The passing of British “Turkey King” Bernard Matthews, CVO, CBE, brings to an end a classic story of a poor boy made good through free enterprise – the sort of story that encourages people to become entrepreneurs, but which may be increasingly rare in future.
It began in 1950, when Matthews, the 20-year old son of a car mechanic, having just completed his National Service with the Royal Air Force, bought 20 turkey eggs and an incubator at a local market. Agricultural products were a useful source of additional income for many Britons in the immediate post-War period when some were still subject to rationing. However, within two years, Matthews had turned his hobby business into a full-time occupation.
At first, he expanded “horizontally”, simply increasing the number of turkeys until he was the biggest turkey farmer in Europe. Yet his real stroke of genius was expanding “vertically” along the production chain by setting up his own processing plants. By 1980, he was even marketing directly to the public under his own brand name – something almost unique in Europe’s centralised agricultural sector – to the extent of appearing in his own television advertisements. This is something many bosses dream of doing, but advertising agents always try to talk them out of it: even those who are mesmeric in real life come across as stiff and insincere on the flat screen. Matthews was the exception: his description of his own product as “booootiful” became something of a catchphrase in 80s Britain.
He followed the now well-worn track of taking his business public, fighting off a hostile takeover bid by an American multinational, and then taking the company private again.
The last decade found him on the defensive. His previously popular “turkey twizzler” was targeted by a self-righteous healthy eating campaign, which turned it into the poster product for processed foods which are supposed to be bad for children. Far more seriously, two employees filmed committing an indescribable act of animal cruelty tried to defend themselves by saying it was part of the culture at their plant. While this was no defence, the incident showed how Matthews’ whole operation was out of step with changing ideas of animal welfare. An outbreak of avian influenza at one of the company’s farms followed soon after.
It is a tribute to Matthews that he managed to restore the company to profit before standing down as Chairman in January. Yet he was already a relic of a bygone age. It is doubtful if a man without formal qualifications would be allowed in these more regulated times to do as he did and build a major primary sector business from nothing. Whether that is good news for animals is a moot point – there is evidence that all the regulation is not helping them much – but it is surely bad news for humans that it is actually getting harder to be a genuine self-made man.