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Featured Business: Kildare Farm Foods
Name: David Sexton, Owner/Manager of Kildare Farm Foods – specialists in the production, storage, wholesale and distribution of a wide range of fresh, fresh frozen and ambient food products
December is a very busy month for turkey farmer David Sexton. A third generation farmer with an accountancy degree behind him, David has a good head for figures. 80,000 is the number of Christmas turkeys Kildare Farm Foods will process this year. However, turkeys are not just for Christmas here. The company is also involved in the production, storage, wholesale and distribution of a wide range of fresh, fresh frozen and ambient food.
Kildare Farm Foods also provides warehousing and nationwide distribution services for other companies and exports to 80 different countries. On the farm it has a retail outlet, pet farm and Santa’s Christmas market.
On paper, you might think that David was born to run a farm – the 38-year-old has been in business for close to 20 years.
From childhood, David was the keenest of his five siblings to farm and knew everything there was to know about turkeys. However, when he left school – with the second best Leaving Cert results in his year – his parents knew that farming wasn’t the most lucrative business, so they prepared him for a life beyond farming. “I was allowed to go to ag college (in Warrenstown, Co Meath), but when I finished I had to sign up to do a degree course. I studied to be an accountant at night for five years after I left ag college and while I was farming. It was something I was encouraged to do. If I had been given the reins, I may not have put the pressure on myself,” David admits.
At the time the Sextons were dairy and turkey farmers, and David decided he could progress the turkey side of the family business. Dairy was difficult to develop due to increasing land prices at the time in Co Kildare.
David was after a new market – a business that would be sustainable on a weekly basis and that would pay a yearly salary. The limited company was established in 1997.
As the Celtic Tiger years took off, there were more places to sell turkey to, such as restaurants and markets, and it became a more regular item on menus rather than just at Christmas and Easter.
Keeping with tradition, Christmas is still a busy time. From mid-November onwards, David is kept busy with customer orders, pre orders and negotiating pricing volumes. A lot of the product is seasonal for Christmas: different sizes, breeds and speciality products. From 10-12 December, it’s a logistical operation to get products out to regular daily customers with the usual level of service, while tackling the extra business of processing up to 80,000 Christmas turkeys.
Interview with David Sexton
What was the inspiration for setting up your business?
My inspiration for starting up was necessity and inspiration combined into one. I wanted to farm at any cost. It would be difficult to support two families from one farm. I wanted to be able to create an enterprise so that I could earn an income from the farm and develop it to generate an income to support two families rather than just one, as it had previously. It was something I always had a flair for, from the time I was a child. I was into turkeys and the whole Christmas thing. I don’t credit myself with much, but I do credit myself with the fact that I know pretty much everything there is to know about a turkey.
How did you initially fund your business?
Originally I looked for funding from my parents’ bank to start the business. I was turned down for a very modest loan from my own bank. They wanted my parents to be guarantors on the loan, but I didn’t think it was fair; I didn’t feel independent getting my parents to be guarantors on a very small loan for a limited company. I decided I would talk to somebody else and I got approval to talk to somebody in AIB back in early 1997. A manager and an assistant manager visited the farm and listened to the story I was putting forward; and they gave the loan immediately. They were the seed capital, AIB, and they’ve funded us ever since.
Have you diversified your offering from your original focus or set up other businesses?
We have diversified, but we’ve branched very little off the original start-up. We’re 100% farm-based: we operate from the farm, we’ve built expansive warehousing, we’ve invested millions of euros in developing the business, but we’ve always stayed on the line of agricultural-based food production. We always sold turkeys for Christmas from the farm. Eight or nine years ago we thought we’d sell turkey and chicken every week from the farm and we opened on Saturdays. It’s grown from that into a fully-fledged farm shop. We have thousands of products in it, a coffee shop and a pet farm, which we don’t charge for; we allow our customers in for free with their kids – it creates footfall for the shop. We also have a train that we run to give families and children a ride around, and we do Santa’s Grotto. But I still maintain the very strong link to our farm and our roots.
What have been the highlights to date?
The highlights go back as far as the beginning: to be able to generate an income for myself on the farm has been something that is still an achievement to me. This particular year has been very good for us from a recognition point of view. We won an Irish Times Best Shops in Ireland award for the “Best Shop for a Day Out” during the summer. We also won an award in the FBD Farmers Journal National Farmyard Awards this year. Something we have started doing in the last 18 months is exporting food on behalf of other Irish producers to markets such as Dubai, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, and we are helping to market the products in those regions. It’s something that’s growing at a very fast rate.
What’s your favourite part of being a business owner/entrepreneur?
My favourite part is being in control and being able to make my own decisions; being responsible for my own success or failure; being able to change things as I want to change them, when I want to change them. For any business to be successful on the scale we’re at, somebody needs to be in control and make decisions to change the direction quickly.
