by Richard Buckley, Editor, Business Eye

Third-generation farmer, Ian McMaster from near Broughshane in County Antrim made the decision in 2000 to add value to his potato crop. Farming over 100 acres of arable land, Ian experienced poor prices that year and spotted that at the same time, the processing sector was still thriving.

From this simple observation, ChipMaster was born.

McMaster established a small potato processing facility in redundant outbuildings producing chips, potato products and prepared vegetables for local hotels and takeaways. Over the past 17 years he has expanded the ChipMaster business with the support of First Trust Bank by building a 1000 tonne potato store in 2003 and opening a new factory in 2010, processing over 2.5 tonnes of potatoes per hour as well as other vegetables for a variety of markets.  He tells us about the current business climate and challenges his business faces. 

“ChipMaster was established out of a need to create an additional income stream from the growing end of our business. Today we currently employ 25 people and supply the food service sector including hotels, restaurants and chip shops within a 60-mile radius of our farm and more recently have expanded into wholesale markets as well as adding customers involved in further processing of our products for retail distribution. This broadening of our market has meant that we don’t experience the same peaks and troughs and our supply is sustained throughout the week now, rather than spiking towards the weekend. 

Through this diversification, the business has maximised the value of our potato crop and the move has opened new doors to fully utilise our skillset and expertise. But the key to our business is adaptability and in today’s climate that has to be one of the most important attributes any business needs. Faced with key challenges such as very inclement weather and ever-changing customer habits and market forces, we have always prided ourselves on being able to adapt to meet new opportunities. 

Probably the single biggest change we have seen has been the clear move by the consumer towards convenience, a move which has greatly helped our business to grow. It appears that as we become increasingly time poor, people want convenient products either by eating out or by having convenience foods when eating in. The fact that we grow our own primary product right next to our production facilities means that we can grow specifically to meet the ChipMaster process while maximising efficiencies all the time. 

Weather is a variable we cannot control unfortunately and this year has been a particularly challenging one with the levels of rain experienced. We still have around 33 acres of potatoes in the ground and it will be a waiting game to see whether we get anything useful from these crops in the spring. How this pans out will have a major impact on our investment plans for the next year and beyond. Essentially the growing end of our business can be very unpredictable, a bit like our weather, whereas the processing end is entirely predictable and controllable. 

When it comes to Brexit, we are not overly concerned as we believe that given the fact that our market for now is local, we expect that people here will still need to eat whatever Brexit brings. We also expect that given the fact that most of our vehicles come from Germany, that sensible trading relationships will exist both ways post Brexit. 

We would have concerns about the broader economic impact and uncertainty that Brexit brings to the local economy. Businesses like ours require a strong local economy and jobs to ensure spending in local businesses many of which are our customers. This area suffered a lot of job losses in recent years, before Brexit, so it will be important for local government and the business community to work hard to deliver jobs and prosperity to this area and the wider Northern Ireland economy, regardless of what Brexit brings. 

We are already experiencing difficulties in recruiting capable workers and we will have to see what impact Brexit has on our local migrant workers. If this ultimately brings additional challenge we may be faced with looking at our processes and products and adapting our offer once again. 

While it is satisfying to know that anywhere between 25-30,000 people in Northern Ireland are eating our products in anyone day we never want to rest on our laurels. Our core belief is that as long as we remain adaptable and responsive, especially when the chips are down, we will continue to thrive whatever the weather brings!”


TED MPU Until 30th Dec

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