The new chief at Northern Ireland’s Dale Farm Co-op (formerly United Group) has now taken up the reins, but before he can execute his plans for the business, he has to deal with a milk shortage. Chris McCullough reports.
The new man at the helm of the recently renamed Dale Farm Co-op says his main goal is to deliver profitable growth for the business and to pay his farmer members more for their milk.
Nick Whelan is just five months into the Dale Farm group chief executive post and has already made some changes in the company. He has a strong vision of where he wants to lead Dale Farm’s 1300 farmer members in the future.
For some years the United Group sat at the bottom of the processor price league tables, but now it proudly leads the way.
Mr Whelan says: “During the recent AGM the board agreed to rename United Dairy Farmers and its Dale Farm processing arm as simply Dale Farm Co-op Ltd or Dale Farm for short.”
The 44 year-old Wexford man started off delivering milk round the doorsteps for a year after graduating with a Bachelor of Commerce degree from University College, Cork, in 1995, before climbing the ladder through a number of different dairy processing companies.
He spent 11 years with the Kerry Group and then moved on to Glanbia as commercial director from 2007 to this year, before being headhunted for the big Dale Farm job.
Today he, his Kerry-born wife Sandra and their three daughters, have moved to Belfast to start a new life and, in his words, ‘reconnect’ with the 1300 farmers which supply Dale Farm.
Speaking about his role, he says: “Dale Farm is a business with significant potential.
“I’m excited at the opportunities available in the business. It’s got a number of genuine assets, including a loyal and ambitious farm supplier base.”
Dale Farm employs 1300 staff and has average annual sales of £420 million over the past five years, but it only has a 1 per cent profit margin of £4.2m, which Mr Whelan wants to improve.
“I am not happy with the profit margin and my goal is to make more profit from our milk pool and to pay farmers higher prices.
“We are paying an average of 27.5ppl to our farmers, which is a base price plus bonuses for winter production and quality.
“This includes a 0.3ppl bonus each month for loyalty and 4p for every extra litre farmers produced in October to December over their production in the same period in 2015,” he says.
Some farmers were confused when Dale Farm recently put out a request for more milk, says Mr Whelan.
“I am having to ration some cheese and dessert products to customers as we do not have enough milk. We need more suppliers to ensure our facilities are running to capacity. We have a precious milk pool at Dale Farm and need to protect it.
“Our customers demand the security of a constant supply of product and, with the Red Tractor quality assured label, this is something we can guarantee.”
He also feels Dale Farm is in an excellent position to supply customers in the rest of the UK.
He says: “Even as Brexit develops, we have an assured supply to our UK markets free from currency fluctuations and trading tariffs.
“We do not source any milk from the Republic of Ireland but we do sell products there.
“Brexit will affect us if the UK government does not carry on with a support mechanism to replace the Basic Payment Scheme come 2020. If they don’t, then this has the potential to wipe out the entire industry.
“Also, 23 per cent of our workforce are not UK nationals –we want to hold on to them.”
Mr Whelan stresses his five-year plan is to use all Dale Farm’s assets, in terms of the loyal farmer base and the modern processing facilities, to concentrate on extracting more profit from every litre produced.
“I want to reconnect with our farmers,” he says. “We are going to open the place up and let them tour the factories. After all, it is their Dale Farm, and we are only the hired hands.”