John Fallon is helping to continue a little bit of history amid the gentle hills of Ayrshire, in the heart of Burns country. The Scottish-born-and-bred entrepreneur bought canned foods manufacturer Grant’s four years ago and has turned it from a struggling minor-league player into a multi-million-pound business.
The thriving concern counts a number of innovative, mainly meat-based products in its burgeoning portfolio and claims to be Scotland’s premier manufacturer of haggis, which it exports to more than 40 countries.
It is also always on the look-out to throw more added value products into its marketing mix and recently launched what is believed to be Britain’s first black pudding in a can, at a premium rsp of £1.29. The offering has already secured listings with Nisa-Today’s, Farmfoods, Morrisons and Asda, and the company is currently pushing its heritage by putting a ‘120 years of excellence’ slogan on its cans.
What chairman and chief executive Fallon and his team have achieved in four years is a recipe that much larger brand owners would probably like to bottle, or can. As one Scottish-based buyer says: “This is the sort of business that could provide a blueprint for how to grab a struggling old brand by the scruff of the neck and throw it into the 21st century.”
Fallon is keen to put down any suggestions of business wizardry on his part, even though the company’s workforce was under notice of redundancy when he took over. Instead, he points to the hard work and dedication of the 50 manufacturing and admin staff (three times the number he inherited) who today occupy the company’s Galston manufacturing and administrative base.
He is also quick to stress that what he has brought to the business is far from a divinely inspired piece of miracle-working. Rather, it is down to the sort of skills that he has picked up during a career in food and drink which has included a number of high-profile jobs including two-and-a-half years as trading and marketing director for Safeway’s former LoCost stores and a three-year stint as MD of Geest’s distributive wholesale division. A two-and-a-half year spell in Coca-Cola’s marketing department at the start of his career in the early 1990s didn’t do him much harm either, he says.
His experiences at the sharp end of dealing with or working for fmcg giants also taught Fallon a thing or two about keeping some value in a manufacturing business.
For example, he says that there are certainly no plans for Grant’s to turn its back on its most prized asset - a brand that is a household name for most Scots. And although the company does make some own-label products, Fallon says he is happy to keep that side of the business ticking over as a going concern, rather than turning it into a major plank of Grant’s overall make-up. Instead, Fallon insists that the future of the company lies in having a lively mix of branded products, foodservice (which accounts for around 15% of Grant’s business) and quality own label where applicable.
Adding new, premium-priced products to its mix of haggis, minced beef offerings and ready meals is also a key goal and Fallon has plans to roll out canned duck fat for use in frying and roasting.
“Innovation in our sector (canned foods) is often very difficult, but still far from impossible,” says Fallon. “But I would challenge anyone to name the last big canned launch,” he adds, pointing to a dearth in NPD by leading canned food players. “It is disappointing because there is still a lot of business done in canned products. If you look at the rest of Europe, it is often a thriving format in many places.
“The sort of things we are doing may not impress the big manufacturers, but at least we are adding value to the market. That is the key for a company like ours, to come up with new products that are not so price sensitive. We find retailers hugely supportive.”
Now Fallon is planning future growth and work will soon start on adding 12,000 sq ft of manufacturing space to the Galston plant, partly funded by a grant from the Scottish Executive. “We want to continue growing the business in a measured way,” says Fallon.