Bernard Matthews: Entrepreneur whose empire brought oven-ready turkey to the people
Saturday 27 November 2010
"Bootiful" was the TV ad catchphrase coined by the turkey tycoon Bernard Matthews, who epitomised the entrepreneurial spirit.
Despite setbacks he rose from humble beginnings to build an international multi-million pound business. It is a testimony to his domination of his trade that Matthews has remained part of the national consciousness for almost 30 years. His empire sprouted from an initial investment of £2.50 in 1950, which saw him hatch 20 turkey eggs in a second-hand incubator bought from Acle market near Norwich. From this small beginning, Matthews started his rise to prominence.
Matthews, the son of a car mechanic, was born in Brook, Norfolk on 24 January 1930. He grew up in the area and won a scholarship to the City of Norwich School. He left school at 16 and, following his National Service in the RAF with the 617 '"Dambuster" Squadron, he began his working life at Commercial Union, spending his spare time rearing turkeys in his future mother-in-law's garden.
By 1953, Matthews had married his long-time sweetheart Joyce, and the couple were hatching thousands of eggs a week, which required hand-turning twice a day. Working 13-14-hour days, they were laying the foundations of what was to be become the biggest turkey processor in Europe and one of the UK's leading food brands. They lived in a one-bedroom flat, cooking on an upturned gas fire.
Undeterred by storms in 1953, which devastated almost all their out-buildings, they rebuilt. Two years later, they bought the 36-acre country estate, Great Witchingham Hall, for £3,000; it is still the headquarters of the business. To maximise space, turkeys were hatched in bedrooms and prepared for the table in the Hall kitchen.
As Noel Bartram, chief executive of Bernard Matthews Farms, explained, "Bernard had a clear vision and wanted to make turkey affordable for everyone." And it was, at a fraction of the cost of red meat. Matthews was able to do this following a trip to the US, which made him realise that families wanted meat they could take from the freezer and put straight into the oven. In 1960, aged 30, Matthews formed Norfolk Manor Turkeys and controlled assets worth £250,000.
With the company's rapid growth, Matthews showed his entrepreneurial skill and flair when he spotted the benefits of using a former US airfield at Weston Longville, north-west of Norwich, to build the world's largest turkey farm. He repeated this at a number of locations in Suffolk and Lincolnshire. Then in 1965, upon an invitation, he jumped at the chance to go to the Soviet Union to advise Krushchev on modernising the Russian turkey industry.
As chairman and president of the British Turkey Federation he presented a Christmas turkey to Prime Minister Harold Wilson and his wife on the steps of No 10, a deed he later repeated for Margaret Thatcher (who insisted on paying him for it), and to the Majors and the Blair family. Although the company went public in 1971, selling a 60 per cent shareholding, Matthews remained managing director. By 1976, the company had posted a £2.5m profit, shipping its frozen oven-ready birds across Europe and exporting turkey eggs to the US.
The year 1980 was a watershed in terms of advertising: Matthews became one of the first businessmen to personally endorse their own products on national television. In a series of commercials he coined the memorable catchphrase, "they're bootiful!" in his rich Norfolk accent. The phrase, brought back to life for the current campaign, formed the cornerstone of the marketing strategy throughout the 1980s and '90s as he became the face of his own brand.
With the economic growth of the mid-1990s, Matthews expanded internationally, acquiring businesses in Hungary, Germany and New Zealand. The New Zealand arm was sold in 2007, but the company still supplies the European market. In 2001, Matthews bought back the company and returned it to private ownership with the family owning 98.9 per cent of the shares.
During his long and successful career, Matthews was often criticised by animal rights campaigners for employing "factory farming" methods. In 2005, the celebrity chef Jamie Oliver launched a crusade to improve school dinners, and it was a Bernard Matthews product – Turkey Twizzlers – he wanted off plates first.
There were further unpalatable headlines in 2006 when an animal welfare group called for an inquiry after a court heard how two Matthews' employees were filmed playing "baseball" with live turkeys. Both men admitted ill-treating birds before magistrates in Norwich. A few days later the firm tried to restore its reputation with a full-page newspaper ad telling shoppers that its employees were "conscientious people".
More bad news followed in February 2007 when the H5N1 strain of bird flu surfaced in the UK, at a Matthews' plant in Holton, Suffolk, forcing the slaughter of nearly 160,000 birds and causing a predictable slump in sales. Sales had begun to recover and the company recorded a turnover of £330 million in 2009, down on its peak year of 2005, when it hit £479m.
Matthews never forgot his roots and his community and he supported a number of charities, often anonymously, including the Caister Lifeboat service, for which he helped to buy two new lifeboats, and Norwich Cathedral. He was a founder Charter Member of the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme and a strong supporter of the Scout movement and the Prince's Trust.
In 1989, Matthews received the Queen's Service Medal for services to the New Zealand meat industry; he became a CBE in 1992 and was made a CVO in 2007. He was a keen yachtsman and travelled extensively. He listed his main interests as food and had an encyclopaedic knowledge of wines.
In recent years Matthews became less involved in the day-to-day running of the company and in January, on his 80th birthday, he stepped down as group chairman. He died at Great Witchingham Hall after a long illness. It is understood that he had suffered from Alzheimer's for many years.
Bernard Matthews, entrepreneur and philanthropist; born Brooke, Norfolk 24 January 1930; CBE 1992; CVO 2007; married 1953 Joyce (three daughters, one son); and one son; died near Norwich 25 November 2010.
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