No substitute for passion as Carton family’s chicken run ends
When Vincent Carton listened as, one by one, his children told him that no, they were not interested in continuing the family business – an eighth-generation family business no less – one might have expected him to be deeply hurt; devastated even. It turns out he wasn’t.
“You know what, I loved that they were able to tell me the truth, I was so proud of them for that,” says the 60-year-old Dubliner. “The biggest reward for me is the smile on their faces. That’s the most important thing. You have to do what you’re passionate about in life.”
Passion and succession are recurring themes for Vincent Carton, managing director of Cavan-based Manor Farm. As well as being Ireland’s largest chicken processor, the company is also one of Ireland’s oldest family businesses.
Beginning of a business
The story goes back to the late 18th century, when the Carton family began a poultry business in the markets area of Dublin’s inner city. Think about that for a moment. An Irish family business that began around the same time as the French revolution, still going strong today.
Back then, there were only two types of chicken available to eat: tough ‘spent’ hens that had come to the end of their egg-producing life, and tender spring chickens that came on the market just once a year. Farming housewives (throughout the country) would send their bundles of chickens to Dublin by rail; the Cartons would collect the birds at the what is today Connolly and Heuston stations, auction the produce, deduct their commission and send these housewives a postal order by return. What was remarkable was that neither knew the other- this trade was all based on trust.
This continued for generations. The Carton name became known and trusted in farming circles around Ireland. Down to Dublin went the hens. Back came the postal order. Nothing changed until the 1950s, when a US innovation was introduced where eggs could be incubated in ‘hatcheries’ and the baby chicks could be reared in separate growing farms. This meant the much sought-after spring chickens could be produced all year round.
Ireland’s chicken love affair
“Suddenly farmers could produce thousands of chickens instead of dozens,” says Vincent. “This was at a time when the first supermarkets were starting to appear – they wanted chickens and portions of chickens that were ready to cook, so the family moved into the processing business.”
In 1968, Vincent’s late father Thomas (‘TP’) Carton built Ireland’s first commercial hatchery in Carrickmacross. He then opened in 1970, a European Union (EU)-approved processing plant in Shercock, Co. Cavan, and finally, a mill, in 1976, that allowed the company to control the quality and supply of feed to farmers. Ireland began to eat chicken like never before.
“Chicken very quickly became Ireland’s favourite meat because it’s cheap, tasty and easy to cook,” says Vincent. “We’ve been discovering different ways of cooking chicken for years; today we have six employees whose job it is to come up with new innovative recipes and another 90 people producing these wonderful products”.
Vincent took a keen interest in the family business at an early age. “I was about nine I think, couldn’t wait to get started.” The eldest of three boys, he went to St Michael’s in Dublin before graduating from UCD with a B Comm, then turned up for his first week at work in 1979.
“I couldn’t stand it!” he laughs. “I thought the place was old-fashioned, too traditional, not what I was expecting at all. Not for me.” He began studying accountancy at night and in 1983 he left the family firm to gain experience elsewhere, first at the Penn tennis ball factory in Mullingar before a stint in the insurance sector in Dublin.
When he returned to Manor Farm, not much had changed. “You have to remember, it was a seventh-generation company by that stage so there were lots of shareholders, different forms of share capital, ownership divided among 10 or more people,” he says. “It was quite messy.”
An opportunity arose for Vincent to buy a shareholding, while his younger brother Justin had received their father’s share in the company. The two brothers joined together and bought out the entire shareholding from the seventh generation. A catalyst for change?
Not like other businesses
“It doesn’t always work like that,” he says. “Family businesses are not like other businesses. The shares can be transferred, ownership can change hands, a new Managing Director (MD) can be appointed, and still things often stay exactly the way they were. Why? Because the previous generation is still there!
“That’s exactly what happened with us,” Vincent goes on. “I became MD in 1998 but because my Dad was still there, things continued as before. My brother and I did not push it because we loved and revered him and we were never going to push him. So, he was running the company without really running it. This is often the nature of families and family businesses, we just didn’t talk about it.”
It was Vincent’s mother (our CEO – Chief Emotional Officer) who finally broke the impasse. “My Dad simply would not talk about succession, wouldn’t address it in any way, until my mother dragged us around the kitchen table one day and said ‘Look, we want this (the family business to continue) we have to discuss this’. That’s when it all came out.”
To the brothers’ amazement, they found out that the reason their beloved father refused to talk about succession was because he assumed “the lads” wouldn’t want him around once they’d taken over. “I couldn’t believe it,” recalls Vincent. “And of course, nothing could have been further from the truth.”
It seems this scenario, however, is far from unusual. “When I told that story [at the Family Business Network] we found there were other companies who had the exact same experience and that me telling that story enabled six others to start their own conversation. ” he says. “That conversation at the kitchen table changed everything and my Dad was thrilled and I think relieved to hand over the business.”
The brothers were now in charge but with little clarity around roles, until a crisis involving one of their biggest customers – Superquinn – was resolved by Vincent. That saw the older brother taking on the commercial side of the business while Justin moved to the processing side.
By this stage, the two joint-owners had eight daughters between them and they knew that another conversation about succession lay ahead. Having gone through the process themselves, however, didn’t make it any easier.
Start the conversation
“It’s just a very sensitive subject,” Vincent says. “But it can only be worked out by the family, so anything that helps to start the conversation is good.”
In their case, the foundation of the Family Business Network (FBN) helped. “The FBN gave us something called a ‘family charter’ which is a semi-emotional, semi-legal set of rules covering all aspects of the company including how leaders and successors are chosen. Everyone signs up to it, and that takes all the opinions out of it. Everything becomes easier.”
In their case, Vincent and Justin decided that nobody would be forced to join the company, but that if anyone who did want in, they would first have to attain management level in another company first. Through the process of working on the family charter, it became clear that the chicken business was not for them but that they wanted to continue the family business but in other areas where they had a passion for business and that in which, they would like to devote their life building it for their children.
“Not unexpected,” is how he describes the meeting. “I knew they didn’t have the same passion for the business as I did, or my father. I think the older generation got that passion early, before the age of 10. You get hooked as a kid, and I knew that my own kids weren’t hooked in that same way.”
“No sadness though, no regrets,” he says. “If they don’t really want to join the business then it’ll just make them unhappy, it will mess up the business and it will hurt their lives. What parent would want that?”
Decision to sell
The brothers made the decision to sell Manor Farm, and in 2017 completed a sale to Nordic poultry group Scandi Standard. The deal was conducted amiably and, as per Scandi’s policy of retaining local management, Vincent Carton remains in place as managing director.
“Everything they said they’d do, they’ve done, and vice-versa,” he says. He expects the deal to open up new markets and is positively bullish when asked about Brexit (“It’s going to increase demand for local produce”). The future looks bright for Ireland’s biggest chicken producer.
Vincent’s own future with the company, however, has an end in sight. He expects a new MD to be appointed later this year – a move he says he’ll welcome with open arms – and plans to play a role at Scandi group level where his experience and know-how are certain to add value.
‘Don’t be afraid of succession’
“Once we knew the next generation were not interested, it became an easy decision to sell,” he says. “The hard part is getting the conversation started. Don’t be afraid of succession. The earlier you embrace it, the smoother it will be.”
Vincent Carton is a founding member of the Family Business Network, which provides a forum for families to discuss and address challenges specific to family businesses.