Rob BurnettRob Burnett

From Polyfilla to turkey breasts with a bit of fish in between, Rob Burnett’s career path has been a varied one. Philip Clarke talks to the CEO of Bernard Matthews.

What has been your career path leading to Bernard Matthews?

For the first 10 years I was in the non-food industry. I worked in marketing and sales for Williams Holdings, initially in the buildings department in Welwyn Garden City, which was Polycell, Polyfilla and Crown. I then got my first job in food – in poultry – with Marshalls in Edinburgh.

From there I was headhunted for my first director’s position in Albert Fischer Group in their seafood business, before moving to Hain Daniels food group and building up that business.

I wasn’t looking to leave, but I met David Joll (chairman of Bernard Matthews) who was looking for a new chief executive.

He was very open about the state of the company – and the job appealed. It was an opportunity to do something different – a new challenge to help shape the recovery and lead a team on a day-to-day basis.

See also: Noble Foods boss Andrew Cracknell interviewed

How would you describe your management style?

You learn from the people you work with – mentors if you like. From them I have learned to keep it simple.

These is much in business that can be “de-complexed”. I also believe it’s important to make a decision and move on. Not all of them will be right, but you can’t dwell on them.

Rutland Partners acquired a majority stake in Bernard Matthews in 2013, for £23.5m. It was projected at the time that the company would recover from a £20m loss to a £20m profit by 2016. Financial figures just released still have the company £10m in the red. Why?

It is fair to say that the first year after Rutland came in was behind the original plan.

The brand had diminished faster than forecast, as there was not the investment to take it forward.

Also, I had to work out nine months’ notice with Daniels, so a lot of the key decisions had to wait. It then took a while to develop the strategy – to work out who we were going to partner with, where to cut costs.

The figures are now looking better. Ebitda (Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation and Amortization) has gone from a negative to a positive.

Group turnover also took a big hit in the 12 months to July 2014 – down from £346m to £306m. Why?

We made an early decision to close Lincs Turkeys, which had a turnover of £12m or £13m.

That was not in the original plan. And we have undertaken a significant restructuring of SaGa Foods, our Hungarian business.

That had been involved in farming and processing, but we’ve got rid of all that and now it only operates in adding value. It was losing about £5m a year, now it’s at breakeven.

How was Christmas 2014 for you?

It was very good for the whole turkey industry. The move from fresh towards frozen continues, as does the move towards more added value crowns and joints – and we are at the forefront of that. Neilsen data quoted that of all the Christmas meats, turkey was the highest growth at plus 4%.

The Telegraph has reported that you are looking for another £10m outside investment to help fund the turnaround. Is that correct?

That report was a little bit misleading. What we’re doing is taking the opportunity to see whether we can improve our current loan package – a bit like when you remortgage your house.

Since Rutland bought the business, it is in a far healthier state and the market environment has improved for lending.

Every so often it’s incumbent upon all businesses to check to see whether there is an enhanced deal available. If so, then we’ll be able to speed up some of our investment plans.

Rob Burnett in a minute

Football or rugby? Football

Which team? Glasgow Rangers

Last book you read? I’m in the middle of David Copperfield by Dickens.

Favourite tipple? Drambuie

What CDs do you have in your car? That’s my passion in life – I’m a big music collector, mostly soul and jazz. I have over 30,000 tracks on an i-Pod in my car.

Daily newspaper? The Times

State school or privately educated? State school

University? Polytechnic – Aberdeen College of Commerce

City break or rural retreat? City break – the last one being in Seville

Childhood aspirations? To join the Hong Kong police force

Would you turn up for work if you won £53m on the lottery? I’d turn up the next morning, but I’m not sure for how much longer afterwards. That sort of sum takes some management.

You’re about to eat a sausage sandwich. Would you go for red sauce, brown sauce or no sauce at all? Red sauce

How are supermarket price wars impacting the recovery?

The retail market is no tougher now than it has ever been. It’s a competitive world out there. It’s always been that way.

The secret is to have the right strategy, and we have a strong focus on establishing partnerships with our major customers.

As a direct result of securing multi-year contracts with our multiple retail partners, we opened our Great Witchingham South processing site for all-year-round production in January for the first time, hiring 80 full-time staff.

How are you looking to boost turkey consumption?

Turkey is not available in as many food categories as it should be and this is something we are about to address. Turkey is the healthiest meat you can get, and one of the cheapest.

So we are launching some innovative new products later this year, and extending turkey into a number of new food categories.

We have been innovative in the past – Bernard Matthews was renowned for it – and we’ve got to get back to that.

But isn’t the brand still a bit stuck in the past, inextricably linked to the man that was Bernard Matthews?

There is absolutely nothing in our current packaging or marketing that refers to that. In fact, the brand has moved further and further away from that legacy on a number of occasions.

We are about to relaunch the brand in the autumn and, without giving too much away, we will be making more of that legacy.

At the heart of it, we are turkey farmers – and do that better than anyone else.

It’s been reported that you are looking to get more into chicken production in the UK. What is the plan?

We’ve been producing chicken for a number of years for third party supply. We also have significant amounts of branded sales of chicken, which hitherto we’ve been buying in. I do think there is an opportunity for us, in a niche way, to have something different to offer in value-added chicken.

Some of our sheds have been growing chicken for a number of years, others we’ve made available, and we’re not using all our sheds all year round for turkeys, so it’s a mixture.

How much extra chicken will you be producing?

Those figures are in my head and not for publication. But we are small. We currently buy in about 50t-60t of chicken meat per week.

But there is an opportunity to move our branded business into British chicken. We won our first cooked chicken contract from a multiple retailer in March this year and we are supplying 100% of their poultry.

We think we can do more with added value.

For the full interview, see June’s issue of Poultry World