Gilly had 20 sows, and ran this little business. She was intrigued by my objections about the chemicals fed to pigs to make them grow faster and stay fat in adverse conditions. On our honeymoon, the question arose as to whether I would be happy to eat her pigs, which had had these chemicals. I said no, and we agreed it was gross hypocrisy that we should eat one kind and sell another. We thought: if we grow them free of these chemicals maybe people will pay extra. The idea began to pick up momentum.
Gilly used her farming contacts to ask people if they would like to do beef or lamb for us, and launched the business on a bit of a chance.
At university, I had been involved in politics and had some knowledge of the press, so I did a press release and sent it to the obvious places. The Telegraph and Radio 4 picked it up. The idea was that we would sell to good butchers; our message was that it was meat you could eat with a clear conscience. Gilly continued to work for the first year and a half, then gave up her job. We took a decision to contract out our arable farming work. When our daughters came along, I realised you can't stay up all night doing brochures, and still play a big part in their upbringing. You have to get a balance, and Gilly and I have shared that quite well. We have amazing energy; for 10 years I got up at five every morning. I've only just gone back to 6am.
Our biggest challenge has been to find the right method for the customer to buy our product. Meat is restricted to three methods of purchase: supermarkets, butchers, and mail order. We thought about going the supermarket way, but realised they would want to bully. So we started our own shop in Bath in 1986.
It was successful, but hard to run; we opened a couple more in London, but they were a disaster, and we realised that franchising might be a good way forward but we would have to bring in better marketing.
We started at a time when people were able to reflect a little more upon what they were buying. Then BSE came along and shook people's confidence in food. People have become more suspicious about supermarkets, probably because meat can't be packaged well.
But the more principled you are, the more it's going to cost. I have said, "I can't go back on my principles - I am stuck with them." We proved it was possible to sell this kind of meat, and we have been fastidious in checking that the meat on sale comes from us.
We're not going to renege on our principles, so we have to communicate that. We changed our breed of chicken because a principle was at stake. The mainstay of the British dinner table is a breed which suffers genetically from leg weaknesses. If a bird finds it painful to stand up and move around, it will grow quickly. We didn't know about it until recently. Fortunately, we had already started to research the sourcing of other breeds. Through Gilly's contacts, we found a breeder in France with another type of bird.
As a couple, people probably perceive us as stable and rather tedious; we don't get outrageously drunk at the local pub. We are loyal. We're short-tempered, but contain it well.
We started off with rules - things like "don't talk about the business at mealtimes". That lasted 30 seconds. It has become a core part of our marriage. We're aware we could have done things to expand it more quickly, but both of us would rather let it roll, taking on two or three new butchers a year until we're old. We're getting there, and we're happy.
GILLY METHERELL: I went to agricultural college but I didn't want to be a farm manager. I spent a year in Canada, where I got into pigs. The man I worked with there could recognise 20 different noises that pigs make, and you can't help but be inspired by such enthusiasm. It fired my imagination: I found it really fascinating, and decided I wanted to get into pig exporting. But when I left college, I couldn't get a job doing that so I opted for the grain trade, hoping to get involved with grain exporting.
Being a grain trader gave me a real buzz - you're doing several deals at once and juggling with logistics. But it was a very male preserve, I had to become "one of the boys".
I take pride in being informed and read everything I can that relates to the work I'm doing, whether it's grain trading, farming, meat wholesaling or marketing. Somebody described me as blunt - I do like to cut the crap.
I found Richard intriguing; I was pleasantly surprised when I met him because he was so unchauvinistic. I didn't think there were men like Richard in agriculture. It seemed incredibly rare. He is honest and has has tremendous integrity. I had always wanted to have a business I could run from home. I didn't want to drive off and leave my children with a nanny and not be around.
I have always been a keen stock person; part of my philosophy is to be able to treat animals as individuals, and you can't do that on a big scale. Here at the Real Meat Company, I can walk in and see every chicken, and if there's a problem, I can deal with it. When I was a child, I always had my little projects - I used to sell eggs - and I like being in a primary industry.
Since we started in 1986, we have been doing mail-order - that's one of my marketing projects. I have found marketing very interesting; I get really excited about it. I'm always throwing ideas at people. Our staff say, "We love your ideas Gilly" but they can't always take them all on board at once.
When I read about brands that are successful, invariably it's an extension of the people that are running the company. If you try to be something you're not, you're sussed. I'm not going to sacrifice the principles of the business just for the sake of a marketing idea.
I admire the way Richard deals with the difficult bits, such as the legal problems, and I recognise I couldn't deal with that. He's very strong and I rely on that strength. He knows I've got the farm sorted on a day- to-day basis.
We do talk shop the whole time, although in marriage and in business you still need to be able to operate as an individual. I've got my horses and I work out with a trainer, and go out with girlfriends. I need to have a bit of head space.
Making our partnership work is about knowing when to back off and keep a bit of mystery.Reuse content