Bernard Matthews: Life with all the trimmings

For Bernard Matthews, every day is Christmas. His 'bootiful' birds have made him a private jet-owning, St Tropez-partying multimillionaire. But it isn't only the turkeys that are paying the price. Malcolm Macalister Hall meets the elusive Norfolk lad
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I had read that Bernard Matthews is a stickler for punctuality. Then I arrive embarrassingly late at Great Witchingham Hall, the Tudor mansion deep in the Norfolk countryside that serves as the headquarters of his turkey empire (with its sweeping lawns and towering chimney stacks it looks "bootiful", just like the picture on his packets of Golden Drummers). Waiting for a few moments in the gloom of the heavily panelled entrance hall, I feel that I - and this interview - are surely doomed, just as surely as one of his Christmas turkeys, strung up by its feet on the production line and moving inexorably towards the electrified water-bath that stuns the birds before their heads are chopped off.

However, in his office next door, Britain's undisputed Heavyweight Turkey Champion seems to have forgiven me and is soon in top form, bristling with energy at 74, and dishing out self-deprecating anecdotes as fast as a short-order chef serving up his Mini Kievs and Turkey Escalopes. Like the one about the time he presented the Soviet prime minister Nikita Khrushchev with a massive turkey during a trade fair in Moscow in the 1960s. The pay-off seemed stupendous - at first.

"He passed me a contract to modernise the Russian poultry industry," Matthews recalls. "Then he got kicked out of office a couple of months later, and I never heard another word from him. But I used to have Russian delegations coming here nearly every year, and they'd sit around this table asking question after question, and writing like hell in their notebooks - and they never paid me for it or anything."

In the end, he had had enough, and turfed the Soviet bigwigs out. "As they were leaving, I said, 'Cheerio, I'll probably get the Order of Lenin before I get an order from you lot...'." Boom boom. This is classic knockabout Bernard - straight-talking, down-to-earth Norfolk fellow, keen eye for a deal, likes a joke.

Along the way, he conjures up the surreal image of himself and his young wife Joyce living in a couple of rooms in this vast mansion during their first winter here in 1955 - with the grand but faded Elizabethan bedrooms filled with teeming flocks of turkey chicks. He had bought the dilapidated 36-room pile for a knockdown £1,000 - plus another £2,000 for its 35 acres of land - not through any frivolous desire for social advancement, but simply because he needed somewhere to put his turkeys. He was so broke that first winter that he sold the snowdrops out of the garden (though the buyer disappeared without paying), and even flogged the box-hedge maze that had once been a charming feature of the grounds. "It was so overgrown, you'd never have found your way out of it anyway," he says, grinning. "So I sold it for Christmas wreaths. I sold anything I could that first winter. And at one stage, we had thousands of turkeys in here, in all the bedrooms."

Surrounded by birds in this leaky Tudor grandeur, he and Joyce were cooking on an upturned electric fire, in this room. "This was always the office, but we ate and lived in here, too - it was pretty rough stuff," he recalls. "I remember that one Christmas, I didn't go to bed for five days. I'd just nod off in my chair, wake up, and start work again. Then, late at night, I'd be round the houses delivering the damned things in an Austin Seven van I'd bought off a milkman for £25. I nearly killed myself."

The Christmas prospects for Bernard's "bootiful" turkeys may not have improved much over the years - sorry, it's still the chop - but for Bernard Matthews CBE, they have. Though Christmas turkeys are now a tiny part of his sprawling business empire, of the 8 million that British households will tuck into on Christmas Day, around 2.7 million will be Bernard's birds. Now a month away from his 75th birthday, he finds himself at the head of a company worth possibly £300m, possibly more. He started it with an outlay of just £2.10s (£2.50) in the 1940s. Self-made men don't come much more self-made than this.

His brand is now the ninth biggest in Britain (one place behind McVitie's), with some 70 product lines, ranging from the frankly puzzling "Turkey Ham", to his curly turkey "Twizzlers" (currently in the news after being dropped from some school menus in Scotland for their high fat content). Abroad, there's a major cooked-meats operation in Germany, a huge turkey rearing and processing operation in Hungary - "We're the brand leader there, by a mile" - and three plants in New Zealand that process 1.4 million lambs a year for export to Europe, the US, Japan and the Middle East.

This empire is staffed by 7,200 employees worldwide, and produces nearly 15 million turkeys a year - almost 5 million in Hungary, and 10 million in the UK. To the disgust of animal-welfare campaigners - who, over the years, have secured some chilling video footage, and have alleged cruelty to the birds by some employees - the turkeys are reared in flocks of up to 18,000, packed into some 400 windowless sheds, many of them on huge wartime airfields that Matthews bought in Norfolk, Suffolk and Lincolnshire. Now, with 73 UK sites on 2,600 acres, and eight processing plants in Norfolk, Suffolk and Bedfordshire, the company claims to be the largest turkey-processing business in Europe, and the largest turkey farmer in the world.

