Elmgrove Food’s core business is inventing and exporting new beef, lamb and pork offal products to customers in the Far East, Africa and Europe.
Stuart Dobson created Elmgrove Foods Limited in 2008 and is the Managing Director. Stuart was educated at Drumglass School, Dungannon and is a graduate of Nottingham Trent University where he received a BA (Hons) degree in finance and accounting. Stuart also completed a one year farming course at Cookstown College. From the age of 11, Stuart worked during his school holidays on a local farm and in an abattoir in Dungannon. In 2006, Stuart worked in Florence, Italy, where he was the accountant for a tannery which produced leather for high-end users such as Gucci & Prada. Prior to this, he traded cattle hides and sheep skins for international customers. In 2007, Stuart took over the position of manager of the tripe room for Dunbia. Stuart still manages this department today. Today, Elmgrove Foods employs 11 full time staff and has a turnover of £25m for the year ended March 2014. In 2013, Stuart won numerous awards including the Queen’s Award for International Trade.
Elmgrove Foods Limited is based in Dungannon, Co Tyrone. The company was set up by Stuart Dobson in 2008 with a vision to export food products from slaughtered cattle, sheep and pigs which were sent to waste at that time. In the United Kingdom and Europe, these parts were traditionally disposed of in landfill or incinerated.
Over the last 6 years, the company has introduced circa 90 products into the marketplace and are continually adding new products to the market regularly. Elmgrove’s ethos of using the whole animal mirrors the priorities identified in the Northern Ireland government’s Agri-Food Board’s strategy for the future growth and development of the sector.
Elmgrove took part in a U.K./Irish Government trade delegation in 2012 to China where they provided expertise and knowledge of 5th quarter products on behalf of their suppliers and now hope to achieve direct access to export beef and lamb products to China within the next 5 years. The company’s turnover has increased by over 800% from March 2008 to March 2014. By the sixth year of trading, Elmgrove exported approximately 65,000 tonnes of edible product, which would have otherwise been disposed of at a cost to suppliers.
The company are known as the market leaders in this sector and the products they have created are copied worldwide. The business exports 100% of their beef, lamb, pork and chicken offal products to the Far East including Vietnam, Hong Kong, the Philippines and Singapore, South and West Africa, the Caribbean and Europe. Elmgrove have in excess of 45 suppliers; this includes Ireland, the UK, France, Norway, Chile and Poland. Elmgrove buys product from the point of production, therefore suppliers do not have to finance stock nor do they have any risk when the products are produced. They have a guaranteed customer. Even when market conditions are unfavourable, Elmgrove will still continue to buy the product at their risk. Elmgrove’s business is 100% export based. From November 2008 to date, Elmgrove’s portfolio of suppliers and products increased rapidly and they have gained an excellent reputation in global markets.
– ENTREPRENEURIAL INSIGHTS –
What vision/light bulb moment prompted you to start-up in business?
My background is in agriculture and I have a degree in accounting. I was working on an abattoir production floor when the 5th quarter project was discussed and was ultimately deemed by the company managers as not being cost effective. I was confident I could make it work and I asked for the opportunity to progress the project.
How did you secure your first investment?
I received no credit or loans from the bank and when I asked for financial assistance from government bodies, they also refused. Therefore, I procured one month’s supply of product and paid the supplier on 60 days credit. My customer agreed 30% payment prior to loading for the product and balance payable before arrival at the port. I used supplier credit and customer prepayment to begin my business.
What was your “back-to-the-wall” moment and how did you overcome it?
The market crashed in Vietnam and Hong Kong for several months in 2010 and Elmgrove had no physical way of getting the product to the customer. We were then forced to explore new markets and Elmgrove found new customers in Africa and the Caribbean. At this time, our competitors stopped buying; however, Elmgrove continued to buy from each supplier at the agreed prices. This was a huge risk but it eventually paid off as suppliers have not forgotten that to this day.
What moment/deal would you cite as the “game changer” or turning point for the company?
We signed a deal with our biggest customer who is in the Far East and, in 2013 we shipped the 1000th (25 tonne) container to them.
Were there any interesting or unusual circumstances surrounding the inception of the company or its evolution?
