Profile: Kevin Brennan

Non-vegetarians are flocking to Quorn in their millions. Chief executive Kevin Brennan spoke to Lizzie Murphy.

Kevin Brennan
Kevin Brennan

When I imagine the headquarters at Quorn Foods when the horsemeat scandal broke, I picture its directors punching the air with joy.

The debacle, which began in January last year when Irish food inspectors found traces of horsemeat in some beef-labelled products stocked by UK supermarkets, rocked consumer confidence and sales of frozen burgers and ready meals plunged.

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But chief executive Kevin Brennan, is diplomatic.

“We are all in the food industry together and we didn’t realise what was going to unfold at first,” he says. “It’s not helped consumer confidence.

“Even though it was clearly an opportunity for us in that period, we didn’t want to be out there exploiting it.”

He pauses, then adds: “But it was helpful.”

Launched nationally in 1995, Quorn is now the UK’s 35th biggest food brand, bigger than Heinz Tomato Ketchup, Doritos and Innocent

The events which unfolded following the horsemeat discovery clearly provided a major boost for the Stokesley-based firm, which produces meat-alternative foods.

The company, which employs 600 people, attracted 12.2 million UK consumers in 2013, up two million on the previous year.

Its UK business reported a 13 per cent growth in sales last year, and a 20 per cent increase in like-for-like sales in the final quarter of the year.

Turnover, including international sales, grew by £10m to £143m.

For the first time in the company’s history, there are now more non-vegetarians than vegetarians eating Quorn.

Brennan, 51, believes this is a long-term trend and the sales figures are not just a spike.

“Eating less meat was already on people’s agenda from a sustainability issue, a cost issue and a health issue,” he says. “But horse-gate accelerated it.”

According to a You Gov poll at the end of December, 21 per cent of those surveyed said they ate less meat than they did a year ago.

The company is currently three years into a five-year growth plan, which set out to double sales in five years when Brennan took over Quorn’s top job.

When he joined the company, then owned by Premier Foods, as general manager in 2010, the brand was falling far short of its full potential following years of under-investment and failed revamps.

Sales slipped by eight per cent to £123m in the year to the end of October 2010 and it was clear that a change was needed.

The catalyst for that change came the following year when Premier Foods off-loaded the brand to private equity firm Exponent in a £205m deal to ease its debt burden.

“The business had huge potential globally but the issue under Premier was that it couldn’t afford to invest in the business. It was UK focussed,” says Brennan. “The big difference now is that we have the money to invest.”

The company has spent £15m on advertising and new product development in the last two years.

Its latest £6m campaign, launched earlier this month, is headed by double Olympic champion Mo Farah. Quorn is keen to build on its attraction to non-vegetarians who want to cut down on the amount of meat they consume and the health-conscious.

The firm is in the final stages of planning a major investment to increase capacity by 50 per cent across the company’s Stokesley and Teesside-based sites.

Brennan says the focus for new product developments in 2014 is on its snacking and deli range, which includes meat-free samosas, spring rolls and chorizo. “We want a bigger presence in that area,” he says.

Another big focus is overseas expansion. The international business, which exports to 13 countries around the world, including Australia and the US, currently accounts for a third of the company’s turnover.

It recently launched its first 12 products into South Africa.

Brennan says he is making “good progress” on Quorn’s ambitious sales target.

“But the global recession has made it difficult to grow at those sorts of rates,” he added. “We will double growth in the next five years, no question.”

Brennan’s business background is predominantly in marketing, most notably a 12-year stint as marketing director, rising to general manager of snacks at Kellogg’s where he helped to grow Kellogg’s Special K to become the nation’s number one cereal brand.

His team was also the brains behind the popular ‘drop a jean size’ campaign.

“It was a turnaround period for the company,” he says. “It wasn’t doing well. I joined to help it as European marketing director and ended up strategy planning. We took it from a niche brand to a market leader.”

He adds: “Lots of things you do have fond memories but to know you are a big part of the overall improvement in the performance of Kellogg’s and the impact of Special K is one of the highlights for me.”

Brennan’s previous roles include marketing positions at Seagram Distillers and PZ Cussons, where he spent three years in China.

He moved there with his wife, Trish, and their six-month-old son in 1996. “We were living in Qingdao, which was then un-westernised,” he says. “It was the first time people there had seen a white baby and you couldn’t get anything recognisable from the shops. It was survival instincts that got us through and we picked up a decent amount of the language while we were there.”

The post to China was followed by two years in Sydney, Australia. “That was an easy life and a brilliant place for young kids,” he says.

Brennan, father of three children, now teenagers, says his family is the reason he didn’t pursue an international career with Kelloggs and moved to Quorn instead. “We had made Manchester our family base and we didn’t want to take the kids to mid-west America, which is where the job was,” he says. Now he lives in Stokesely during the week and returns to Manchester at weekends.

Besides brand-building, Brennan’s other talents include playing the guitar in a covers band.

Growing up in a working-class Irish family in Nottingham, Brennan was taught to play the guitar by his father who was in a show band. From the age of 12, Brennan was playing with his father at Irish Centres.

Later on he formed bands with friends, playing Irish, country and pop music.

Now he plays and sings in a band he formed a few years ago with a friend, performing about eight gigs a year.

His favourite song? “I like blues-type stuff,” he says. “We always do Proud Mary.”

Kevin Brennan Factfile

Title: Chief executive of Quorn Foods

Date of birth: September 24, 1962

Education: Economics degree at York University

First job: Guitarist in a band

Favourite holiday destination: Provence and Tuscany

Favourite film: A Coen brothers film, Millers Crossing

Favourite song: You Can’t Always Get What You Want, by the Rolling Stones

Last book read: Solo, by William Boyd

Car driven: Maserati Qatroporte

Most proud of: My guitars and my children