When I was at secondary school in Omagh in the 1970s, one of the warnings regularly issued by teachers was that if we didn’t put more effort into our studies, we would finish up working in the local abattoir.

I wasn’t the most diligent student, but I did manage to secure a law degree from Queens University and while I was contemplating if I wanted a legal career, I saw a trainee manager’s job advertised in the local meat factory.

Despite the negative image I had of working in a meat factory, I applied and got the job. Within five years, they were sponsoring me to do a master’s in business strategy and I realised I had made an excellent career choice.

In at the deep end

The first day was an unforgettable experience, wheeling barrows of still-warm fat from the slaughter hall. This is the messiest part of an abattoir, where an animal is transformed into a beef carcase and all that the process entails. While the first day was a shock, I became accustomed to the working environment very quickly (though pushing fat barrows in itself wasn’t the most satisfying work). What also struck me very quickly was the positive mood among workers on the abattoir floor, and the high level of knife skill required at different points on the line.

When the beef carcase is weighed and graded, it is then pushed along rails into a chill room and, from there, it will either go to the boning room or – as was commonplace in the 1980s – be sold as carcase beef, divided into forequarters and hindquarters. Loading these on to a lorry was a fantastic test of physical strength!

An unexpected vacancy arose in the office for organising transport deliveries and that meant a move from the production side of the business to logistics, sales and marketing

Working in the boning room meant watching speed boners break down beef carcases into cuts of beef. This is particularly demanding work as they tended to be paid a rate per quarter of beef boned and the top performers earned good money. Unfortunately, I didn’t spend enough time there to learn how to bone out a beef carcase. An unexpected vacancy arose in the office for organising transport deliveries and that meant a move from the production side of the business to logistics, sales and marketing – the softer side, as many on the factory floor constantly reminded me!

Problems with paperwork

Memories of one of my early adventures in this role came back to me recently, when I was writing about the procedures that will be reintroduced from 1 January around customs declarations and veterinary certificates for beef being exported.

I got a call on a Sunday morning from the boss telling me I had to make my way to Dover Docks with new paperwork for a delivery that was stuck there because there was a mistake in his paperwork. This meant a flight to Heathrow, hiring a car and driving to Dover and somehow finding the correct lorry and driver in the era before mobile phones. Long-distance lorry drivers won’t welcome a return of this administration under the new rules for trade in 2021.

Beef exports ended in Northern Ireland in March 1996

Getting involved in the sales side of the business presented many travel opportunities and while then, as now, the majority of customers were in Britain, wider EU markets expanded rapidly with the arrival of the single market in 1993 and favourable exchange rates for exporters. Exports beyond the EU were made possible with the benefit of export refunds on beef. This made South Africa a major customer, and one of my few regrets was not accepting a customer’s invitation to go the rugby world cup in 1995 because of a fear of flying phase that I was going through. This lasted for a few years and meant huge miles on motorways in Britain, as I travelled everywhere by car and boat.

Beef exports ended in Northern Ireland in March 1996 with the announcement of a link between a new variant of BSE in cattle and a fatal human brain disease. The beef export ban was to remain in place for a decade and put huge strain on the business, which exported two-thirds of its production outside the UK.

Moving on

After 11 years, I moved on in 1997 but retain excellent memories of the industry and lifelong friends I made there. I was involved in sales long enough to learn that it was an extremely low-margin business and maximising throughput volume was essential to minimise the production cost per kilo. Then, as now, there was a widely held belief that factories didn’t return a fair share of the animal’s value back to the farmer. This is caused by farmers’ lack of access to information on what happens when their animal goes into the factory. No information is published on wholesale value of beef cuts, and most large beef factories don’t publish annual accounts. In an industry with many strengths, its one great weakness remains its inability to develop farmer confidence.

Many of the top entrepreneurs in the Irish beef industry have little formal education

It is, however an industry, that offers career opportunities for an extremely wide range of skills. Many of the top entrepreneurs in the Irish beef industry have little formal education. The industry has graduate programmes now for people in sales, accounting, computing and quality control, to name a few. People from a farming background may be drawn towards procurement and a farming background is seen as a good grounding for working in the production end of the business. People that survive the first month in the industry often spend their entire career there. It offers careers for everyone – from PhD holders to those with no formal academic qualifications – and I have never regretted working in the local meat factory.