Business Interview: Kevin Brennan, chief executive of Quorn Foods

Kevin Brennan is Teesside's executive of the year and the man who's turned meat free alternative Quorn into a household name

Quorn Foods at Stokesley, new Chief Executive Kevin Brennan
Quorn Foods at Stokesley, new Chief Executive Kevin Brennan

It’s a North East culinary empire that began with a solitary veggie-friendly pie 30 years ago.

Quorn is a huge household name, even beating Heinz Ketchup and Doritos in a definitive list of the UK’s biggest food brands back in 2013.

And where just a few products once sat in shops, a range of up to 150 is now crafted by the staff at Stokesley, near Middlesbrough, to sell in the UK and 14 countries worldwide – and not just in supermarkets.

Driving the 300-plus team to make such massive achievements is chief executive Kevin Brennan, a veritable turnaround king who is rather adept at changing firms’ fortunes.

He’s been part of firms that gave us Mumm Champagne, Wolf Blass new world wines and Carex liquid soap.

And before taking up his post at Quorn he helped globalise Kellogg’s Special K, spearheading its transformation from a healthy breakfast cereal to a bestselling brand with a whole range of spin-off products including tasty breakfast bars.

Quorn Foods at Stokesley
Quorn Foods at Stokesley

Taking a great, yet widely undiscovered, product and transforming it into an item the general public will clamour for requires a great amount of technical economic skill and knowledge – and that’s something Nottingham-born Kevin has always had an interest in.

As a teenager, he was heavily influenced by his father who always worked for himself, as a driver instructor and taxi driver amongst other professions.

After studying economics in sixth form, he gained an economics degree at York University. Through the milk rounds he went straight into a marketing job at Beechams, now part of GSK, to work on brand management, before hankering for home in the North.

“I got on well there and did a variety of jobs but I didn’t want to live in London. I didn’t come from a wealthy family and was happy just earning what I needed. And I didn’t like London,” he recalled.

After moving back up North with his wife to Manchester, to work for PZ Cussins, he worked on getting the public into shower gels and liquid soap Carex at a time when solid soap was found in every home.

The production areas of Quorn Foods at Stokesley
The production areas of Quorn Foods at Stokesley

A growing DIY trend to install showers in homes aided the growth, and the job took him to China.

Together with his wife and then nine-month-old son Seamus, Kevin moved to Qingdao in China for three years in 1996, before the country’s economy boomed.

“It’s a fantastic city now with more Starbucks than Stokesley has but it was very different then.

“You couldn’t get butter but there was no milk or cheese, so for the first year we had a 90% Chinese diet which was great and we thoroughly enjoyed it.

“My son was the first white, Western child people had seen and he had strawberry blond hair – he used to get passed around like royalty.

“I was there for three years. It took a nano-second to say yes to the job when I was offered it and it was fantastic both personally and professionally.

“I had three months’ notice that I would be going so I learned Mandarin before I went – just spoken Mandarin. I was always rubbish at languages but you get better as you use it, and I could conduct meetings even though I could take an interpreter along.”

Quorn Chief Executive Kevin Brennan
Quorn Chief Executive Kevin Brennan

Conducting business in China was tough, however, and despite building up a solid washing-up liquid factory business, a financial crisis in Russia and South East Asia in 1999 hit the firm.

Returning to the UK to join Kellogg’s, he was keen to take on the challenge of turning niche product Special K into a global brand.

He began by spearheading the two-week Drop a Dress Size challenge, but then looked at other ways of getting a greater market share, instructing teams to research and develop new and innovative products for consumers.

After doing broadly the same innovative work for more than a decade he was offered a national job with Kellogg’s in Michigan, US, but didn’t want to tear his wife Trish and their children – he now has two sons Seamus, 15, Michael, 19 and a daughter Eilish, 17 – away from the family base in Manchester.

And that experience of taking a simple product, deconstructing and reinventing it in a range of foods proved invaluable when he join Quorn.

He became chief executive of Quorn Foods three years ago, when Exponent Private Equity carried out an MBO of the company’s previous owners Premier Foods, in a £205m deal.

Kevin was working for Premier at the time and could see that the Quorn brand was ripe was expansion.

Premier knew they had to fix the Quorn business but financial constraints meant they knew they had to sell it. Exponent became involved, with Kevin joining them to work on the management buy-out.

Quorn Foods at Stokesley, new Chief Executive Kevin Brennan
Quorn Foods at Stokesley, new Chief Executive Kevin Brennan

“I was amazed how good the product was,” he said. “It tasted far better than a rival product in the US but the public didn’t realise what it was.”

With Exponent’s support and Kevin’s expertise, millions has been invested into the business, into research and development, marketing, factory and machinery upgrades, to help Quorn Foods realise its full potential.

