Exclusive interview: Moy Park’s commercial director Gary Leslie tells Poultry Business about rapid growth, Brexit, and lessons from its new American owners

Moy Park operations director Gary Leslie talks 20% growth, learning from America, and taking on the competition.

It’s been quite a year for Moy Park. As the biggest private sector employer in Northern Ireland with 12,500 staff, the poultry processor has increased by 20% production since 2015. It now processes six million birds per week, up from 4.8 million four years ago, and supplies 30% of the UK poultry market.

The huge investment in upgrading its plants with state-of-the-art equipment helped Moy Park win the processor of the year gong at last year’s National Egg & Poultry Awards.

If 20% growth wasn’t a big enough challenge, in 2017, Moy Park was acquired by US-based Pilgrim’s Pride from its previous owners JSB, and since then the two organisations have embarked on a programme of sharing knowledge of US and European best practice that’s resulted in some big changes.

In an exclusive interview, Gary Leslie, operations director of Moy Park, tells Poultry Business how the team has risen to the challenge – and discusses frankly how as a business on the geographical frontline of Brexit, Moy Park is preparing for every possible scenario in the coming weeks.

“Reaching six million birds per week was a huge achievement for Moy Park,” says Leslie. “We had a growth project team that looked at our complete supply chain base from our agricultural capacity, to hatchery ability, to feed milling through to production capacity.

“So, we pulled that together and we looked at a plan to go from 4.8 million to six million over a three-year period, and then we put that challenge back to the commercial guys to deliver an order book to match that capacity.”

In the firm’s processing plants, this meant big changes. Moy Park expanded its Dungannon facility and invested in its Anwick facility. It made smaller investments in its Ballymena and Ashbourne sites.

The aim was to expand the overall processing capacity and increase speed. “At Dungannon we invested in the two existing kill lines with a speed increase that matched the latest technology and we added increased chilling capacity,” says Leslie. “Then we repositioned the product flow to make it much more efficient to match the increase in pace. We added inline cutting equipment along with additional deboning equipment and also robotic pick and place equipment to allow us to be able to process the additional volume with the same number of people we employed.”

Establishing the blueprint

Once the blueprint had been established at Dungannon, the same plan was enacted at Anwick two years later. Marel was chosen to supply the cutting, deboning and robotic pick and place equipment. Meyn was the firm’s slaughtering partner for two sites. Marel was also able to provide equipment to harvest the livers, gizzards and hearts as part of an inline solution.

Given the big changes over the past few years, does Moy Park have any more planned investment in automation? “We are constantly looking at the ability to invest in our process as technology improves and line speeds increase,” says Leslie. “Where we invested in our Dungannon facility at 12,000 birds per hour, the capability of equipment has moved on and those speeds can go slightly up. Thankfully we have a close working relationship with the machinery suppliers and they have said in three to four years’ time they expect to be able to supply bigger and quicker machines, so we fit the footprint in to allow us to put that in. So, we haven’t invested in the equipment but we have the capability to upgrade the lines further.”

New owners

Working with Moy Park’s new owners, Pilgrim’s Pride, has also provided the opportunity to learn different processing techniques, says Leslie. “One of our smaller plants in Ballymena is quite manual and they supported us in how to utilise more efficient manual techniques based on their experience of being a very manual operation.

“They taught us techniques that proved to be a lot less demanding on the operators and improved our retention, so it was very good.

“They also introduced some management techniques on operational excellence, using playbooks that made things more simple, so there is a very clear way of operating.”

But as Leslie explains, it is a two way process, and Pilgrim’s Pride has learnt a lot from Moy Park’s systems.

“We have given back to them a lot of our inline processing systems with data collection, bringing all our data analysis to their ways of working, to help them make more informed decisions on the process. So, it works in two ways.

“They are processing experts in the US, and we are helping to bring some European ideas. They are facing the same problems as we are here with the shrinking availability of labour, so they are now stepping in to more automation and they are benchmarking from us and how we are utilising more inline automation.”

Although automation is often thought of as a labour-saving, Leslie says this wasn’t the aim for Moy Park, despite concerns about access to labour after Brexit.  

“When we first approached it we approached it as getting additional volume with the same number of people, so we didn’t see it as a labour reducing process, we saw it as retaining the same people by processing more volume,” says Leslie. “And we need to upskill our people to deal with the more complicated equipment.”

This is unlikely to change, he adds. “We are facing the challenge of labour supply because of the workforce from Eastern Europe, so we are looking at how we can maintain that supply of labour. But we also have a programme of apprenticeships and graduates to ensure we have a labour force that’s fit for the future requirements.”

The labour challenge

Clearly, access to labour post-Brexit is a huge issue across the whole sector – a challenged described as ‘business critical’ by organisations including the NFU. How is the business preparing and how concerned is Leslie about filling vacancies?

