I like rain. It's good for business. When it's cold and rainy, people eat more mashed potatoes and other vegetables and that helps to drive up sales. Business can be up by as much as 20% during a cold and rainy spell compared with hot weather.
So, 2012 has been a busy year. The seasonal downturn that we usually see in the spring, simply did not happen. We live with the weather and make purchasing decisions based on long-term weather trends.
I joined Mash Direct in 2007. When Martin [chief executive and md Martin Hamilton] phoned me, he was under a machine. He said life was becoming hectic and he needed help with automation. I was in between jobs and agreed to work here in Northern Ireland for two weeks. Five and a half years later, I'm still helping with automation and running the factory.
During that time, we've seen huge change. When I joined, Mash Direct employed 32 people, the factory was 800m2 and we turned over about £2M. Now, we employ 78 people on the factory floor and turn over £10M.
The factory has grown to nearly 2,000m2 and the number of products has shot up from five to 28. In the early days, we were producing 35,000 trays a week. Now, that has grown to well over 200,000 trays, plus we have a big bulk and foodservice business.
Our range includes cooked mash with potato and carrot, green vegetables such as broccoli with cheese sauce, potato cakes and frozen pie tops.
We've never pre-empted a change with an expansion. We have always got the business first and then built the capacity to achieve it. So, we have had some challenging times when we have had a lot of business in quite a small space. At least with this approach, you are guaranteed that the investment you are making can be paid for and that has worked very well for us over the past five years.
Prove the market first
We've recently gone into making frozen pie tops. But we didn't buy a huge frozen pie top machine before we began production. We came up with an idea about how we could make them. It's a bit labour intensive to start with but we are proving we have a market. If that market develops, then we will buy a proper machine.
You don't need a fancy £100,000 machine from day one. When I go around sales of companies that have gone bankrupt, they seem to have bought lots of new expensive equipment without even deciding if there was a market for their products before buying it.
As part of a small management team, Martin manages all the raw materials and our major customers. Stanley Hill (production manager) manages the plant day-to-day and Tony Reid (director) helps us develop new engineering solutions for our growing needs.
My first job was just before university when I studied a sandwich course with packaging company Metal Box. It sponsored me through university and, after college, I worked for the firm for nearly 20 years.
I spent many years making food cans for the likes of Premier Foods and Baxters, so I was already familiar with the food industry. I learnt a lot about manufacturing systems and brought that experience along with some grey hair to this role at Mash Direct.
In 1995, I was lucky enough to go to Japan with Metal Box to attend classes with one of the foremost manufacturing gurus, Professor Yamashina at Kyoto University. We toured facilities looking at lean manufacturing although in those days it was called world class manufacturing. It was the single experience that most changed my business life.
True problem solving was another key lesson learnt in Japan. In western culture, we look for the first solution without standing back and asking is that the real problem or is that the apparent problem?
In total, I've worked in four sectors: packaging, automotive, computing and food. What I find fascinating about the food industry is the adherence to legislation and record-keeping which is probably the most extreme of any of those industries. So staff need to be highly trained and cognisant of what happens if they don't do something correctly.
We are very lucky with our workforce. We have no temps and a very low turnover, which avoids the need to spend a lot of time retraining people. On the factory floor, 80% of the workforce is non-native mainly Lithuanian.
I've managed many workforces and can honestly say our current workforce is the most self-motivated and self-policing I've ever seen. There is little need for lower level management because they just get on and do the job. I find that incredibly refreshing. It's close to a completely autonomous team that you hear talked about in world class manufacturing forums.
The team leaders tend to be matriarchal and highly respected by their colleagues. There is no room for messing around with them in control.
Shopfloor leadership starts with the team leaders, who typically have had maybe three or four years' experience with us. They gather around them the people they want. Our factory manager will adjudicate to ensure we get well balanced and motivated teams in each area of the factory.
We have seven teams divided by physical area which follows the flow of the product as it goes through the plant. Those areas include: high care team, low risk team, cabbage team high care, cabbage team low care, the sleeving team, the sealing team and the dispatch team.
Mash Direct has a young and dedicated workforce. I get a real kick when I see one of them developing quickly and confidently in their ability to do his or her role over just six months. We are small enough to develop new roles to suit the person. The most challenging part of my job is organising the logistics: Getting the product from our factory door in Northern Ireland to our customers on time and in good condition.
There is nothing more frustrating than producing a beautiful product, having worked flat out to meet a deadline for shipment, only to find that between it leaving you and the arrival at the customer, something has gone wrong. But as we've grown bigger, we have built relationships with two hauliers which have done a very good job for us. But inevitably there are bits of the UK and the island of Ireland that are difficult to get to.
It's healthy to worry
I think it's healthy to worry about the business. Worrying about each stage of the production process helps to ensure each stage is as good as it can be. The moment you are satisfied with what you do, then you will fail you permanently have to challenge what you do.
I don't think you can work in the food industry without having sleepless nights. There will always be things that you suddenly say we need to look at that, or we need do this.
But there's tremendous satisfaction in looking at the numbers at the end of the month and thinking: 'We've grown the business by 'x' and the profit has grown by 'y'. Mash Direct is a business that is really going somewhere.
That's something we can all be very proud of whatever the weather.
LOCATION: Mash Direct, 81 Ballyrainey Road, Comber, Northern Ireland BT23 5JU
STAFF: 106, all full-time
OPERATING HOURS: 5am to 5pm, five and a half days a week, Monday to Saturday morning
PRODUCTS: Chilled vegetable meal accompaniments, such as mash, potato cakes, broccoli and cheese sauce, carrot and parsnip mash. 28 products
THROUGHPUT: 200,000 food trays a week.
ANNUAL TURNOVER: £10M
NAME: Neil Houghton
CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: "Working across four different sectors: automotive, computing for the National Health Service, packaging and food. Meeting the challenge of applying techniques between them."
DOMESTICS: "Married to Lindy with two boys. We live in Herefordshire. I commute each week to Northern Ireland."
OUTSIDE WORK: "Greenlaning [driving country lanes] in my old Land Rover 110. Also, watching my boys play sport."