniments of mashed potato and champ to complete ready-meals.   With five generations of farming expertise to draw from, Mash Direct are specialists in their field. The company uses gentle steam cooking processes and gently prepares to retain the taste, texture and nutritional benefits natural to every vegetable used.  Mash Direct offer thirty-two vegetable products in all, twenty-one of which are gluten free and nineteen of which carry the ‘Vegetarian Society Approved Logo’. All are free from artificial additives, colourings and preservatives.

The customer portfolio is built from three main sectors referred to as:

  • Retail
  • Food Service
  • Industrial Ingredient Manufacture

The retail trade represents 75% of the company’s total turnover. The portfolio includes almost all the major multiples and convenience store groups in the UK.

Mash Direct have continued to grow and develop the UK retail market by gaining significant additional listings over the past year, including in Budgens. Listings in Ocado have also introduced them to a fast-growing online market.

These listings continue the trend that has underpinned the success of the company over recent years with growth in export sales to RoI, the UK mainland, USA and UAE. Sales outside Northern Ireland have grown to over £7 million in the past 5 years – an increase of over 360%.

Additionally, demand from non-retail sectors has grown from 2% in 2008 to 25% in 2012. Recent success in frozen product development now offers significant additional scope to continue this export sales growth in Food Service and Industry.

Mash Direct is now an £11m company, employing 121 members of staff including Martin’s two sons, Lance and Jack. The original factory measured 2,700sq ft. Construction has commenced in 2013 on a new facility which will bring the total facility size to 45,000 sq. ft. – increasing current capacity by a factor of four.

As the company has grown, demand for raw materials, packaging and other products and services have also increased. The number of primary produce suppliers and the volumes traded has grown in line with the company’s trade growth, providing significant benefits to the local industry. Similarly, an emphasis is placed on using local products and services and is an important factor when sourcing.

The company has designed and engineered much of its process equipment internally and has achieved an A* grade BRC accreditation for the fourth year in succession – the only company in Ireland to achieve this status and one of only a handful in the UK.

 

– ENTREPRENEURIAL INSIGHTS –

What vision prompted you to start-up your business?

I was in a Marks & Spencer outlet in Bangor, Co. Down, and noticed their mashed potato product at a retail price equivalent to £4,400 per tonne and compared it to the £80 per tonne I received for the potatoes harvested on my farm.

 

What were the best & worst pieces of advice you received when starting out?

The best advice was when I was told that regardless of how good the product was, I should not produce ANY if I was not prepared to go out and sell it!

In terms of worst advice, it was more a case of frustrating experiences where people made promises to me who never intended to fulfil them. This was especially difficult due to extreme financial pressures and critical time being wasted.

 

How did you secure your first investment?

First investment was secured really with the same approach as subsequent investments still are today – with straight and open negotiating with our banks.

 

What was your “back-to-the-wall” moment and how did you overcome it?

Having looked at many different potential projects, such as vegetable crisps, golf courses and developments of new villages,  I followed more good advice and decided to “stick to what I was good at” – quality food – and searched for my solution there. I examined the market and was certain I could produce an offering which was better than the rest.

 

What moment or deal would you identify as the “game changer” for the company?

The “game changer” was the transition from servicing local independent retail outlets to servicing central distribution hubs with symbol groups such as Spar (Henderson’s) and Dunnes Stores. This opened an avenue to access significant volumes and gaining them were a huge opportunity for the company and remain very memorable achievements. These established markets remain a source of strong growth.

 

What are the biggest challenges you face now?

Time management is absolutely critical with such fast-paced movement in terms of new customers, new products and new factory facilities while at the same time managing an ever-expanding farm business to meet the customer and consumer demand.  Without such careful management, it would be easy to lose focus.

 

What is your greatest business achievement to date?

The many awards that we have won over the years in almost every aspect of the business have been great recognition of the company’s achievement as a whole. These include awards for product quality (eg. Grocer UK Gold Award), brand, manufacturing and marketing.

 

What top tips would you give entrepreneurs starting out today?

Regardless of anything else, make sure to go out and sell whatever is being produced. This is paramount. Quality should be a given.  Strict management of costs needs to be built in. Create a board with non-executive members to bring different perspectives.

 

Were there any early signs that you would eventually follow an entrepreneurial path?

Apparently so, many friends and family have commented that it is no surprise I have come up with a scheme that is successful. I really still feel that we are scratching the surface of what is realisable.

 

Has your “Irish-ness” contributed to your success?

Yes. I feel very strongly that we have a very “can do” attitude in this part of the world and that there tends still to be a great network of both friends and family in Ireland who act as a very important support mechanism.

 

When making a new hire, what key characteristics do you look for?

Team Players – this characteristic will reflect right back to school. I feel it is important that people are making that extra effort and contribution.

Loyalty  to the employer. We have some experienced members of the team who may only ever have had one or two other employers prior to Mash Direct. This is a great attribute and brings stability and strength into the company.

Year: 2013
Category: Industry
Sector: Agri-food