In a bold manoeuvre, in December 2000, after 30 years as a publicly quoted company, Matthews and his people saw off a takeover threat from the giant US bras-to-bagels corporation Sara Lee, and took the company private in a colossal share buy-back operation costing nearly £140m, which valued the business at £232m. It is almost certainly much more now. Latest published figures - for 2002 - show a turnover of nearly £500m, and pre-tax profits of £35m. And Bernard and his family now own around 95 per cent of the whole shebang.

For Matthews to have created this - with start-up funds of £2.50 - is a commercial feat of alchemy possibly without parallel. He insists that no other capital was ever put into the company. "It sounds impossible - but it's not, because we did it," he says.

When he says "we", he is clearly including a vital player in the company's success: his managing director David Joll. Together they make an unlikely double act - the urbane Joll supplies the figures and the corporate-speak, while the more rough-hewn Matthews does the knockabout stories and punchlines. Joll has risen through the ranks after joining the company 31 years ago - ("And it doesn't seem a year too long," interjects Matthews, mischievously. "There's a song about that, isn't there?") - and the two are clearly friends as well as colleagues. Is he your right-hand man? "Absolutely, yes," says Matthews.

A source who has had frequent dealings with the company says that one of Matthews' skills has been to bring in good people. "They're not carrot-chewing yokels, as some people might think. They're very shrewd, and they know the business. One thing you should never do is underestimate them as an organisation. There's nothing amateurish about what goes on there." He describes Joll as "very switched on, probably the most knowledgeable person in the entire poultry industry".

Apart, perhaps, from Matthews himself, of course. One of four children, he was born in the Norfolk village of Brooke, in the depths of the Depression in 1930. His father, a motor mechanic, struggled to find work. His mother was a housekeeper. "I had a very hard life in my early days," he says. But he had a head for figures - "I was quite good at working out sums very fast" - and he won a scholarship to the City of Norwich school.

How did he do there? "Awful," he replies. He says that his headmaster was an early expert in the black art of rigging school reputations, by the simple expedient of excluding from the exam any pupil he thought might fail. "When it came to exam week, me and about 17 other boys were called into his office on the Friday afternoon. He said, 'Don't bother coming in on Monday; you're not taking them'. So I left at 16, with no exams to my name. But I think I was the luckiest guy in that school."

His brother-in-law, a farmer, suggested that the numerate young lad should have a go at becoming an auctioneer. There happened to be an ad in the paper for a trainee at a small Norwich firm, Waters & Son. Matthews was soon attending three livestock auctions a week, in the Norfolk country towns of Acle and Loddon, and * * the village of Wroxham. After two years, he left to complete his National Service in the RAF, then returned. His wages were £1.50 a week. "I knew I had to do something to make some money," he says. "One day, at Acle, there were 20 turkey eggs up for sale. I bought them for a shilling each. So that was £1. On the same day, in another part of the market, there was a small paraffin-oil incubator, which I bought for £1.10s. Total capital: £2.50."

In a friend's van, he took the eggs and incubator to his future mother-in-law's house, where he was then living, just outside Norwich. He put the incubator in her garden shed, and of the 20 eggs, 12 hatched. "I reared the birds in the shed for a bit, then I put them out on her lawn; then she got fed up with it. So I sold them to a farmer for 15 shillings each. I'd got nine quid now, so I thought, 'This is all right'.

"But what are the chances of that - of finding the eggs and the incubator at the same time?" (Otherwise, in an hour or two, the eggs would have gone cold and been fit only for an omelette.) "That is why I was the luckiest guy at that school," he says. "I was born lucky."

But, as the cliché has it, the harder he worked, the luckier he got. He took a job selling insurance for Commercial Union, but spent every night and weekend tending to the turkeys that he was now rearing on some rented ground. When he and Joyce married, their honeymoon was possibly the shortest in history. "Went to Great Yarmouth from Saturday afternoon to Sunday morning," he laughs. "Had to get back to feed the turkeys." Didn't Joyce mind? "No, she was a good worker," he murmurs. "So that was it."

It might seem a perverse decision to stay with turkeys, which really only sold once a year. "I always liked agriculture and the countryside," he counters. "And I certainly liked the birds. I thought they were fascinating animals. I did hatch a few geese once; they're not so interesting, so I got out of that. But I used to sit and watch blooming turkeys for hours, to see how they behaved, that kind of thing. And my assessment was right: there was more future for the turkey than there was for the goose."

