‘And away I went’

‘And away I went’

Simon Howie is an iconic Scottish brand. While his fillet steaks and prime beef are well-known in supermarkets, he is also a serial entrepreneur, as Kenny Kemp finds out.

In farming parlance, Simon Howie is best of breed across a number of classes. In his business life he is one of Scotland’s most prodigious business figures, but he’s also fiercely proud of his rural Perthshire family roots and is one of the country’s leading Scottish dance band musicians.

He is a tall, quietly-spoken Scotsman, who displays a certain reserve and seriousness when talking about his multiple business enterprises, but lightens up and relaxes more when talking about accordion music and the great names of Scottish dance music such as Mickey Ainsworth, Jim Johnstone, Ian Powrie, Jimmy Blue, Bobby McLeod and Jimmy Shand.

But while dance music is his passion with its myriad jigs, reels, marches and waltzes, Simon Howie is far better known as an awardwinning Scottish entrepreneur who is – if you excuse the awful pun – outstanding in his field. The picturesque Perthshire village of Dunning has just celebrated its 500th anniversary as a Scottish Burgh of Barony.

Nine miles from Perth and five miles from Gleneagles Hotel, it is a tight-knit and prosperous community steeped in its history and its symbiotic connection to farming, trading and the land. This ingrained sense of place might explain something about the success of Simon Howie, whose immaculate home farm at Findony – with his personal helicopter in a fallow field – is on the outskirts of town.

Howie was born in neighbouring Millhouse farm, a smaller 130-acre mixed farm run by his father, Angus Howie. In December 1986, 19-year-old Howie was learning his trade in Rattray & Son shop in Perth. “I was working as an apprentice butcher and decided that I wanted to start my own business,” he says.

“So I got cracking with that. I bought a small old Co-operative shop in Dunning and set up.” The shop cost £2,400 and he kitted out with £2,000 that he had saved in the bank. Then Howie uses one of his catch phrases: “And away I went.” He was given a week’s credit from a meat wholesaler, which he paid the following Monday, and got some more meat.

“That’s how Simon Howie the Scottish Butcher started,” he says. Today his various business interests have a combined turnover of around £40m. His first employee, Jim Park, who started in May 1987, is still with the company today, a fact of which he remains very proud. The tiny butcher’s shop then started supplying hotels and restaurants. However, the holy grail locally was getting a foothold into the internationally renowned Gleneagles Hotel.

“I knocked on their door many, many times, but I was always turned away,” says Howie. “They didn’t see the need for a ‘local yokel’.

One night I was going back home to my folks’ farm and there was a guy trying to get the wheel off his car.” Simon Howie, now 44, is a practical, sleeves-rolled up kind of person. So he stopped, offered to help and went back to the farm for the right tools.

“It turned out he was Colin Bussey, the head chef at Gleneagles.” A few days later he went and knocked on his door again.

The result; for the next 23 years he supplied Gleneagles with all their meat. It was a fortuitous meeting because Bussey eventually worked with Howie helping to change the way luxury hotels source their cuts of meat.

“That’s how we got in the door,” he says. “As the chefs at Gleneagles moved around I picked up other hotels such as the Old Course in St Andrews and the Turnberry.

Away we went!” The village shop model was working well, so Howie bought another shop in Auchterarder and one in Dunkeld, and eventually had four shops which he described as “concentric” growth, with the shop supplying the local hotels and restaurants.

But the Simon Howie story is all about grabbing relevant opportunities when they present themselves, so he bought a laminated panels business in 1991 which undertook shop-fitting.

“I was buying panels for my shops and I felt it would be better if I could make them myself. So I started a company called Shore Laminates.” The fledgling company rented a dingy old factory in Perth and kitted it out.

“Away we went! Business went from strength to strength. We have about 50 people working there now.” There was a lot of rebuilding work in the 1990s.