“We have strong partnerships with the local community and we work with the local schools to ensure we are a go-to employer,” he says. “We also work with specific labour providers and we build strong relationships with fewer labour providers so we can ensure we get the correct number of people coming into our business. And we ensure that when we have people that we provide them with as much training as we possibly can.”

Moy Park is now 18 months into running its own apprenticeship scheme. “One of the things we are doing, and we have focussed in on is certain job functions – quality assurance, technical people, maintenance. So even with automation you need key skilled jobs and to ensure people have an understanding of the safety perspective.”

It’s clear though, that Northern Ireland’s agrifood sector’s concerns about Brexit don’t start and end with accessing labour. From its headquarters in Craigavon, County Armagh, Moy Park is on the geographical front line, and all the political arguments about the implications of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic are for Moy Park far from theoretical.

Almost 80,000 tonnes of poultry litter a year is sent over the Irish border by farmers and businesses, but under a no-deal Brexit, EU rules mean the untreated waste could not be exported.

 “A high proportion of our by-products cross the border into the republic,” he says. “We have considerable movements of goods between north and south, so we need to be able to ensure we have sustainable end customers for those products. Our Litter Utilisation Strategy contains a range of contingency measures should the movement of animal waste be curtailed after 29 March 2019. We will continue to work closely with the relevant authorities including the Northern Ireland Environmental Agency and the Department of the Environment and Rural Affairs on this matter.”

At the time of writing, one month before the UK is due to leave the EU, and without clarity over the terms of the exit, Moy Park is doing all it can to plan for every scenario.

The Brexit frontline

“We have a Brexit project team where we have senior members of the business to ensure we have as deep an insight into what’s going to happen beyond the date. We are also trying to ensure decision makers have as much insight and awareness of the potential impact of their decisions , given our geographical position, with one of our facilities only 12 miles from the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

“Divergence in standards, changes at customs and uncertainty over tariffs and quotas are all likely to impact on our outputs from farm through to fork and those of our business partners.  Although there will be changes in the months ahead, we are confident that we have a robust business that can continue to innovate, thrive and grow.”

Given the multiple uncertainties of the coming year, Moy Park has spent a lot of time focussing on the things it can control including building its relationships with retailers. The changes in the retail landscape, including the growth of the discounters, the planned merger between Sainsbury’s and Asda (now up in the air after an unfavourable report from the CMA), and the growth of online grocery, mean a partnership approach is more important than ever before to ensure everyone in the supply chain gets a fair deal.

“We are having to consistently differentiate ourselves from our competition,” says Leslie. “We are having to build long term strategic relationships with retailers. We need the retailers, but they also need the suppliers and we want to make sure we are the supplier of choice, so we are building up these partnerships and then that leads into more and more long-term agreements rather than just transactional arrangements.

Retail challenges

This means being able to provide what the retailers need when they need it, even if that changes frequently, and without any compromise in quality or food safety.

“When they increase demand at short-notice we have the capability to react. We do the basics as well as we can so if there is an issue it’s not because it’s been a poultry product supplied by Moy Park. We try and make sure they need us as much as we need them. There is an awful lot of relationship-building and shared KPIs to make sure we are in the position where we can meet what they need us to do.”

This work extends right the way through the supply chain, starting on farm. “There is an expectation that the food that people consume must come from the appropriate supply chain and we are endeavouring to ensure our supply chains are at the forefront of welfare, food safety, pathogen reduction, and we are making sure we have supply chains to deliver that level of confidence.

“We also work closely with the relevant subject matter experts in the retailers and also the regulation bodies to ensure our processes are seen as at the forefront and head of the pack, including work we are doing around stocking densities and husbandry.”

Leslie says Moy Park is interested the potential of insect protein as an alternative source of feed on poultry farms. “We have been following an insect protein quite closely and know quite a bit about the issues involved and the pros and cons,” he says. “With regard to trying it out on farm trials, it is against legislation as it currently stands but we actually have an ag innovation team that will look at what’s possible from a nutrition point of view and touch base with all the relevant subject matter experts to see if this is in the best interests of the animal.”

In the meantime, Leslie says there is plenty to be optimistic about, with growth in the poultry sector forecast to continue for the foreseeable future. This is something Moy Park is well placed to capitalise on.

“We have evidence of the poultry market continuing to grow in cost conversion for consumers. And we see the market growing,” he says. “There are different views on whether the market is going to grow at 4% or 3%, but the market has been growing consistently and as the population continues to grow people will look to consume more protein and poultry is very well positioned to continue to meet those demands.

“The UK consumer loves fresh locally farmed British poultry and we don’t see that changing much and that is what we are building as our key differential. We are totally focussed on fresh locally farmed British poultry.”




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