The pilot who scrambled onto civvy street

After diabetes grounded David Brass's career in the RAF, his free-range egg business took off. By Midge Todhunter
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The Independent Online

Several years ago David Brass was a Harrier jet pilot fulfilling his boyhood dreams with the Royal Air Force. Then completely out of the blue a routine medical diagnosed him with developing diabetes and within weeks he was back on Civvy Street.

Practically overnight, Brass found himself in search of a new life. There was the family farm in Cumbria to fall back on, but almost simultaneously the economic depression in world farming tightened its grip on British agriculture. The family business was also in need of a radical re-think. Brass began extensive research into farm food production for niche markets. He chose the free-range eggs business, and the Lakes Free Range Egg Company was born.

Today, Brass heads a state-of-the-art egg-packing factory handling some two million free-range eggs every week, with an annual turnover of £5m. He has 31 other poultry farmers contracted to produce free-range eggs for his packing station. And his company is now one of the largest suppliers of ready-packed eggs to the major supermarkets in the North-west, plus a high-street fast-food chain.

"It was my wife Helen who sparked the idea of selling eggs. She bought 200 hens and began selling free-range eggs at the farmhouse kitchen door. The buyers could see the hens running about in our fields and that gave them confidence in the product," he says.

It's a fair assumption the mere suggestion of the name Edwina Currie would be anathema to any British egg producer. Not in this case. Brass says they began with eggs just before the then Health Minister made her comment in 1988 that most of Britain's egg production was infected with the salmonella bacteria. Yet because of that one statement, free-range eggs began to be perceived by the public as a healthier alternative to eggs from battery-caged hens. "By chance we had hit the right market at the right time," he says.

Next, Brass was approached by an egg-packing company in the North-east to farm an additional 1,500 free-range hens, and send the eggs to them. That contract grew rapidly to 9,000 hens, but the egg-packing operation was later sold to a company in Leeds, and the contract was lost.

Brass was left high and dry again, so decided he would be less vulnerable if he sold his own eggs. He brought in a market research expert who said trying to retail eggs in Cumbria would be a waste of time: "a declining market with no mass of population" was the returned synopsis. The Brass farm is well placed for the M6, so he bit the bullet and decided to go down the supermarket route.

He successfully applied for EU grant funding to help build his own egg-packing factory in his own back yard. The plant would sort and put eggs in boxes for supermarket shelves. The first big supermarket order quickly came in for 500 cases a week (each case holds 30 dozen eggs), and other supermarkets gradually came on board. The business grew as other egg producers were brought under contract to match demand. The factory throughput today is 5,000 cases a week and it employs 40 staff.

The contract Brass has with the producer is solely to provide a firm commitment to buy the eggs. The farmer provides the hens, the buildings, and all other capital expenditure. Brass also adds all the proven advice they may need to get established. He pays the producers weekly, which enhances cash flow and keeps the bank managers smiling. The downside to the farmer is the up-front capital expenditure. It is almost a franchise-style package he is offering, and in some cases it has arrived at the right time for cash-strapped farmers.

Brass says he is not a "business plan" person, but does lay great store in aggressive marketing. And the secret to that is finding the right person who already has established contacts with supermarket buyers. He knows it can take four years to get an order from a supermarket chain, and that first deal is always very hard won.

"I employ a very strong marketing team, and that's definitely the secret to winning supermarket orders. In fact we're again growing short of egg producers as the business is expanding fast," he explains.

Brass has a phenomenal appetite for work. He's a hands-on leader and has built most of the business's buildings and associated offices himself. He does the groundworks; he is the brickie, the stonemason, the joiner, the steel erector, the plumber and the electrician. (although he does admit to hiring-in plasterers). He says he doesn't do holidays, works seven days a week and most evenings until after nine.

Though he claims he has no business plan, there is nothing he does not have a handle on and he knows exactly where everything is heading. In other words, the business plan is there - in his mind. And he's probably blessed with a broader memory and brain capacity than most, as every detail of his business and its growth patterns are etched indelibly on his everyday thinking.

By the end of 2004, his already-planned development will take his business premises to full capacity. He then plans to divest himself of some workload. The last five years have been very busy, too demanding. He has a young family of four children whom he doesn't see enough. And that's not how he wants it to be.

"My family have been taking holidays abroad without me, and that's far from an ideal scenario. My next step is to find a general manager for the business and I'm currently looking for the right person," he says.

His work shoes will be difficult to fill, and Brass recognises that not all people want to work so hard. "This company would probably have been as successful without me - but it wouldn't have gone as far, or as fast."