The Scottish Office in Leith, the refurbishment of international terminals at Glasgow and Edinburgh Airports, new offices at Scottish Provident and Standard Life – all these companies required fit-outs and Shorewas well placed. The laminated products were sold to companies doing the fit-out.

“We were fabricators of the product and companies, such as Havelock Europa, or Thomas Johnston would buy from us,” says Howie.

“It was the same way as a baker makes pies.” The laminated business was split into commercial, with schools, hospital and hotels, and domestic – bathrooms, wall panelling – under two brands. It would remain an important part of the Howie business empire. In 1995, he bought Rattray & Co in Perth, where he began as an apprentice. It went on to become the top butchers in Scotland for three years running, then the best in Britain. According to Howie, the key to this was one special individual called Gary Conacher.

“He is absolutely brilliant,” he says. “There is a common thread through my whole business career there are certain individuals and events that have happened. They have completely and utterly changed the course of my business. Gary came to my food business and took it by storm. He’s helped me grow the business to where it is today. He’s a brilliant individual and a great motivator.” Scotland’s top-class hotels were building their international reputations for the quality of their food, and this brought an interesting change in chefs’ ways of working. Instead of spending hours preparing cuts of meat, they were spending more time cooking and improving the quality of their menus. This presented Simon Howie with a new opportunity.

He says: “We looked further down the value chain and decided to concentrate our efforts on to pre-prepared, chef-ready products, rather than selling them whole chunks of meat that they would prepare themselves in-house.” For Simon Howie – now supplying 200 hotels and restaurants on a daily basis – the ready-to-eat, ready-to-cook range of products became a significant part of the story.

In 1995, he bought the 400-acre Findony Farm in Dunning, knocked down the old steading and built a factory for state-of-the-art meat production.

The carcases arrive from selected abattoirs around Scotland, and they are cut, trimmed and every part of the animal is used for consumption. He increased the factory size to 60,000sq ft with two divisions; chefprepared products and red meat.

“We asked ourselves how we could leverage this,” he says. “We have this factory based in this very nice rural location; how do we ramp that up and make it really stand out from just another run-of-the-mill food preparation company?

"During the process of building the new factory I started up a company called Rossco Properties and Greenfield Homes, one to do commercial property and the other housebuilding.

"All the money I was making in my laminate business and food production I was ploughing back into buying brownfield sites. They were pretty poor sub-prime sites where I could build bog-standard basic sheds. I was buying land that I could invest in once I’d bought it.” Again Howie’s hunch worked.

He found a niche in the market for smaller businesses which wanted cheap property at £3-£5 a square foot – workspace that was basically something to keep the rain off. He now has 1.5 million square feet of basic, low-rental leased space across the UK, including Manchester and the North-West of England, and 300,000sq ft at Grangemouth docks which is used as a whisky bond.

“We’re debt free on this,” he says. Greenfield Homes built more than 100 houses before Howie made the decision that house building wasn’t going to be part of his continuing portfolio.

He admits he found it too much of a hassle. “We built a lot of nice houses, but it’s definitely not for me,” he says. “In the same way that commercial vehicle dealers don’t sell cars, customers are very fickle. They complained about things that weren’t important to me and I felt I wasn’t on the same page as the customer.

I made a decision to work with commercial users, rather than domestic home-owners.” Back on the food front, a major breakthrough came in 1999 when Sainsbury’s ran a supplier development programme with a dinner in Edinburgh on the final day.

By chance, Simon Howie ended up sitting next to the chief executive Peter Davis and alongside his deputy Stuart Mitchell, who later became managing director of the supermarket chain. Howie grabbed his opportunity. “Your meat counters are not as good as they should be for such a leading supermarket group,” he told the pair. They nodded their heads in agreement but said they were struggling to know what exactly to dowith it. Simon invited them to see his shops.

“I said, ‘If you give me the meat counters to run, I’ll make them better – by a long shot.’ “Fair play to them, the following Saturday they flew up from their Holborn HQ and I picked them up at the airport.

