WANDERING around the aisles of his local supermarket, Martin Hamilton was struck by an idea for making more money out of the potatoes grown on his farm in Northern Ireland. Encouraged by a friend, and a glass of Irish whiskey, he and his wife Tracy devised a plan to build a factory producing champ, a traditional Irish dish of mashed potato and spring onions.
“Our returns on raw vegetables were diminishing,” said Tracy. “We saw huge opportunities in making fresh vegetables more convenient for consumers.”
In 2004 the couple began producing steam-cooked vegetable products from their farm beside Strangford Lough, Co Down. “It took us a year to get the cooking, packaging and marketing right so we could launch officially,” said Tracy, who is the company secretary and a director. “It was a big change for us to start cooking, and a huge learning curve.”
Ten years on, Mash Direct makes more than 40 products under its own name and for supermarkets such as Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer. It also sells to stores in New York and Dubai. The range includes Irish favourites such as colcannon — mashed potato and cabbage — as well as more modern recipes such as chilli baby bakes.
The business, still based on the family farm, posted sales of £10.6m in 2013 and an increase to £12m is expected this year.
The Hamiltons invested more than £300,000, the proceeds of farming, to start the company with the new factory. “It would have been very easy to renovate the existing old farm buildings, but we wanted to build a standalone facility designed specifically for food production,” said Martin. “It had to be suitable for visits from environmental health and technical officers from supermarket chains.”
To lower the start-up costs, their friend and co-founder Tony Reid, an engineer, designed and built Mash Direct’s first steam-cooker.
The Hamilton family now owns 100% of the business. Tracy and Martin’s sons are both involved. Lance, 28, joined straight out of university in 2008 and is the sales director. Jack, 26, was appointed marketing and export director two years ago. “We never put any pressure on them so it was lovely they were so interested,” their mother said.
The Hamiltons farm 1,200 acres near the small town of Comber. “The area has a fantastic micro-climate that is ideal for growing vegetables,” said Tracy.
When choosing which varieties to grow, the Hamiltons do not have to worry about appearance because their crops are steamed, mashed, diced, sliced, fried and shredded on site.
“We source a particular seed variety for flavour so it doesn’t matter if our carrots are a little bit wiggly,” said Tracy. “Everything happens on the farm, which means our products have the taste and texture of home-made food.”
As well as its branded supermarket products, the company makes food for pubs and restaurants. “You wouldn’t know that it’s our product because we make bespoke recipes,” said Tracy.
Mash Direct has also established a delivery service in London and it is looking to expand in America. “I’ve been working very hard there for four years,” said Martin, the managing director.
His forebears began farming in the Comber area in the mid-1800s. “My father walked away from the family farm in 1951 and, with my mother, started his own place from scratch,” said Martin, 58.
He left the Royal Belfast Academical Institution at 15 to work with his father and in 1975, aged just 19, he bought his own piece of land. “I sold my share of that original land to buy the farm where Mash Direct is,” said Martin. “Then, in April 1986, Tracy and I set out on a business partnership of our own.”
Tracy, 54, also grew up on the shores of Strangford Lough. She was a boarder at the Mount School in York before returning home to complete her A-levels at Regent House grammar school in Newtownards.
Her father, Paddy Mackie, was a director of the textiles machinery company James Mackie & Sons. With his wife Julie he founded the Castle Espie wildlife conservation centre, now part of the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust.
Tracy left Ulster University with a degree in business studies in 1982, and is now a visiting professor there. She is a director of the Northern Ireland Food & Drink Association, the first woman appointed to its board, and is involved with the Irish Tree Society and the Northern Ireland Heritage Garden Committee.
“Our house and garden are open to the public by appointment and our farm is part of the Countryside Management Scheme,” she said. “That’s my other world.”
The Hamiltons’ advice to would-be entrepreneurs is: “Regardless of what the business is producing, if you’re not going out yourselves to sell it and market it, don’t ever start to produce it. Make sure you have a sound board of directors; and good accounting with solid financial reporting every month is critical.”