Getting the slaughter hall and boning hall staff to process these products for human consumption. Our products are generally not eaten in Europe, but are viewed as a delicacy in the Far East and Africa. Changing the manager and employee mind-set was challenging given that these products were traditionally disposed, now we are paying money for these items and the demand outweighs supply.
What are the biggest challenges you face now?
The biggest challenge that we face now is managing the quality of the product. We, therefore, provide training to our suppliers and have hired two members of staff to specifically check the quality by doing spot checks on orders. Secondly, while Elmgrove’s business concept was unique 5 years ago, we now we have many competitors. We need to remain positive, creative and focused to maintain our position as the market leader.
What is your biggest business achievement to date?
Our biggest achievement to date was winning the Queen’s Award for Enterprise in 2013. This award is the UK’s most prestigious award for business performance and is widely recognised as the showcase for the United Kingdom’s most dynamic companies. The win was the direct result of the team working closely with customers and suppliers in developing innovative products and providing excellent sales support.
What were the best & the worst pieces of advice you received when starting out?
The best piece of advice I was given was “this project was never going to work”. I saw this as a challenge and it made me more determined to make it work! You have to be confident and believe in yourself.
The worst piece of advice I was given was to “make as much profit as you can!” I believe you have to be fair to the supplier with the price, be consistent with the quality of the product and, most importantly, give the customer what they want.
What top tips would you give entrepreneurs starting out today?
Know your product. Be prepared to take a calculated risk. Give the customer what they ask for and not what you think they want! Most importantly, believe in yourself.
Were there any early signs that you would eventually follow an entrepreneurial path?
No, I had a lot of knock backs in the beginning of my career, but this shaped me and made me more determined to do better.
Has anyone acted as a mentor to you?
Yes, I worked with a gentleman called Wilson Graham who was the Chairman of Dunbia and a former Partner of PwC Belfast. He provided me with business solutions and told me to be methodical and pay attention to detail. My father has also played a crucial mentoring role, however, we do not always agree on every point.
Has your “Irish-ness” contributed to your success?
The Irish agriculture industry is known to produce some of the best products in the world and I am tremendously proud of this. The Irish also love to have fun and I enjoy having a bit of a joke with our suppliers and customers. We recognise the value in relationships and strong family ethics are a strong basis for export business.
How do you generate new ideas to stay ahead of the curve?
Staying ahead of our competitors is the key to our success and we do this by visiting suppliers and other countries regularly to research new products and markets. We have created a product portfolio from a standing start to over 85 products.
When making a new hire, what key characteristics do you look for?
It depends on the position, but primarily I look at what they can bring to the team to compliment it. Are they motivated and prepared to work hard? Do they have initiative and enthusiasm? And are they able to listen? I want to see someone that has the drive and determination to do my job or someone that I can delegate to. We have a policy to promote within Elmgrove, so this gives the staff the motivation to drive the business forward. We have set up a 5 year career plan initiative and arrange training courses to help staff achieve their goals.
Have you started to feel the effects of the economic upturn within your sector/industry?
No – the business has not felt any effects of the economic downturn. 100% of our products are exported outside the UK and Ireland to the Far East and Africa where the recession has had little to no effect.
What do you believe it takes to be a successful entrepreneur?
A strong personality who recognises the needs of both supplier and customer is a great asset when starting up a business, followed by confidence and vision. An entrepreneur is someone who sees an opportunity before everyone else and puts plans into action. Listening to others and the art of delegation are also key skills. Being able to negotiate competitively without aggression, understanding what you want to achieve and knowing what leverage you possess to help you reach your goals are also important.
If you were to invest in a sector, what would you consider the next “big thing”?
Food sector – no doubt. We have plans in motion for our next big thing, so watch this space!
What do you believe is your company’s competitive advantage?
We have a quality product, we introduce our customers to the supplier and we pay the supplier from the point of production so our suppliers have no further financial risks should the market conditions change.
What sacrifices have you had to make to get your business where it is today?
The main sacrifices I had to make when starting up my business was not being at home in Northern Ireland with my family and wife. I spent the majority of the first two years overseas building partnerships with the customers and researching new products.
How do you recharge your batteries?
I enjoy an eclectic mix of music, travelling and eating out. I have also taken an active role in our local church which I attend regularly and believe this has shaped many of the decisions I make in business.