Published in The Financial Times

Whatever happened to Bernard Matthews? Not that long ago he was on television every day, in those adverts where, if memory serves, he stood outside his country mansion, stroked packets of his Turkey Roast and told the world they were “bootiful” in a broad Norfolk accent. And even when the adverts stopped, he was in the papers, being (ahem) basted for his company’s animal welfare and food standards, or explaining, in the City pages, why investors should take a punt on his (ahem) turkey stock.

In recent years there has not been a peep from him. Not a cluck. But fear not. Mr Matthews is alive and well. He is still selling turkey products by the lorry-load, working out of Great Witchingham Hall, his 37-room Elizabethan manor. And he is still a Norfolk man through and through. He even drives a Lexus, like Alan Partridge, the county’s second most famous resident.

Now 73, the turkey tycoon is clearly no spring chicken and his company is no longer listed on the stock market, having been taken private in December 2000. But otherwise things are much as they were. “I’m still the person who controls the marketing of the company, absolutely,” booms Mr Matthews, in his oak-panelled office. He is only slightly less ruddy-cheeked and chubby than he was in the ads. “I still write the commercials. I still do the voice-overs. Somebody else might do the spiel to start with, but I’ll always do the ‘bootiful’ bit at the end. The people making some of the new TV adverts have been pressing me quite hard to go on screen again but I’m not keen. I’m too old.”

Mr Matthews is not the only well preserved item at Great Witchingham Hall. Indeed, if someone were to establish a national business museum, his head office would have to be the chief exhibit. Efficient ladies serve coffee in china on silver trays. Clocks tick loudly in improbably quiet offices. Telephones do not emit subtle, modern beeps; they ring like fire alarms. The chairman’s office does not contain a computer. It does, however, have several paintings of turkeys by a 19th-century Flemish artist, a couple of porcelain turkeys, numerous trophies for turkey-breeding and photos of Mr Matthews meeting the Duke of Edinburgh, Khrushchev and one of the Two Ronnies.

Mr Matthews himself is ensconced in a red leather swivel chair behind a vast wooden desk. He begins with a warning: I am not allowed to ask about his personal life. I remind him that the FT tends to concentrate on the businesses of entrepreneurs rather than their private lives and crack on with the first question: how does running a private company compare with running a listed one? “If you’re going to go into detail, I’d like David Joll, my managing director down here. He will know a lot more than I do.” He presses a button on the old-fashioned cream phone on his desk. The other two are brown and hot-line red. A voice chirps back. “Hello chairman, morning. I’ll come down.”

Mr Joll strides in and sits down next to Mr Matthews. It becomes apparent that their relationship is as old-fashioned as the rest of the company. There is no new-fangled “we work as equals in a team” nonsense. Mr Matthews is the boss and Mr Joll, a 55-year-old Yorkshireman who joined the company in 1973, is a worker. Mr Joll addresses Mr Matthews as “the chairman” at all times. He is at his desk at 7am every day, when the chairman calls from his home across the river for an update. It is clearly a warm relationship – the two men engage in endless jolly banter with each other – but Mr Joll does have the air of being slightly hen-pecked.

Looking tiny next to Mr Matthews, Mr Joll contemplates how business has been since the company ended its near 30-year career on the stock market. “We are able to spend more time on the actual business, rather than thinking about what we are going to say to the City,” he says, carefully. “We are able to take a longer-term view on projects.” Is there anything either of them misses? “No, nothing,” Mr Matthews says after a long pause. “We weren’t getting a great deal out of it. I think the point should be made that we never went back to the City for money.”

The answer is not surprising: by the time the Matthews family, which then had a 42 per cent stake, decided to take the company private, the technology boom had rendered food companies, and in particular medium-sized food companies, deeply unfashionable. However, Mr Matthews had the last laugh when, soon after they went private, a lot of those popular technology stocks suffered cataclysmic falls. “They got away from the basics, didn’t they?” he squawks, laughing a deep, triumphant belly laugh. “They wanted all that fluffy stuff all the time.”

Mr Matthews and his family bought the company back with the aid of a £150m loan, in a deal that valued it at £232m. Since then, this gloriously old-fashioned business has experienced notable success. Accounts from Companies House show that sales and profits leapt in the first year after de-listing, with operating profits of £51.4m in 2001, a 50 per cent rise.

“We have to be careful there with those figures,” says Mr Matthews, who can’t help smiling as the numbers are reeled off. “It looks as though we bought a company at a low price and then made a fortune with it. We did make a lot more money – but the reason was the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the UK, the shortage of red meat that caused and the positive approach of the consumer towards poultry meat. Poultry consumption just rocketed away. We were literally working round the clock to satisfy that demand, without the need for advertising. It was artificial, in a way.”

It may be artificial but the rise in profits has been useful, enabling the company to refinance and reduce its debts last December. But Mr Matthews stresses that investors did not get a bad deal. “When we were floated on the stock exchange in 1971 the total value of the company was £4m. When we bought it back it was £232m. So anybody who stayed with us got £58 for every pound they started with. That’s a fantastic investment.”

