Turkey is for life, not jsut for Christmas. Jeff Halliwell talks to Michael Barker about his plans for Bernard Matthews

A man who confesses to having known virtually nothing about turkey until five months ago wouldn't seem the obvious candidate for the top job at Bernard Matthews.

Fortunately for the company that handles more than half of the UK's turkey supply, Jeff Halliwell knows a lot about pretty much everything else, with leading roles at Colgate, Mars, Whiskas, Fox's Biscuits and First Milk on his CV, to name but a few.

"I've got reasonable experience in supplying consumer goods in general and food in particular, on both a branded and own-label basis, into UK and international retailers," says Bernard Matthews' UK managing director. "Obviously what I don't have is any turkey experience at all. But there are 2,200 people in the business and 2,199 of them are turkey experts."

Halliwell, who joined in June, is the first permanent Bernard Matthews MD since Bart Dalla Mura's short-lived tenure in 2007, and seems entirely at ease. He is quick to pay tribute to his new colleagues, comparing the set-up and the passion of its staff to that at Fox's Biscuits.

But while he will talk openly and engagingly about most subjects, he refuses to be drawn on the role of Bernard Matthews, the eponymous founder of the business. The 80-year-old retires as a director on the Bernard Matthews Holdings Board in January, but will remain chairman of the group's supervisory board. Halliwell says the company has already made his position clear. Instead, he prefers to focus on the task at hand to return the Bernard Matthews business to its former glories.

One of his first major tasks was to announce hugely improved financial results although the numbers do have to be viewed in the context of the catastrophic figures reported following the infamous avian flu outbreak in February 2007. The £77m pre-tax loss two years ago was reduced to £4.4m for 2008, and operating profits rose from the red to a positive £857,000, but Halliwell says the business still has a way to go. "Results are moving in the right direction," he says. "But that's obviously far from the sort of returns a business of this size needs to be making. So there's much more to do and that will come from further efficiency improvements and growing sales."

The wheels of recovery had already been put in motion before Halliwell arrived in June. Over the past 18 months, the company has rebranded itself as Bernard Matthews Farms, cut the number of SKUs it supplies, introduced new packaging and, crucially, converted all its lines to 100%-British turkey. As part of a strategy to focus on turkey rather than trying to be all things to all men, the company sold off its sandwich division in January 2008 and has stepped back from moves into pastry and other extended product lines.

"Maybe there was a view that Bernard Matthews could become a Heinz a one-size-fits-all brand rather than very specific to its sector," Halliwell says. "But if you are a good rugby union team, play rugby union, don't play rugby league. There are other people who are better at that than you are. What we are about is turkey."

He rejects the suggestion that Bernard Matthews suffered long-term scarring from avian flu, insisting the company's rivals would "give their right arms" for the 90% brand awareness and 60% household penetration enjoyed by the Norfolk brand. He is also eager to point out that Bernard Matthews is unique in grocery as a vertically integrated business that farms, processes and packs its own branded and own-label products on its own sites.

Currently two-thirds of sales come from branded products, but he sees further possibilities in working with retailers on their own-label turkey lines as well as developing the foodservice side of things. Own-label growth does not have to come at the expense of brands, he says. "As long as we can grow profitably and meet consumer and customer expectations I really don't mind. The answer is to grow both."

Pivotal to Bernard Matthews' future success will be increasing the amount of turkey eaten in Britain. Domestic turkey consumption has halved in the past decade, and Brits now lag well behind the Europeans and North Americans. That gives the industry a massive opportunity to grow sales, particularly considering turkey's credentials as what Halliwell calls "the healthiest protein money can buy". "It's got substantially lower satfat levels than red meat or cheese, lower even than chicken, and it carries flavour very well. It's versatile, you can do anything with it and it's good value for money."

As the country's major supplier, Halliwell believes Bernard Matthews must take the lead in emphasising that turkey is "not just for Christmas", but a versatile year-round product. Without revealing specific details, he says the company is working on developing marketing to get that message out and help increase consumption for the long term. It is also looking to give its products more price appeal for shoppers by introducing more round-pound lines and promotions between now and Christmas.

For now, the company is in final preparations for its busiest trading period of the year. Halliwell says demand is strong and he is confident it will be a good Christmas. The question vexing him is how to take turkey beyond the festive season to the modern consumer's meat of choice.