When running at full capacity the two fermenters in Billingham produce 84 tonnes of the microprotein a day, the vats then sent to Stokesley where further processes turn it into the myriad products, such as Best Ever Mince, Best Ever Sausages, Chicken Style Fillets and Chicken Style Pieces, which are then sold in the UK and in 15 international markets.

From this summer a third fermenter will also be up and running, the result of a £30m investment programme ultimately creating around 400 jobs.

The company spent £15m on advertising and new product development in 2012 and 2013, and a further £6m on an advertising campaign starring Olympic hero Mo Farah. That investment is set to continue.

Only last week the firm announced it is investing £40m into the business to fuel further growth following a record year in sales last year, which saw turnover top £150m.

That spend will comprise of significant investment in new product creation and research and development, with a number of launches planned for later this year, including a new vegan-friendly range.

Kevin in the production area
Kevin in the production area

It will also be used to drive further international success and expansion, with Quorn aiming to double its business in Germany, Denmark and Finland in 2015, and enter at least one new market, with a further two currently under consideration.

Products for vegans which don’t include eggs are also being developed.

Part of the plan was always to go global, something Kevin knew more than a thing or two about, and the world has certainly responded.

“One thing I learned at Kellogg’s is that you can succeed on the fact it tastes very good. You can’t get a better product.

“Since it first went on sale in a pie in 1985 it has changed predominantly only once, so we invest in new products and obviously making them better.

“Typically Sainsbury’s has the better chilled selection, Tesco’s has the best freezer range and various products can be found in the other supermarkets.

“One of the things that’s great for us in a challenging retail environment is that we can show that we can grow with all of them.

“In the last two years we have grown 20% in the UK and if supermarkets increase the range they sell more Quorn. And customers are loyal – so if they can’t see their product they will move to another retailer.

“So we are gaining space, and gaining even more this year.”

The UK food service market has also doubled for Quorn in the last four years, providing big wins for the company as Quorn-based products increasingly appearing in school meals.

In the last two years the brand also went out on the menu in JD Wetherspoons pubs, Beefeater restaurants and Premier Inns.

That marks an exciting move for the firm, which has worked hard to expand the meat-alternative category beyond its traditional vegetarian core customer base, work which has recently resulted in Quorn now being bought by more non-vegetarians than vegetarians.

He said: “We have continental style sausages developed for Germany, Holland and Switzerland and while lasagne sells all over the world, the American version has to have basil in it instead of oregano.

“And in Belgium the lasagne has to have a frill, otherwise it’s just not lasagne.

“The American market is also a very important market for us and the chicken style nuggets we sell are better than the competition, but we’ve had to darken the colour of our nuggets.

“That’s because, where we sell them, if it’s not grilling season, it’s microwave season – they won’t turn an oven on – so our nuggets were coming out pale because they weren’t being cooked in a conventional oven.

“The burgers also had stripes added to them for the American market.”

Having experienced its fastest growth ever in 2014 Quorn experienced its strongest month on record in January, in which total sales grew 8%, with UK growing 6% and US sales increasing by a whopping 64%.

Looking ahead, the challenge is to continue to grow Quorn sales in the US and UK and 13 other overseas markets – UK, Ireland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Holland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Germany, Switzerland, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and the US.

He said: “The market is taking off all over the world. Germany is particularly new and within a year we’ll extend to another European market, and the ones that are really taking off are in the EU, which is the reason why we’re focussing there.

“The EU is worth $130m and it’s still growing 20% to 30%, so rather than focussing on Asia, Europe is full of opportunities.”

Far off into the future, Kevin believes there could even be opportunities back in South East Asia, which he returned to recently – and found his Mandarin come flooding back.

However, it’s hard to get solid data on sales and while it could well be a huge market, the firm’s focus for now is fixed on Europe.

“I was over in Asia and some markets there are even importing Quorn. In Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore, they are setting up little businesses bringing products in. You can see them taking off.

“But for now we’re a small company building a strong brand. It’s about timing and research management.

“We’re working with five-year planning horizons, to quadruple the US business and get into several new markets in the EU, and that will get us on our journey to become a $1bn business. But somewhere beyond that would be Asia, there’s no question.”

Kevin’s passion for the company is clear, and is equally demonstrated by the fact he lives in Stokesley during the week before returning to his family in Manchester at weekends.

And when he’s not playing tennis or his guitar – he plays in a covers band that has regular gigs – weekday evenings are frequently spent at tasting sessions in Stokesley.

For the foreseeable, he’s more than happy on Teesside too, although offers do come in from other firms keen to tap into his experience.

He added: “I’ve never really looked too far ahead. At the moment my desire is to be here and create a $1bn business, so I will be here for quite a while. There are so many exciting things to do.”

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