Within 15 minutes of seeing our shops they said, ‘Go ahead and take your Simon Howie brand into all of our Scottish stores.’ There was no real contract; just a handshake.” This was a watershed deal for the business and he recalls hearing of the World Trade Centre attacks on September 11 2001, while arranging the cuts of sirloin as he set up the “Simon Howie” branded butcher’s counter in Blackhall in Edinburgh.

“We doubled the meat turnover overnight, supplying all the meat products over the counter,” he says. “It let Sainsbury’s and ourselves realise how big a prize there was in this sector. We worked well together.

Sainsbury’s were very entrepreneurial and eventually they said, ‘Thanks a lot, we can do this on our own now.’ I moved on too.” For Simon Howie the brand, it raised the profile among the competing supermarkets which realised they too had to improve their presentation and display at the meat counters. Now Howie could engage with Tesco, Asda and Morrisons and they knew and understood what he was doing.

“It took us into a different league,” he says. “We realised that the way to sell food in the UK to the masses was to pre-pack and get it on the shelves.

Getting onto Sainsbury’s counters allowed us to get into this market – without that we would not be where we are today as a food company.” For Simon Howie it was all about relationships with multiple retailers who had heavy footfall and building a brand, which was developed in-house by marketing graduate Emma Loftus – still with Howie.

The brand tools were; tone of voice, the look and feel of the product and the colour scheme for packaging. “We worked very hard to get this right,” he says.

“We built a perception that the business was perhaps an artisan small food producer, with a 100-year old heritage that stretched back to my grandfather, who started it all.

Actually, we are none of those.” This brand building was transferable and Howie turned his attention back to the laminate business. “We wanted to push this so that other people could sell our products in either specialist bathroom showrooms or in the mainstream DIY chains, such and B&Q,” he reasons.

“While you give some of the margin away, the opportunity to grow the business is bigger.” WetWall – the biggest selling shower panelling product in the UK – and Splashwall, while essentially the same product, were both created to serve different segments of the bathroom market.

Recently Mermaid Panels, where Howie is chairman, invested a further £1.5m in production line technology for waterproof wall panels. When he pulled out of house-building in 2001, he created Shore Recycling.It was a chance meeting with the fridge engineer who told him he needed to do something about CFC gases in the fridges because there would be a problem getting rid of them.

“The fridge engineers keep my fridges going in the factory,” he says. “I asked what was going to be done about domestic fridges and he said: ‘No-one really knows.’ I looked into it and found that the UK government had signed up for an EU directive to prevent CFC gases going to landfill – but found out there was no solution.” Simon Howie went to Leipzig, Berlin and Munich searching for a recycling machine that could deal with the gases.

He found one, ordered it and started speaking to Scotland’s local authorities, signing up 31 of the 32 councils into long-term contracts. The fridges started to arrive en masse. By the time the first machine arrived from Germany, he had it paid off and £600,000 in the bank.

“It was like winning the lottery,” he says. “We had 50 people working in the plant in Perth.” Two key individuals arrived – Tom Liddell and Malcolm Todd, a former marketing director from Glenmorangie who became managing director and ran it like a marketing business.

“I decided that the business was making £3m a year profit in the second year. I wanted to sell it but there was no appetite to buy, so I got RBS to help Tom and Malcolm buy a good slice of the business. Over the period of the next four years, the guys paid down the debt and we ended up with the company debt-free.” A fire was a major setback but the insurance payout helped rebuild one of the best recycling plants for fridges and televisions (taking in 10,000 monitors a month) in Europe. More stringent EU directives meant anything with a plug and battery had to be recycled – which turned waste into a lucrative business.

It all went into a massive food-type blender which separated the parts and turned the raw materials into a mulch. Shore Recycling was eventually sold to Viridor Waste Management, part of the Pennon Group, for £23m in March 2008. “There were a number of reasons why it was good to sell,” says Howie. “We were all in the mood for a sale at that point. It had been a very intense and tricky five years, but enjoyable.

