Profile: The bootiful dreamer: Bernard Matthews dislikes fame. He wants to be left alone to devise more ideas for turkeys. Chris Blackhurst reports

Chris Blackhurst
Sunday 27 December 1992 00:02

Everybody knows the 'bootiful' Bernard Matthews. We watch his adverts, we eat his turkeys, we groan at the very mention of his name.

Market research shows that 97 per cent of us - a remarkably high statistic - recognise Bernard Matthews products. Two days ago, 9 million households ate a whole turkey for Christmas dinner, of which 3.5 million were supplied by Matthews.

Yet, strangely, he is not the self-publicist he once was. He does not appear in the commercials with the same regularity; he tries not to say 'bootiful', and he is unavailable for interview.

Even the process of trying to arrange to see him is at odds with his public face. Interview requests must be made in writing. Days pass. Nothing. His secretary says he will deal with the post 'on Wednesday'. Wednesday comes and goes. Finally, after a prompting telephone call, a short, terse, letter arrives: thanks but no thanks.

The reason, I am assured, is not personal. He is too busy to see the press. But there may be another reason for his non- availability. Two years ago, he cut an interview short when the journalist started asking about turkey farming and the environment (he was prosecuted twice in 1990 for polluting local East Anglian rivers with effluent). When the questioning turned to the welfare of his turkeys and the working conditions of his 2,600 local employees, the interview was abruptly terminated.

He comes across on television as ruddy-cheeked, chubby and cuddly. In the flesh, he looks more like the rustic ox he pretends to be. Six foot tall and powerfully built, he appears to have spent his life grafting in the fields. But for all his tough exterior, Matthews takes himself and his turkeys very seriously. When he says the birds are 'bootiful', he speaks from the heart. Criticism, no matter how slight, hurts him deeply.

He appears on television and we all have a good laugh, but underneath, say his friends, he is a serious, retiring figure who wants to be left alone to find new ways of selling turkeys. 'I hate watching myself on TV, hearing myself speak, I find it very embarrassing,' he once said in a rare moment of candour.

Unlike other businessmen of similar stature, he doesn't talk grandly about politics, the problems besetting 'the (Conservative) party', the need to cut interest rates again or when recovery will come. Nor does he like to talk about himself or his wealth - reckoned to be pounds 50m. He talks turkeys. Not just the big plump birds that squeeze into the nation's ovens but smaller, specially bred 'mini-birds', Tom Toms (turkey balls with a centre of thickened tomato sauce), turkey and pork sausages, turkey Kievs, turkey burgers, turkey steaks.

Anybody struggling to find a suitable recipe for left-over turkey today, it seems, could do worse than get in touch with Matthews.

Remarkably, he got into turkeys late. Born in 1930, he started his working life as an auctioneer's clerk earning 35 shillings a week. To supplement his income, he searched for something that did not take a great deal of time and was a guaranteed money-spinner. Turkey eggs were the answer. In those days, the turkey was a luxury item, costing 10 times the price of lamb, with a high in-built profit margin.

He bought 20 eggs and a paraffin oil incubator. But the venture was not as lucrative as he had hoped - he had not calculated for the additional cost of feed for the birds. He packed in his job at the auction house and became an insurance clerk. Once he had money to spare, he bought more turkeys. This time, the wind blew their shelter away and they escaped.

Undeterred, he tried again - on a much grander, bizarre scale. He splashed out pounds 3,000 on Great Witchingham Hall, once the home of an 18th-century man of letters, John Norris, but by then mostly dilapidated, and filled its 35 rooms with turkeys. They were hatched in the dining-room, reared in the Jacobean bedrooms and slaughtered in the kitchens.

A friend in the business who knew him then recalls: 'It was a great house which he bought very cheap, and he had these turkeys growing in the rooms.' In those days, the turkey industry consisted of 8,000 farmers producing a handful of birds each.

The new squire of Great Witchingham quickly established himself as the leading player in the industry - a position he still holds. After filling the house, he moved into the surrounding acres. Then, in 1958, he bought his first disused airfield. The concrete runway was ideally suited for turkey houses. The birds were moved to the airfield.

