As an eighth generation family member to be running chicken producer Manor Farm, Vincent Carton is balancing the core values of the business with the innovation and change required to keep it going for at least another eight generations.
About Vincent Carton
Can you tell us about your early career?
I’m one of seven children and as the eldest boy it meant I was groomed from an early age to take over the family business, Manor Farm Chicken.
I joined the business straight after completing my BComm but realised within a week I’d made the mistake of my life. It was a really old fashioned, staid business.
I studied accountancy at night to get out. When I qualified as a cost and management accountant I went to work in Penn Tennis Balls inMullingar. From there I came back to Dublin and joined Shield Life Insurance, now Zurich, in Blackrock. In 1984, I married my lovely wife Liz.
When and why did you rejoin the family business?
In 1988, I got an opportunity to buy a key shareholding on the other side of our family. The UK health minister Edwina Currie had just said that three quarters of the chickens in the UK were positive for salmonella. The value of the chicken company collapsed and we – my brother Justin who was to get my father’s shares – chose that opportunity to go after all the other shareholders and we bought all of the previous generation out one by one.
We created a holding company - Carton Group - and bought out all the shares of the existing family company. Even though we’re the eighth generation, we’re now back to two shareholders and run it together. I’m the managing director and Justin is director of IT and developments.
The reason for coming back in 1988 was that I was now sitting on a shareholding. I had the power to make the changes that would provide a decent career.
We were in a lot of businesses at the time and a sort of jack of all trades. One of my first actions was to sell off businesses and close them down and cut back and reinvest in the core business, which was our chicken business.
My father gave us a free hand to do what we wanted to do but stayed on as MD, in the old fashioned sense – it wasn’t strategic, but was more tactical.
Was succession an issue?
Even though we were running the company, I didn’t become managing director until 1998. My brother and I revered my father and he quite simply did not want to talk about succession. When we finally sat down to discuss it, we realised that the business had become an extension of him and he assumed that if he stepped down, we wouldn’t want him around. Once we understood his fear, the solution was very simple. He became chairman of the board and continued with projects he had an interest in - he never retired.
For our next generation – I have five girls and Justin has three girls – we’ve decided they can only come into the business if they get to management level somewhere else first. So they have a choice and we have a choice. That was born out of my experience.
How has the company developed?
When I joined the industry again in 1988 there were some really interesting positive companies and there were some old laggards. And I’d put us as one of the old laggards. We were part of the problem.
A consolidation occurred in the sector between 2000 and 2012 reducing the number of chicken companies from 14 to just four.
In 2003, our key operating plant had reached the ceiling of production capacity. Traditionally we had survived by growing our sales. We could see we couldn’t grow any more so we took a major step and sold 40pc of the company to outside shareholders, sold off factories, borrowed and reinvested everything in an ultramodern plant, upgraded our factories by spending €20m. From our customers’ point of view at the time, they were watching chicken companies going out of business and we were investing so they started to give us more and more business.
We have since bought back the 40pc shareholding and once again own the whole company.
We have been able to grow our business based on three very strong principles that are core to our business – we’re Irish, we’re traceable and we have our own feed mills so we don’t depend on anyone else. In a world post Horsegate, that has become even more important – people want to know what’s going on behind the production methods.
We’re now the biggest. We’re four and a half times the size we were back in 2000. We’re processing 850,000 birds a week and over 150,000 tonnes of feed a year. Our customers are all the multiples in Ireland and we also export about 30pc by weight.
Tell us about your leadership style
My style tends to be very personal, very collegiate and we get in and work together to do things. And then you trust people and let them get on with it. We’ve tended to keep our staff – and there are 815 people working for the company – because we do treat them like family.
What’s your philosophy in business?
My first philosophy in business is that people like to do business with people they like. It’s very simple.
The second one is around the fact that it’s people who produce, prepare food, cook food and eat food. This is a people business as much as a products business. The personal aspect is extremely important. In our business, we’ve found the best way to try to get a customer’s attention is to talk to him about his customer. When we go in talking chicken, we try to bring it out to who we’re trying to sell this chicken product to.
Who or what are your greatest influences?
My Dad, I have to say. He was very personable sort of individual. He was a very shy man in some ways but he certainly had that ability on a one-on-one to talk to people and really inspire them.
After that, I love to hear people who are successful in business. I’m a huge admirer of Fergal Quinn. I was very fortunate to be appointed as Superquinn’s chicken partner in 1996 and that enabled me to see from the inside the amazing work that he did. And I loved his approach – it was generous, smart and considerate. It really was thoughtful. To my mind, he’s an absolutely fabulous icon for anybody.
What are your tips or advice for success?
I have learnt the hard way that points of crises are actually huge opportunities, and I mean that genuinely. As one very successful businessman told me, you’re at your strongest when you’re at your weakest. I have learnt so often that in dealing with a crisis and facing up to the reality and coming up with a creative solution that is what created the success that you became later.
I got some advice from Philip Berber when the business was in fairly bad shape in 2003. Essentially, it was that when you’re in a crisis, recognise that you’re in a crisis and talk to someone who’s been through one and get them to help you prioritise your actions to get out until you’re able to do that for yourself again. Don’t talk to someone who hasn’t been through a crisis. They simply don’t get how hard the hits are coming at you.
What are your plans for the future?
We’re planning succession now for the ninth generation. We have history in our family of people being forced to come into the business and quite frankly being bad for the business and bad for themselves. So, we’ve set the minimum rule of each daughter having to get to management level first.
But we’re also trying to create new businesses that are of interest to them. Chicken is my passion and I’m good at it, but that isn’t necessarily for them. Three of my daughters are chartered accountants and one is a chartered accountant and an engineer. We have two girls in digital media and one in sales. We want them to want to come into businesses that they’re interested in so, for example, we’re launching a protein snack product in the UK at the moment. And we hope to develop other businesses that are particularly interesting for them and that they would be willing to invest their lives in.
We bring them in once a year and talk about the business and where we’re going and what we’re trying to do. One of the things we’re very keen on is trying to get them to start working together. Even as cousins, they don’t necessarily meet one another often. So, we’ve created a small charity fund and they decide where the money goes and all eight of them have to sign off on that. It’s about trying to get them to work on problems together and negotiate.
My future is about preparing the way for them. Hopefully we can pass on not only a business but a passion for the business.
What are your interests outside of work?
I play a bit of tennis, very poorly. I’ve played with the same chaps, a doubles game, for the last 20 years. We have a rule that if anybody improves, they’re out! I love my gardening. And then of course there’s my family.