Meet Management: Cold start king

David Palmer is used to cold starts. He needs to be, for he has to be up early in the morning for the 207-mile drive through snow, frost and fog from Scarborough to his new job as general manager of the newly opened Daysdrove abattoir at Bishop's Castle in Shropshire.

Palmer, a 59-year-old who has spent his working life in the meat industry, is not just referring to the early mornings and the long drive, though, when he describes his latest employment as "another cold start". He means that Daysdrove, the medium-sized meat business that has just emerged, chrysalis-like, from the former Bishop's Castle Meats abattoir, closed for two years, is the latest new start for him in building a specific meat market from scratch.

Previous cold starts with which Palmer has been involved include the development of branded Yorkshire Beef for Asda, Aberdeen Angus beef for Waitrose, Yorkshire Lamb for the Northern Co-op, and Dexter beef for the Rare Breeds Association. The latest challenge at Daysdrove is to turn the recently defunct abattoir into a new service for local butchers and farmers, with an eye to perhaps developing branded products that trade on local sourcing. Even the new company's name, Daysdrove, plays on the notion of local, a drove being the traditional term used to describe the movement of livestock. Farmers supplying the market town of Bishop's Castle would have been within a day's drove, and that is broadly the area about 30 miles from which cattle, sheep and pigs are now sourced. The new abattoir opened in December and has already received support and interest from the local community.

Palmer joined Daysdrove from wholesale butchers BW and DJ Glaves & Sons, based near Scarborough. "Although I was getting near 60, I was looking for a new project, something I could help shape myself," he says.

Yet there must have been moments last autumn when he thought that the new venture was not so much a cold start as a downright frozen solid one, for as the plant was preparing to open, lamb prices were rocketing and the long-established local meat plant of RE Williams and Sons in Weobley, Herefordshire, just 30 miles away, was going into administration. He admits the closure of the Williams abattoir and cutting business, with a turnover of some 4m and about 25 staff, was a double-edged sword. While it was worrying to see another meat business shut, it did bring enquiries from local farmers and meat traders about when Daysdrove was opening.

That happened in December. "We opened at the hardest time that the lamb industry has ever seen, coming off an autumn of high prices and running into a period of 'normal' high prices," says Palmer. "Prices were ridiculous, with some animals that, a few years ago, would have sold for 26, selling last autumn for 80. Autumn is traditionally a period when the industry sees a bit of profitability," he adds. "We cannot handle deep troughs and high prices no part of the industry can stand the price dropping rapidly and no part can stand the price increasing rapidly." With carcases held in stock while the meat matures, any price drop results in the value of the holding falling too. "It's definitely a problem if prices are on the slip," says Palmer.

Daysdrove is up and running, however. Palmer says he joined the plant because of the strong personalities involved in making a go of it and the opportunity it presents to bring young people into the industry when the business expands and the currently employed older slaughtermen start to retire.

The abattoir is an interesting business model. Along with a grant from regional development agency Advantage West Midlands, a total of 75 shareholders, all individuals and mainly local farmers, have invested sums ranging from 100 to 40,000 to get the business off the ground. So far, some 420,000 has been raised, with a target of 500,000. Further investors are being sought. There is a three-year business plan in place and the company hopes to pay a dividend in its second year of trading, subject to it making a profit.

Some of the initial funding has been used to modernise the 30-year-old abattoir prior to its opening. This has involved building a new storage area and unloading bay, improving the lairage and lamb line, cladding the walls and replacing the plant's 80 fluorescent lights with low-power arc lights that are 40% more power-efficient and 60% brighter.

The three-year plan also envisages replacing the existing 'cradle' system with a high beef slaughterline, something that will be accelerated in the list of priorities if a supermarket expresses interest in sourcing local Shropshire meat from the plant. Beyond the first three years, the business hopes to install an additional chiller and perhaps even a bakery.

Many abattoirs and processing plants prefer to keep a low profile, but Daysdrove is intent on using the business' name to drive sales. It is early days and Palmer insists, "We must walk before we can run." But Daysdrove is likely to be an 'umbrella' brand with various sub-brands developed along the same lines to build a versatile product portfolio that can be sold via outlets such as butchers' shops or even direct. The business hopes to work with various producer groups, whether they are breed- or systems-specific.

Just because an abattoir sources animals locally does not automatically mean the meat from them is of a good quality of course, although the business is quick to point out that it is based in an area that includes the Marches and the Welsh borders, renowned for quality livestock production. Bishop's Castle Quality Cattle Association is on the doorstep and has been a focus for national sales of store cattle for many years. Nevertheless, Palmer admits: "I have to be choosy; I don't want to make a rod for my own back."

To further enhance its reputation, applications are under way for organic and BRC accreditation. It is a member of the small and medium-sized abattoir association, AIMS.

The journey so far

Although from a farming background, Palmer was attracted to the meat industry at an early age and learnt the trade as an apprentice slaughterman with Swift at Market Harborough, before moving to foreman duties with FMC at Kettering, followed by five years at Scarborough Municipal Abattoir. Another five-year stint took him to a range of plants, including Malton Foods, GE Shouler of Carnaby and ABP York as an MLC grader.

Armed with wide experience, he moved to Sims Food in Yorkshire in 1989, where he took on a more strategic forward-planning and development role, upgrading the plant and working with Waitrose on the introduction of branded Aberdeen Angus beef. Within six months, he was sourcing 80 Aberdeen Angus cattle a week. Then it was on to an equal, if not bigger challenge at the farmer-owned co-operative North Country Primestock at ABP York, where he was soon sourcing 130 animals a day for Yorkshire Beef, a fully traceable and locally branded product, which was a relatively new approach to marketing at that time. He reported on the project directly to Sir Don Curry, then chairman of NCP, and ABP managing director Richard Cracknell.

After some years running his own smallholding and working for Brian Glaves, he is pleased to be back at the helm of what is potentially another big branding exercise. "Having worked on big projects, it's always in the blood," he says. "This is another cold start and in a part of the country I knew nothing about. I thought Shropshire was flat! The first thing I saw was the hills, It's almost a forgotten part of the country. I'm sure we can build on a locally named brand if there's the demand for it."

Butcher Andrew Pugh has the new abattoir on his doorstep. He says he has been impressed with the service that the plant offers his Bishop's Castle shop and he thinks it has the potential to grow its throughput further.

With the economy showing signs of recovery just as the green shoots of spring start to appear, Palmer can turn from getting Daysdrove up and running to the next stage of its development. After all, he has the 207-mile journey home to think about it.

daysdrove snapshot

Daysdrove is the only multi-species abattoir in Shropshire and just a mile or two from the Welsh border. At present, slaughtering is carried out three days a week, while butchery is done over five days in the plant's own cutting room, built on to the abattoir12 years ago.

Present throughput is 20 cattle, 70 sheep and 50 pigs a week. Present capacity would be 300 units. Eight staff are employed, including slaughtermen familiar with the cradle system who worked for the previous business.

Customers include a dozen local butchers, farm shops and a local wholesaler and catering supplier. "The word is getting out," says Palmer. "The feedback is good. I ring everybody when they receive their carcases to make sure everything is okay." Although matching export prices can prove a challenge, he can guarantee prices to farmers for one week ahead and the cost of getting animals to the plant is low because of the short distance involved. "The farmers' response has been nothing but phenomenal; they're pleased to have a new outlet on a small scale."

Meanwhile, the nearby ABP plant at Shrewsbury is not viewed as the elephant in the room. "Right now, the type of animals they want does not fit my trade," says Palmer.