It was a typically shrewd move - aerodromes were secure and isolated - and he acquired a further five. He built the first big turkey slaughterhouse and went into large-scale production. But instead of producing big plump birds, which were then considered the norm, he set his own standard. Normal turkeys were too big for most people's ovens and too hard on their pockets. He bred a smaller bird and took the oven-ready market by storm.

Output rose and rose, from 5,000 a year to 10,000 and onwards and upwards. He undercut the opposition, brought prices down and popularised the turkey.

He made the frozen turkey his staple product, but it was not enough: most of his earnings came in one fell swoop at Christmas, and by the mid-Seventies even that market was showing signs of saturation. So he set about making the turkey an all-year non-luxury product. He chopped it up and repackaged the bits, and invented the individual portion.

Then came his cleverest trick. Among his new products was the turkey roast. Unfortunately, it could only be rolled, slowly, by hand. In 1978, his company invented an extrusion technique that involves stripping the meat off the bone and rolling mechanically. Output soared: the new method was so efficient and quick that the company was making more roasts than it needed.

He called in Ogilvy & Mather, the advertising agency, which came up with a campaign starring Matthews himself. He appeared in it reluctantly, and the business never looked back. There was something about the ruddy-cheeked, tweed-suited farmer standing in front of his mansion, extolling the virtues of his birds in an East Anglian burr, that struck a chord. It was simple and wholesome, and it worked.

Demand soared by almost 20 times and for a while turkey roasts even equalled lamb in popularity.

Matthews was no fool. When the big supermarkets and rival manufacturers tried to duplicate his success, they found his products were protected by impenetrable patents. 'It's unusual to patent in this industry,' said the head of a rival producer. 'Within five minutes of a new item being launched, everyone is screaming 'me too', but Bernard covered his backside. He took patents out and people found his products were not so easily reproduced.'

Another turkey industry chief agreed. 'Bernard was very astute. He put turkey in the form of processed meat into every housewife's shopping basket.'

Unlike other food manufacturers, who have seen their brand awareness eroded as the supermarket chains have brought out their own-label copies, Bernard Matthews has gone from strength to strength. An annual advertising budget of more than pounds 10m has given his company the kind of recognition enjoyed by Birds Eye, Kellogg's and Nestle.

As proof of the brand's power, when he diversified into chickens in 1986, a survey showed 40 per cent of housewives thought he had been selling chickens already. Profits have remained resilient in the recession, peaking at pounds 15.5m in 1990 and falling back slightly to pounds 13.2m last year.

But it has not all been plain sailing. Some of the moves away from turkeys, in particular, have not worked. Ready-made pasta and curry meals for supermarket chains have not been a huge success. His venture into New Zealand lamb is making little headway, and pet foods have not taken off. At the same time, he remains firmly entrenched at what has become the lower- margin and increasingly unfashionable end of the business: frozen foods. And he has not tilted his cap at the most lucrative supermarket customer, Marks & Spencer.

Matthews is 62, and his family controls 40 per cent of the company. He lives apart from his wife Joyce, who helped him rear his turkeys in the early days. He will not divorce her out of loyalty. They have three adopted children, and he has a son by a Dutch woman. Industry watchers think his senior management, especially David Joll, the managing director, are high-quality but they cannot be entirely sure, because of the iron grip still exercised by Matthews himself.

He does not flaunt his wealth. His two big concessions to multi-millionaire status are his 158ft yacht Bellissima (he is very proud of the pun) and a Rolls-Royce. Otherwise, he lives a careful, modest life. Friends say he likes nothing more than an evening at Great Witchingham testing out his latest idea in his kitchen.

Not everyone, though, may be as taken by it - there is always that 3 per cent that has never heard of his products. Last month, he went to Buckingham Palace to collect his CBE from the Queen. She asked him which part of the poultry business he was in.

'I said turkeys. She said, 'Where do you come from?' and I replied Norfolk. Then she said, 'Ah, a lot of turkeys come from Norfolk.' ' What was Matthews's verdict? 'It's a bootiful occasion.' Naturally.

(Photograph omitted)

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