The "future for the turkey" was a rather one-sided concept, however, because by 1959, he'd built his first processing factory at the top of the drive at Great Witchingham (there are three factories there now). And his meeting with Khrushchev was - eventually - to produce results. He began supplying technology and breeding stock to a string of Eastern bloc countries. "I was doing business with the Communists, having dinner with party bosses and ministers of agriculture, and meetings with huge committees in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania. We were getting £5 for turkey chicks that weighed 2oz - more expensive than caviar back then. But, of course, they could breed them until they had thousands."

But Matthews still had the problem that, by 1979, 90 per cent of his business was in oven-ready turkeys, the once-a-year Christmas treat. The following year, his pre-packed Turkey Breast Roast - and his famous, or infamous, television commercial - changed that overnight. The company had already been producing the Turkey Breast Roast for months, but it was a slow seller. The things were backing up in cold stores, to crisis point. Matthews either had to shift them, or cut production. He called in the top London ad agency, Ogilvy & Mather.

"I don't want O&M to be upset," he says, "but its punchline was, 'The only tough bird around here is me' - and it wasn't even original, because I'd seen a darned chicken advertisement in America with the same line. And I had the feeling, which they hadn't got, that you NEVER use the word 'tough' when you're selling meat. So they didn't know what they were doing. I pulled that bit out."

Matthews was reluctant to appear in the commercial himself, and had to be persuaded. But when he finally popped up in his Norfolk jacket and plus-fours saying, "They're bootiful, really bootiful", in his country burr, the line became a national catchphrase overnight. "I couldn't believe the publicity that came from it," he says. "I mean, Terry Wogan was referring to me on his show almost every morning. Did you see the Lenny Henry thing? And it took off on such a scale, we couldn't believe it. The stuff was pouring out of the stores."

He says that Tesco phoned him, threatening to stop selling the product unless he could supply more of it. Others might have panicked, but Bernard called their bluff. "I knew they'd never stop selling something that was going like hot cakes," he says, grinning. "So I said to them, 'Sorry, we're doing all we can'." Tesco meekly said that it would wait.

The ad campaign had cost £500,000 - but Matthews sold £2m-worth of Turkey Breast Roasts in eight days. "That was the real change in the company," he says. "Until that point, I didn't realise that you could really sell turkey in huge volumes." Emboldened by this extraordinary success, he has never employed an advertising agency since. He even creates the TV commercials for the Hungarian business himself. "Let everybody understand - I'm in absolute control of marketing," he says. He even does the firm's Christmas card, and proudly shows off this year's: a picture of Great Witchingham - no turkeys - in the snow.

He describes himself as just a "Norfolk boy" (in his local accent, it sounds like "bwoy"), but Bernard's a wily old bird - and clearly a tough one, too. In his office, with its huge, old polished desk and formal portrait, in oils, of a gigantic turkey, there's not a scrap of new technology; just a 1970s telephone with an old-fashioned circular dial. But there's nothing out-of-date about the business. In the industrialised food sector, it's renowned for its relentless product innovation, its state-of-the-art IT systems, and its highly automated plants, which turn living birds into processed and fiercely priced supermarket packs with murderous efficiency.

What has been Armageddon for turkeys has been good for Bernard. On the windowsill is a model of his private jet - a Cessna Citation - in which he still goes to Hungary to check on business, or to the villa that he's had for years in St Tropez. There, he's a neighbour of Brigitte Bardot's ex, the Sixties playboy Gunter Sachs. He recalls lavish parties there, and at other swish villas nearby. He turned up at one bash to find Count Basie - and his full orchestra - playing in the garden. ("It took a bit to impress me by then," he says. "But I was impressed by that.")

On the wall is a photograph of the Bernardette, one of the two massive ocean-going motor yachts he has owned. He shows me a brochure for his second boat, the 160ft Bellissima (alert linguists will note that this means "really bootiful" in Italian). He spent millions refitting it, only to sell it soon afterwards - at a tidy profit, of course. "I got fed up - there was always trouble with crews, and just too many problems. I like things that I can see every morning, and a boat you can't." (Not from the middle of Norfolk, anyway.) Still a keen sailor, he now charters big sailing yachts instead.

Also, in what seems to be a common trait among tycoons, he idolises a great military leader of the past. Matthews' hero is Lord Nelson, likewise a "Norfolk boy". He proudly states that, "after a real bloody battle", he has persuaded the authorities to put up new roadsigns on all the main routes into the district. They'll read: "Norfolk - Nelson's County"; and he's paying for them. He's also been a major benefactor of the recently opened Norfolk Nelson Museum in Great Yarmouth, and, over the years, the company has funded a slew of good causes in the county - from lifeboats at Caister, to a food-technology centre at a nearby school.