How do you achieve a work-life balance?
It’s not easy being a farm-based enterprise; being an owner/manager and being that person who wants to be 100% in control the whole time. Living 50 or 60 metres from where you work can be challenging for finding a work-life balance but we’re lucky in that my wife works full-time with me and we have a good working relationship. Also, my children are very close; I can pop home anytime. We’ve good support from other family members who would always be watching out for you. We have solid staff who have been with us for 10 to 12 years; they can take their fair share of the workload when needed. It’s a great place to grow up on, a farm, and that brings a certain amount of balance, even though it could be considered to be all work.
Are you inspired by any business figures or success stories?
My inspiration would be from any business figure that has remained in business for around 20 years and has managed to keep that going – throughout change, progress, cost increases, good days and bad days.
What tools do you utilise that benefit your customers or that make running your business easier or more profitable?
I’m not a tech head, but my wife Susan, the financial director, has a degree in computer science – information technology, computer programming and business management – and has developed our in-house accounts package. We are pretty well advanced from a technology point of view for our type of business. Susan had eight years’ experience in the IT sector before she started to work with me. She worked in Deloitte as a systems analyst and systems developer.
Do you feel you know what your customers really want? How do you stay updated with this information?
I spend literally all day every day with customers. I feel I know them inside out because I spend so much time with them. I have such a range of customers, whether they’re retail customers, wholesale customers, or large buyers such as Musgraves.
What has been the biggest challenge your business has faced?
For the past four or five years, believe it or not, when the bad times struck the economy and everybody was hit by it, we were very lucky – we hadn’t been affected by the good times; here you work for every customer you get, every sale you make. In the past four years there has been a huge amount of opportunity for us. We found ourselves going into the bad times pretty strong. The real difficulty for the last couple of years was trying to find the right customer to go with, the right direction to take.
What do you think the biggest challenge to businesses in Ireland is at the moment?
You need to have good credit insurance on your business or you won’t be able to buy product at the right price, with the right terms to be able to sell it on and maintain fluidity in your business and stay operating. Along with the banks restricting finance, a lot of credit insurers have restricted a lot of finance to small and medium businesses; it pulled their insurance limits and didn’t allow them to trade.
What part of running a business comes to you naturally?
Energy, enthusiasm, optimism and hard work; hard work being the key. I believe the harder you work, the luckier you get. I don’t think there’s any substitute for hard work. Growing up on a farm, we were working when we were walking. Hard work is something we do every day, and I enjoy it.
What has been the best reward in running your own business?
The most rewarding thing for me has been to remain on the farm. I didn’t want anything else since I was knee high. I couldn’t have remained on the farm without getting into the side of farming that we did – agribusiness. I think I’ve created something that can sustain certainly me and it’s a worthy, sustainable future for my kids as well.
What was the main catalyst for growth?
People who are supposed to be self-employed end up at some point being self-employed. When you’re self-employed, you find a way to make things work. If you want things to grow, you’ll keep trying; you’ll change, you’ll adapt, you’ll be flexible. You’ll find the finance somewhere. You’ll be durable; you’ll stick with it until you get it over the line and get it to work. That’s how you drive it on; you’ll get it to grow.
How did you scale/grow your business?
Flexibility, durability, change. Meet your customers’ needs. Work hard.
How do you get ideas to further your business?
You’re automatically switched on the whole time. Even when you’re on holidays, you’re taking notice of what happens around you; someone else’s business. You can see things in other businesses and think how they might work in your business.
What motivates you to stay running a business?
I’m really not 100% sure. Obviously, money helps for everybody. But, it’s not what makes me get up at 5am. I get up at 5am because I’m striving to progress, to make something better, to make something bigger and to see what you’ve created.
What’s your vision for the future?
To continue to grow the business so it’s something my family would like to become involved in. The farm shop side of things has grown at a ferocious rate; we’re almost turning into a local tourist attraction. I’d like to find ways of advancing that.
Do you have a mentor; do you find this has positively impacted on your success?
No, we don’t have a mentor. I like making my own decisions; I like being 100% independent. I’m not saying I don’t take advice. I think I look for advice and take advice from everything I see around me. I do get mentoring from family.
What would be your advice to businesses starting out?
I’m a believer in the fact that if somebody is meant to be self-employed then they will be self-employed, and if somebody is meant to be successful being self-employed then they will be; because they will adapt and do what needs to be done to make it successful. My advice is that anybody who feels they are that type of person should just go ahead and do it. Don’t wait – if you think it’s a good idea, grab it and go with it.
What, if anything, would you do differently?
I would make decisions quicker. I make decisions quickly now. I can make decisions and push them through with the help of other people.
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