Viridor have gone on from strength to strength, so it was a good buy for them.” Simon Howie then bought two more laminate businesses which were major competitors at the time and purchased Calport, a shipping and handling stevedoring business at Perth harbour, which he runs with brother Angus, who runs the local haulage and distribution company.

“We bring in bulk cargoes and store them, including animal feed, fertilisers and salts,” says Howie. “We take timber from Scandinavia. There are not many inland ports like Perth so it’s an opportunity to bring goods in.”

He also bought a 500-acre farm in Tain which also helped in the supply of animals for premium beef. With such success, did he ever consider taking on bank debt to grow the business? “If I took the truth drug, there was the chance that I could have geared up and done a bigger deal during the good times,” he admits.

“And I might have been sitting here saying, ‘Why did I do that?’” In 2008, Howie also created Shore Energy with three sites going through local planning, turning waste into energy. At times, this has been contentious in places such as Monklands.

“It’s a process of stripping the waste and taking the bio-mass out and converting the bio-mass to energy,” he says. “It’s a pyroliser which turns the waste into a gas. There is no combustion; it is not an incinerator, as some campaigners have claimed. It’s a clean, proven process called gasification.” Howie’s wife and family are an integral aspect of his life in Perthshire.

His grandfather was one of a family of 13, born in 1886, and went off to Canada, worked on the Hudson’s Bay trading company and made enough money to come back and buy the farm. Simon’s father and mother Dorothy instilled in him a conservative work ethic, although they were entrepreneurial.

“I was lucky to have parents who spoke to us,” he says. “I have two brothers, Angus and Norman, and we are a good working unit. They have their own careers and I’ve done my own thing from an early age. But our parents, crucially, spoke to us and told us about the workings of a business as well as life in general. We watched how they went about their lives in terms of speaking to people – how they treated staff and colleagues, how they dealt with finance, their reluctance to take on debt.

All of these things are inherent good business principles.” Howie’s mother was a nursing sister and the family had some holiday cottages in the village let during the summer to visitors.

“She would finish her work and then in the evening go and clean and tidy the houses for the holiday lets,” he recalls. "She would spend the evenings writing confirmation letters to Holland and Belgium for the guests. In one year she was able to earn enough to buy a brand-new baler for the farm!” Farming was Simon Howie’s love, but it was obvious three brothers were not going to get a living out of a 130-acre farm.

“The adage was; if you’re not going to be a lawyer or a doctor, go and get a trade,” he says. “The meat trade suited me and it was easy for me to be a butcher. What I remember about my training was the camaraderie and the fun I had as an apprentice in a shop with 15 people. It was a fantastic part of my early life; I was the young lad in the shop.

I was well looked after.” It would be remiss not to come back to his music. In the early years he made 50% of his income as a Scottish dance band leader, playing ceilidhs, weddings, and appearing on the BBC Scotland’s Take The Floor radio show. He has family connections with the legendary Ian Powrie, who now lives in Australia and is in his 80s. “He was the Govn’r in my eyes,” says Howie. “He took the music by storm in the 1960s. I played the accordion from an early age. It wasn’t just for fun, I take it very seriously. I was travelling the country and abroad and getting a wider appreciation of what was going on.

It gave me more of a rounded approach to my business.” He says it was about being in the right place and often appearing bigger than he actually was in the early days.

He started-up companies because he didn’t have the cash to buy them. He acknowledges he’s had a lot of advice and informal mentoring, and his involvement with the Entrepreneurial Exchange has given him access to some of Scotland’s best business brains. He’s also keen to help others who are starting out.

“I’ve had 25 years’ experience, in hand-to-hand combat,” he says. “Even today I’m much more comfortable with start-ups than writing people big cheques to take on their business.” Today Simon Howie’s food business employs 120 people in Perthshire, the laminate firm has 150 staff, while among the other businesses there are another 50 employees. Simon Howie has done all this with remarkable energy, passion for his products and commitment to quality. He is certainly one of a rare breed of enterprising Scots.