Backed by Brazilian meat processing giant Marfrig, and with a major restructure, Moy Park is in the black again, managing director Nigel Dunlop tells Richard Ford

When Moy Park was snapped up by the Brazilian meat processing giant Marfrig, at the back end of 2008, there were fears the Northern Irish poultry processor was being used as a Trojan horse to mask a covert invasion of the UK meat market.

Yet two years on, the amount of poultry (and beef) coming into the EU from Brazil has actually fallen, British poultry chicken production at Moy Park's 12 UK and Europe-based plants is up 20%, and so keen is MD Nigel Dunlop to emphasise the "local" nature of the business, he uses the word half a dozen times in the first five minutes of our interview to describe the £700m-sales business.

The pending acquisition of fellow Northern Irish processor, O'Kane Poultry, a £140m-sales turkey specialist, provides further proof this is a local concern. It will give Moy Park its first foothold in turkey, while strengthening its UK chicken supply base still further.

But it would be disingenuous to suggest life hasn't changed under the ownership of its £3.7bn-sales parent. Marfrig's sponsoring of the World Cup has resulted in a previously unthinkable sight in South Africa: the Moy Park logo being beamed from stadia advertising hoardings to viewers in the UK, France and Holland sending a clear message to producers and customers that Moy Park is now part of a truly global family.

And, despite the local focus, Dunlop admits he wants to offer a wider range of products to customers and to maximise the potential as part of the Marfrig group. "Where there's a consumer demand and a customer requirement, and where it's of benefit to our customers to have a supply of products that can be sourced to the right standards of quality from South America, clearly we're now able to do that in a competitive way."

The local/global nature of the business today fits perfectly for Dunlop. Born in Zambia, he was educated in Northern Ireland, and his early career was spent in the Ghurkas, out in Asia. At Gallaher he played a key role in the company's transformation from a largely UK business into one of the largest tobacco companies worldwide.

Dunlop's experience and background made him an ideal successor to Dr Trefor Campbell, a giant figure in poultry, who had led the business for 25 years and transformed Moy Park into the 7,000-employee, convenience-focused, prepared chicken player it had become. Yet within months Dunlop was forced to conduct a major restructure, as soaring commodity and utility prices and deteriorating economic conditions saw losses increase to £31.5m in the year to 31 December 2008, up from the £10.9m the year before. "Our ambition was to make sure we got to a place where we became cash-generative, because it's crucial we continue to be able to generate the funds to reinvest back into our business." The "root and branch" reorganisation that followed saw several senior executives leave in late 2008/early 2009 including commercial director Seamus Rooney and business unit director for European convenience foods Joe O'Toole.

In Dunlop's first interview since the restructure, he refutes suggestions the company parted ways with members of its senior team on bad terms. But move on they did, and two years down the line so has the company, with improvements made to address "customer service, cost management, flexibility, quality, efficiencies and service levels," says Dunlop. This has generated cash and resulted in a net profit in 2009, although it's difficult to substantiate Dunlop's claims on the turnaround as Moy Park's figures are buried in Marfrig's consolidated accounts.

With Marfrig's Brazilian muscle behind it, Dunlop does not rule out bringing similar acquisitions to O'Kane into the Moy Park fold. While operating as a separate division, responsible for its own capex and borrowing requirements, if exceptional investment is required Moy Park can ask the boys in Brazil, says Dunlop.

Changes are also afoot in its branded portfolio. Moy Park is predominantly an own-label supplier and plans to remain so. But earlier this year it launched its first tertiary brand, Castle Lea, comprising a range of breaded, roasted and sliced cooked meats and chilled poultry cuts covered in sauce, sold in multiples and independents.

Moy Park is keeping tightlipped over plans for Castle Lea, but ongoing research into its branded portfolio suggests it won't be on its own for long. In a highly competitive market, Dunlop knows if Moy Park does not deliver, others will. Significant rivals include Bernard Matthews, 2Sisters, and Vion, the Dutch company that bought chicken supplier Grampian Country Food Group in 2008. All have substantial funding available to them for future growth.

"Consumers nowadays want to feel as though they've got choice in the type of chicken that they buy, in the standards of welfare on offer and in the range of foods provided from that. If we for one minute rest on what we've done in the past and what we're currently doing as being sufficient, then I think we're in dangerous territory," he says.

"That's what probably keeps me awake at night: it's keeping an eye on what's coming up."
Name: Nigel Dunlop Age: 53 Family status: married with four children Hobbies and interests: family, keeping fit, tennis, rugby Born: Zambia CV: Educated in Northern Ireland, Dunlop trained at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and served in the Gurkhas. He joined the Gallaher tobacco group in 1980 as a management trainee and held a number of different roles, before joining the main plc board as executive director in 2002. Dunlop was credited with overseeing Gallaher's transformation from a largely UK-focused business into one of the biggest tobacco companies in the world a transformation that resulted in the FTSE 100 company's acquisition by Japan Tobacco in 2007. Appointed managing director of Moy Park in November 2008 he replaced industry stalwart Dr Trefor Campbell. In addition to his Moy Park commitments he is also a non-executive director of Warburtons.