Posted on Wednesday 16 January 2019 by Ulster Business

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Owen Brennan, Devenish Nutrition

In 1997, Devenish Nutrition was an agri-feed business, established in Fermanagh, with around two dozen staff.

In the 20 years since its takeover, Owen Brennan, executive chairman with the now global company – which has its headquarters in Belfast – has grown the business from a firm with annual revenues of £5m, to an international business now doing that in a week.

“By the time we got there it was well-established for over 40 years. The shareholders were looking for somebody to take the business to the next stage.

“While the company was smaller at the time, they were really keen to see it grow from the Northern Ireland base.

“The business has grown substantially. At that time, the Northern Ireland revenues were over 90% of the entire sales. Today they are less than 10%.”

However, Northern Ireland revenues are around five times larger than when Owen took over the business.

Devenish has round 500 staff – across 24 nationalities, which is roughly the size of the entire workforce 20 years ago. But it counts Northern Ireland as its main base, and remains a key element of the business. The company sells into more than 35 countries.

“The most important metric is that we spend around £30m a year on innovation projects,” he said.

“The big focus in 1997 was seeing a niche opportunity for a specialised, innovative nutrition product, full-service business.”

It deals in animal feed supplements – specialised high-value nutrients in a small pack. It also makes diets for small animals at the early stage of their lives, along with specialised nutritional products.

And Owen says while the public hears about the negative impact of livestock, the positive impact isn’t heard.

In his time at Devenish, Owen has been handed several accolades, including winning the Belfast Telegraph Cup 2015 at the Ulster Farmers’ Union annual dinner.  

“I’ve always taken those awards very seriously, and it’s the reflection of the work of a lot of people. I might happen to be the person that ends up being the recipient, but that’s only possible because of the success of the overall business.”

He says, while sounding like a cliche it’s “genuinely a team effort”. “Part of my interest (in sport) is that I see the parallels between sport and business.

“Who is the most important person on the rugby field?… actually, it’s everybody. If you have one weakness in that 15 or match-day 23.

“If you take that analogy into the business area. I was once asked by a mentor, who did I think were the most important people in the business at that time. I said I didn’t know.

“But he said ‘the telephone receptionist and the lorry driver’. He said those two people, between them, have by far and away the most customer contact in our business. I’ve never forgotten that. And 40 years later, I find that to be true.”

On Brexit, Owen says the position among businesses has remained consistent, with a majority opposed to the UK leaving the EU.

“The three things which have emerged to date include the diminution in the value of sterling – that has been a very bad thing for business, generally.

“… the second effect has been uncertainty… life is uncertain, as is business. But anything that adds a large uncertainty in a business environment is not good.

“The third is maybe a little harder to define. I think the debate around this leaves a lot to be desired.

“People have said to me that the focus on immigration has made a lot of people, that would be described in those debates as immigrants, feeling very uncomfortable.

“We are an international business, and had got to used to thinking of that international dimension as a good and wholly positive thing, so to hear a debate with that emphasis, with that sort of connotation for people of an international background.”

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