From milk man to CEO – Nick Whelan speaks to NR

Nick Whelan, who began his career as a milk man, is now CEO of one of Northern Ireland’s most iconic firms, United Dairy Farmers. He speaks to Neighbourhood Retailer about his plans for the company.

United Dairy Farmers, a dairy cooperative owned by 1,400 farmer members, is one of Northern Ireland’s biggest companies.

Owner of the huge Dale Farm operation and its successful brand, its annual turnover is around £400 million, while it employs some 1,200 people.

Now a former milk man, with a Bachelor of Commerce from University College Cork, is its new chief executive.

Nick Whelan, whose most recent post was commercial director of million-Euro Irish food business, Glanbia, has stepped into the top job, replacing long-serving former boss David Dobbin.

Speaking to Neighbourhood Retailer from his office in Dale Farm House, Belfast, Nick explained his career had “come full circle” with his new appointment.

“I started as a graduate in Kerry Foods as a milk man, actually,” he said. “To say I’ve learned a lot since then would be a big understatement.”

Convivial and relaxed throughout the interview, Nick talked openly about his career to date.

“The Kerry group were an amazing company to work for,” he explained, retracing his rise from sales manager to sales director, to commercial director, and then business unit director.

“I progressed from milk man to sales manager before spending time working with them across the UK and in the south of France as business unit director at Kerry Ingredients Europe.”

Nick was then approached by Glanbia, and joined them as commercial director.

“They were an excellent company to work for,” he said. “The company went through a great period of growth and business development. I learned a lot about people management, strategic development, and business execution.

“Now I feel really privileged to have the opportunity to work further on these skills as CEO at Dale Farm.”

Nick was able to get off on the right foot from the off. At the Annual General Meeting in Cookstown in November , he announced a healthy increase to the milk prices payable to its members.

As a go-between for milk producing farmers, and milk buying retailers, Dale Farm can have a tough role in finding mutually beneficial outcomes for both sets of stakeholders.

He told members that Dale Farm was able to provide a 2.5p per litre increase on its base milk price, along with the 2 pence per litre winter bonus paid for October, November, and December.

It has been welcome news to local farmers, who have faced crippling prices over the past 18 months due to chronic world oversupply and continuing embargoes in huge markets such as Russia.

Towards the end of November, Dale Farm also revealed a new deal with Asda in Northern Ireland, in which its 16 local stores will be the first retailer to stock Dale Farm Farmers’ Milk, retailing at £1.12 – 25 pence above the price for a standard 2 litres. The additional 25p will be returned to Dale Farm and shared equally among the company’s farmer owners.

“We’ve been communicating the changes to our members since August through a series of face-to-face meetings, the media, and through our extensive communication network,” he said.

“The message we wanted to get across is that we genuinely understand the crisis they’re in. We have real empathy for their position.

“Our aim was to go out and aggressively increase prices as quickly as possible. A lot of our contracts are done over monthly, quarterly, and yearly periods, so it was important to explain change would not happen overnight.

“We needed a few months to get legally-binding contracts, and our customers have been very supportive of what we’re trying to do. So now we’ve done what we set out to do, and that’s very rewarding.”

Nick explained it was important Dale Farm protected its relationship with both retailers and milk producers, and that the job involved the impossible task of managing market volatility.

“We’ll never be able to fully protect against volatilities in a global market,” he said. “The only reality of a global market is that it’s going to be volatile – that’s the one thing we have certainty about. So it’s about how we manage that volatility.

“There are so many variables in a global market; the weather in New Zealand or China can affect prices here. Government interventions can play a huge role, and even the price of soya or oil can have an effect.”

And according to Nick, recent political events haven’t helped settle the turbulent world markets.

“Brexit has triggered significant activity throughout the market,” he said. “There has been a 20% devaluation of Sterling against the Euro, and that’s very significant.”

However, Nick said that in the two or three months since Brexit, retailers had come to fully appreciate the ability of Dale Farm to take risk out of the market.

“A lot of our products are sold into the UK, but one of our relative strengths is that we don’t present our customers with a currency risk. We’ve got a stable supply of milk and a sustainable source for our retailers.”

It’s not a gimmick, it’s genuinely beneficial for sports nutrition

Brexit isn’t the only political event to have shaken up world markets. The shock election of a property investor and self-confessed tax-dodger, turned gameshow host, to arguably the most powerful office in the world has also injected a little uncertainty into the markets.

“The election of Donald Trump has already prompted currency fluctuations on the dollar, so it’ll have an effect,” Nick said, before adding that – at least for now – it was unlikely the affect would be as significant as Brexit.

Uncertainty may be rife, but it isn’t hampering Dale Farm’s risk taking, as the company continues to innovate, with a series of new product launches.

For Nick, the company’s dedication to invention is a source of pride and surprise.

“We have an absolutely fantastic track record of new product development here,” he said. “Some 30% of all products, and 30% of revenues is from products launched within the past three years.

“There are very different products coming through in many different categories, which is why we’re such a good partner for retailers.”

Nick spoke about Dale Farm’s recently launched protein milk range, the company’s first foray into that market.

“It’s not a gimmick, it’s genuinely beneficial for sports nutrition,” he said. “It has proven benefits for muscle recovery and rehydration – it’s the best post-exercise drink, and that’s scientifically proven.”

The company also recently launched its Goodness range of yoghurts that too have health benefits.

“They’re Greek-style yogurts with no sugar and no fat, and are also high in protein,” Nick said. “There’s a plethora of other products on their way too. We’ve got vitamin D milk, which has been designed for the local market, where there is an ongoing deficiency in vitamin D.”

Nick pointed out that in the past year alone Dale Farm held 75 new product launches.

“It goes to show the level of innovation in the business,” he said. “When I got here and saw the focus and enthusiasm for innovation, I was genuinely really impressed.”

For Nick, the focus on NPD is not going to change, and forms part of his priorities for the business going forward.

Outlining his chief concerns for Dale Farm, Nick told us: “First and foremost, we are a farmer-owned, so at the top of the list is ensuring a sustainable future for our members.

“Dale Farm is also going through a business transformation process, and we’re reviewing our operations to become stronger and defend against threats and weaknesses.”

And Nick is also keen to exploit opportunities for future growth for the company.

“The process will also help us take steps to improve our bottom line and improve our services. We’ll be reinvigorating our range and launching yet more products in new markets, so it’s a very exciting time for the business.

“We have over 1,300 fantastic farmers who provide us with an excellent, high-quality product, and we want consumers to know how great it is.”

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