He and Joyce split up more than 20 years ago, and he lives alone, nearby, in the grounds of Great Witchingham, in surprising style. "I live in a big Chinese house, with a big sweeping roof. Did you know that?" he demands. (Fortunately, I could say that I did, having done extensive advance research against the possibility that Bernard might prove a cantankerous interviewee). Ever since he bought a Chinese carpet years ago, he's been a fan of Oriental decoration and architecture. This Chinese place, which he designed himself, must look extraordinary, set among the dank December Norfolk woods, but I wasn't invited to see it. His family is another no-go area. Concerned for their privacy and security, he asks me not to name his three - reportedly adopted - children (none of whom is involved in the business; and he also has a son by a former girlfriend, who lives abroad).

So, what was his motivation for doing all this, and building this huge empire - on turkeys? He gives a very honest - and touching - reply. "I think it was really to make money," he says. "When you've been really poor, like my family was..." He pauses, then restarts. "I was brought up in the 1930s, and that was an awful bloody period," he says. "And I used to think, 'I'm going to have something better than this'. And now I have. But I enjoyed developing the business. And I enjoyed working with the birds."

Whether the feeling has been mutual is another matter. Though Matthews is selling some free- range turkeys this Christmas, his and other intensive rearing operations raise questions about the ethics of "cheap" food. At my local Tesco in north London last week, his "large" turkeys (around 8kg) were on special offer, half-price at £12. His small ones (around 4kg) were also half-price - just £6. If there's a price to be paid for cheap turkey, the turkeys themselves are the ones who seem to be paying it.

Two years ago, undercover animal-welfare investigators brought out grim video footage of injured and crippled birds from one of the company's rearing sheds, which was aired on GMTV. Matthews' methods are similar to other intensive turkey-rearing operations, and better than many. But intensively reared birds are still condemned to live their brief lives - usually less than six months - densely packed inside windowless sheds with nothing to do except eat and shuffle around in the gloom. (The lighting is kept dim to render the birds docile, so that they will not attack and peck each other.) Selectively bred to put on massive amounts of weight in a short time, some develop leg problems - infected knee joints, dislocated hips.

The undercover film-maker and welfare campaigner who was instrumental in securing the GMTV footage - which was commissioned by the vegetarian campaign group Viva! - says that he has gained entry to Matthews' sheds on several occasions, the most recent being earlier this month. He asks not to be named. "Five years ago, it was absolutely disgusting: severe head pecking, and so on," he says. "But, to be honest, there has definitely been some improvement in the last two years." (He believes that since the Viva! footage was shown, the company has made more effort to remove sick and injured birds promptly.)

"But they've still got hardly any space to walk around in," he adds. "They don't have any quality of life at all. And this is where they stay, in these sheds, for the whole of their life. It's a prison sentence, isn't it?"

Matthews and Joll claim that the "intruders" themselves caused the injuries seen in the footage, by panicking the birds. (Absolutely untrue, says the film-maker.) And Joll stresses that there's a standing invitation for Defra, council welfare officials and the RSPCA to visit the sheds at any time, with no prior notice required.

Matthews insists that indoor rearing is the only real option, because turkeys kept outside will pick up fatal infections from migrating birds and other sources. "The only way you can do it outside is to feed the birds a lot of drugs, all the time, to stop them getting disease," he says.

Not so, insists Andrew Dennis, who last month won the coveted title of Producer of the Year in the Organic Food Awards. On his 1,700-acre Woodlands Organic Farm near Boston in Lincolnshire, owned by his family for four generations, he raises traditional livestock breeds, cereals and vegetables - and around 700 turkeys a year. It's a tiny operation compared to Matthews', and couldn't be more different.

"Our birds have access to paddocks and orchards from about four weeks old; they have shelter, but they spend almost all of their time outside, and they go up to roost in the trees, walk around, eat windfall apples, and they haven't required or received any veterinary treatment at all this year," says Dennis.

He says that intensive farming of turkeys is cruel because it prevents them from expressing instinctive behaviour. "Turkeys are originally woodland birds, from the forests of Mexico and North America. If they're in those windowless sheds, they can't express their natural habits, such as to roost at night. They've barely got enough room to walk around, let alone flap their wings. Turkeys were my first organic enterprise here, 10 years ago, because I felt that they were among the most abused and persecuted of all farm animals.

"My aim was to try to demonstrate that they could be reared in a different way. I slaughter them myself, in the traditional manner, out of sight of one another to try to give them some dignity in death, as in life," he says. "And I would be very happy to show anyone round my farm - and show them the birds being slaughtered as well. I would hope that Bernard Matthews would feel comfortable doing the same."