Mr Matthews, too, has certainly come a long way. He began his murderously successful working relationship with turkeys in the 1950s when, while a trainee auctioneer, he saw 20 turkey eggs and a small paraffin oil-heated incubator for sale. Paying the equivalent of £2.50 for them, he set up a hatchery in his garden shed and of the 20 eggs, 12 hatched. After four weeks he sold them to a local farmer for 15 shillings each ( £9 in total). It is a seasonal business, so he waited until the following year, bought more eggs and incubators and carried on building the business. When he learnt of tax breaks on farm buildings, he filled the bedrooms of a mansion he bought for just £3,000 with day-old turkeys. It was, he calculated, cheaper to keep birds inside his home than in runs outside.

The company went public in 1971 but the business did not really take off until Mr Matthews started selling so-called value-added products such as the famous Turkey Roast. And those adverts were the turning-point. He estimates that his self-starring campaign led to 500 per cent growth in the business over 10 years. “Before I launched the Turkey Roast and before those adverts, people just ate turkey at Christmas. The adverts were enormous. I had Lenny Henry and Jim Davidson taking the mickey, Terry Wogan would refer to me on his show, and people began to talk about Norfolk as ‘bootiful country’.”

In 1979, 90 per cent of his business was in oven-ready turkeys; today only 3.5 per cent is. Christmas accounts for just 5 per cent of his turnover. And the company now sells more than just turkey products; Mr Joll says that of about £440m in annual revenue, £300m is generated in the UK and of that 85 per cent comes from turkey-based products such as Golden Drummers and Mini Kievs. The rest comes from chicken, pork and even fish and pizza products.

“As you probably realise, one of the strengths of this company has been its marketing ability,” says the man who persuaded the public that a turkey’s not just for Christmas. “We are now the biggest producers of cooked sliced meats in the UK. The turkey company was the base of it but it’s becoming something quite different these days – it’s now a meat marketing company. You might be surprised to see a leg of New Zealand lamb with my name on it.”

Marketing is Mr Matthews’ favourite subject. He repeatedly stresses that he still controls every aspect of his company’s marketing, and gets into a bit of a flap when I cite Andy Watts, a recent appointment, as marketing director. “Well he’s a marketing manager, he’s not on the board yet by any means,” retorts Mr Matthews, his feathers ruffled. “And he’s very new. I still control the whole thing completely. I’ve just written a commercial that is going to be out in a month or two.”

His second favourite subject is France. Bernard Matthews is now an international company: in addition to its seven factories, 73 farms, two hatcheries and a feed mill in the UK, it also has one cooked meat factory in Germany, three lamb factories in New Zealand and one very large turkey complex in Hungary, where it operates under the Saga Foods brand. But despite valiant efforts, including a multi-million-pound advertising campaign, Mr Matthews has failed to make a lasting impact in France. Why did it not work out? “Because I’m English and they are French,” he says, his scornful tone belying the fact that he spends a lot of time in St Tropez. “It’s as simple as that. The French look after their own when it comes to food production. We tried cooked meats and they started to sell very well, but the next thing we had someone copying them and they wanted to produce them in a French factory.”

The company insists, pluckily you might say, that there is more than enough growth potential outside France and the US, another territory where expansion has stalled. “I think all the companies about to enter the European Union are very interesting for us,” says Mr Matthews. “We are in them already – we are the brand leader in Hungary by a mile, we are the biggest producers of frankfurters in central Europe and as their standard of living (and) wages rise, so will the opportunities for us.”

He adds that he hopes turnover will double within 10 years, which itself raises the question: when will the chairman retire? “I don’t know. I haven’t thought about that yet,” says Mr Matthews, who still spends about 20 hours a week in the office. “I don’t see myself completely retiring, unless I get so bloody stupid that I can’t think properly – and I may be heading that way at the moment!” He laughs another deep belly laugh. But then there’s the even more pertinent question: who will inherit and run Bernard Matthews, one of Britain’s largest private companies, when the time comes for him to run the great turkey farm in the sky?

Newspaper reports say he is separated from his wife Joyce but that they are still friendly, and have three adopted children. Reports also say he has a son by a Dutch woman. But when I venture into this forbidden territory after the interview I am offered no comment except: Bernard and Joyce Matthews have three children. It is clearly a sensitive issue. But he does reveal that none of his children is involved in the business. “I have some children but I don’t know whether they’ll be up to the job of taking over the company. You have got to be careful about employing children – what you have to do is employ people who can do the job.”

He adds that there is no clear plan for what will happen after he is gone. “I think those problems will be dealt with when I’m not around.” Could it be that David Joll will replace him? “He’s got a small stake in the company but, without going any further, his stake will be bigger,” he says, mysteriously. “I can’t say when – I don’t know when it will be, but he has a promise from me that he will have a substantial holding.”

Mr Joll tries not to look pleased with himself; and then it is time for photos. The moment the tape recorder is turned off, Mr Matthews visibly relaxes and begins to speak more freely. He talks about how those infamous adverts came about in 1980. The agency Ogilvy & Mather asked him to front the campaign. After numerous takes, Mr Matthews refused to stick to the script, which originally ended: “The only tough bird around here is me.”

“I thought it was a terrible line – it would plant the negative notion of tough meat in the consumer’s mind. That’s when I came up with ‘bootiful’ … I had no idea how big it would become. It all turned out, well …” He winks a mischievous wink.

“Well, it all turned out bootiful.”

Published 11 September 2003
(c) 2003 The Financial Times Limited