Profile: Farmer who crossed the road: Andrew Dare: A former critic is now champion of the milk producers. He talks to Paul Rodgers

COMBINING silk suit with battered green Barbour, Andrew Dare dresses for work on both sides of the farm gate. Whether in wellies or brogues, his lopsided grin and direct gaze encourage trust. And the battery of facts at his fingertips make Britain's top milkman a formidable ally and tough foe.

Right now, his friends are the dairy farmers and his enemies are the executives who run the country's milk, cheese and butter companies. It was not always so.

As head of the Dairy Trade Federation in 1990, Dare was the industry's champion. He complained bitterly about the Milk Marketing Board's plan to turn itself into a 'voluntary monopoly'.

Times change. Tomorrow, he will enthusiastically replace the board with Milk Marque - a voluntary producer co-operative that his old friends at the DTF still criticise as a monopoly supplier.

Judged by size, Milk Marque certainly comes close to monopoly status. It has signed up more than 65 per cent of Britain's 30,000 dairy farmers. And with European quotas capping UK production at 20 billion pints, it has been able to negotiate higher prices.

It was just such a scenario that Dare dreaded four years ago, when he introduced John Gummer, the then Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, at the federation's annual lunch. 'We won't put up with an unregulated monopoly,' he told the minister. 'We cannot lay ourselves open to a very powerful voluntary monopoly.' Instead, Dare proposed splitting the wholesaling industry into 30 regional co-ops.

Everything is different now, of course. 'Milk Marque isn't a monopoly,' Dare insisted. The co-op has no control over the total volume of supplies, is forced to sell all its stock quickly, and faces competition from both imports and direct deals between farmers and dairies. 'If I were going to design a monopoly, it wouldn't be like that.'

The DTF has chosen to attack its former boss on the price of milk. Dire warnings of 2p-a-pint price hikes have been making headlines for several weeks. Some cheese and yoghurt could cost 25 per cent more. The federation figures total raw material costs could climb by pounds 250m - more than the industry's aggregate profit last year on sales of pounds 7bn.

Nonsense, replies their target. 'There is no need for an increase in pinta prices due to raw product (untreated milk) increases. The dairies just want to talk the market up.' The co-op has increased its milk price by only 0.3p per pint, he said. To make a pounds 2 piece of cheese will cost producers an extra 13p.

A 52-year-old father of three with wispy grey hair, angular features and a sharp nose, Dare still looks and sounds more like a businessman than a farmer when he reels off facts. But he has a legitimate claim on the dairyman's Barbour. He is the only son of a tenant farmer who had 200 Friesian cattle on 150 acres of elm-lined pasture sloping down to the Avon River in Wiltshire. His childhood friends were an old English sheep dog called Teddy Tail and a boxer named Bruce. 'As a farmer's son, I spread a lot of manure,' he said, flashing his winning grin again. 'Some say I still do.'

One chore he did not much like was milking, which caused his asthma to flare up. He left the farm for a course in politics and economics at Keele, then went to a job with the oil marketing company Shell-Mex BP. But after earning a master's degree in management studies at Bradford, he returned to the milk business with Unigate in 1971.

From Unigate's corporate planning department, he rose to head a cheese factory in Ireland and finally to managing director of the company's largest division. His biggest success was the launch of Unigate's low-fat St Ivel brands.

But his career took a hairpin turn in 1990, when he lost a power struggle for Unigate's top job. 'I was running by far the largest and most profitable division of Unigate and felt I had good qualifications to become chief executive,' he said. But the board selected Ross Buckland from Kellogg instead. 'There was no point in hanging around after that.' Following a brief spell as a consultant, Dare was recruited as the Milk Marketing Board's chief executive.

The Unigate battle was neither the first nor the last time that Dare finished short of his objective. A line of environmentally friendly dairy products aimed at children in the 1980s could not compete with rival brands marketed with cartoon characters. And Canadian Pizza, which he chairs, was one of the worst five new issue flops of the last year.

It is not just Dare's rhetoric that shifted after he moved to the MMB.

People described him as a suave, hard-nosed, even slick businessman. One executive who has known him for a quarter century said he was a loner whose employees found him hard to get close to. Now he projects a far less intimidating image. The battered country coat even goes with him to meetings in Whitehall. 'It's a bit out of character,' the executive said.

Another long-time observer was more blunt. 'He's a leopard who's changed his spots.'

Others say the elements that have stayed the same are more significant. He has a reputation for standing up for the people he represents, whichever side of a fight they are on. And he does it well. 'He's one of the brightest people operating in the agricultural food industry,' said one observer.

He is also one of the sharpest politicians in the business. For more than a year, he has stumped from barnyard to cattle auction to dairymen's conferences signing up suppliers for Milk Marque. 'Because he grew up on a dairy farm he has an insider's knowledge,' said Hugh Richards, chairman of the National Farmers Union's milk committee for England and Wales. 'He's different. He can relate to us.' However, his fiery populist oratory naturally outraged the dairy companies.

'He's been running a political campaign,' said Chris Haskins, the chairman of Northern Foods, Britain's largest dairy. 'It's been very effective. The farmers all became frightened they were going to be ravaged by Northern Foods and the other dairies.' In fact, the dairies are paying others more per litre on average than the co-op.

Dare's soap-box daring has disconcerted his bosses at the MMB. 'The elected members of the MMB have had no tough character at the top for some time,' said Bill Freeman, the DTF's finance director. Dare has filled the vacuum.

'It would be very difficult for them to drop him even if they wanted to,' he said.

Another industry insider said Dare 'has been running circles around the MMB guys. If they see a fellow making a great popular appeal to their members, they're not sure how to deal with it.'

The NFU is smarting too. 'They're a bit put out,' said Freeman. 'The union always assumed it would take over from the MMB in speaking for farmers.'

When Milk Marque had trouble arranging financing, Dare wrote to farmers telling them it might have to withhold 4p a litre from their monthly payments. 'The NFU thought they should have been consulted,' Freeman said.

'There were a few hot words exchanged over that.'

(Graphs omitted)

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