When Micheál Briody first joined Silver Hill Foods in 2011, the business was at a fork in the road. Silver Hill had an excellent duck product that customers were willing to pay a premium price for, despite the global recession, but a large part of what the company was doing was unprofitable.
At the time, Silver Hill was processing 37,000 ducks per week. It might seem like a lot, but at this sort of volume it’s hard to be profitable in the poultry industry. To grow the business to the sort of volumes needed to achieve sustainable profit margins, the team at Silver Hill began to look at new markets and sales channels.
“We’ve grown our retail business significantly in Ireland,” says Briody. “That’s been spearheaded by our head of sales Barry Cullen. We now sell duck to all five retailers in Ireland, Lidl, Aldi, Dunnes Stores, Tesco and SuperValu, as well as Lidl in the UK and we’ve grown the category from €1.5m in value, up to more than €9.5m last year,” he adds. At the same time, Silver Hill has looked to new export markets.
Back in 2011, Silver Hill generated 80% of its sales from export markets, with the majority sold to customers in the UK.
“Our export business is built serving high-end Asian restaurants and Asian communities that like duck,” says Briody. “Areas like Chinatown in London, where there’s good consumer affluence. Almost all of the ducks you see come from Emyvale, Co Monaghan. We’re shipping three containers a week filled with duck to London alone and we’ve had that business for over 25 years,” he says.
Building on this, the company has targeted other cities with strong Asian communities who have an appetite for high-quality duck. You will now find Silver Hill duck in Asian restaurants across London, Manchester, Birmingham, Amsterdam, Paris, Singapore and Hong Kong.
These seven cities account for 65% of Silver Hills’ business today and have helped the company more than double its processing volumes since 2011, to 85,000 to 95,000 ducks per week or 4m ducks per year, says Briody.
“We’re at capacity at this level of production. Next year we’re planning to expand the processing facility here in Emyvale, to process 120,000 ducks per week,” he adds.
Singapore has very quickly developed into a strong export market for Silver Hill since they first began exporting there in 2014. Initially, the company thought it couldn’t compete on price in a market that was so far away.
However, the reputation of Silver Hill duck, which is also known as ‘London fat duck’, was quite significant in Singapore and sales took off almost instantly.
In fact, Briody later learned that flight attendants working for Air Singapore on the London-Singapore route were being asked by restaurateurs in the city to bring back a London fat duck from every trip so they could use them in their menus, which would have cost £100 per duck.
Silver Hill has almost maximised the potential of the high-end market for duck in Singapore already, says Briody. The company now has its sight set on Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia.
“Our next target market is Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. Thanks to the great work done by Bord Bia and the Department of Agriculture’s market access team, food safety inspectors from Malaysia will audit our facility here in Emyvale this month and I hope to be shipping duck to Malaysia by December,” says Briody.
The market has enormous potential. In Kuala Lumpur alone, 20m ducks are consumed every year.
“We already have a flawless product in our duck” says Briody. “The biggest challenge for this business is the production process and capacity. Emyvale was originally built for 10,000 ducks per week. So we’ve had to expand the factory bit by bit over the years,” he says.
Silver Hill is a fully integrated business. The company owns the parent and grandparent stock for the Silver Hill duck flock, which Briody says makes it harder for others to replicate their product. Silver Hill operates its own breeding farm at Aughnacloy, Co Tyrone where 14,500 duck eggs are laid every day. They are then transferred to their hatchery in Bragan in Monaghan.
After 28 days in the hatchery, the eggs are transferred to one of two duck farms owned and run by Silver Hill or else they will be sent to one of 23 contract growers that fatten ducks for Silver Hill. These contract poultry growers are spread across Ireland from Cappoquin in Co Waterford all the way up to Ballyshannon in Co Donegal. After 42 days from hatching, the ducks are ready for processing.
Entering a major new market like Malaysia needs careful planning and a lot of lead-in time. Over the years, Silver Hill has worked with Enterprise Ireland to professionalise this side of its business and bring more structure to its breed selection for the next generation of ducks. This way, the company can select the best traits in its new ducks, such as breast size, feed conversion ratio and protein-fat combination.
Briody also completed Enterprise Ireland’s Leadership 4 Growth programme in 2012, which he says was a game changer for him in how he viewed the business. Earlier this year, Silver Hill was acquired by Northern Ireland co-op Fane Valley for an undisclosed sum.
As Briody admits, they didn’t buy the business to watch it stand still. There’s significant growth potential left in the Co Monaghan operation, as it looks to break into new, high-value markets across Asia.