Bernard Matthews: Entrepreneur whose empire brought oven-ready turkey to the people

"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.

Sport
The Pipes and Drums of The Scottish Regiments perform during the Opening Ceremony for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park on July 23, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland.
Commonwealth gamesThe actor encouraged the one billion viewers of the event to donate to the children's charity
Sport
Members of the Scotland deleagtion walk past during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
News
Very tasty: Vladimir Putin dining alone, perhaps sensibly
news
Life and Style
Listen here: Apple EarPods offer an alternative
techAre custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?
Arts and Entertainment
Top guns: Cole advised the makers of Second World War film Fury, starring Brad Pitt
filmLt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a uniform
News
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
News
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
News
Joining forces: young British men feature in an Isis video in which they urge Islamists in the West to join them in Iraq and Syria
newsWill the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?
Arts and Entertainment
The nomination of 'The Wake' by Paul Kingsnorth has caused a stir
books
News
i100
Life and Style
food + drinkZebra meat is exotic and lean - but does it taste good?
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

BI Manager - £50,000

£49000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

BI Project Manager - £48,000 - £54,000 - Midlands

£48000 - £54000 per annum + Benefits package: Progressive Recruitment: My clie...

VB.Net Developer

£35000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: If you're pa...

SAP Business Consultant (SD, MM and FICO), £55,000, Wakefield

£45000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP Business...

Day In a Page

Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game