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Death Reported of Bernard Matthews

by 5m Editor
29 November 2010, at 11:46p.m.

UK - Bernard Matthews, founder of Bernard Matthews Farms and the country's leading brand of turkey meat, died last week.

The obituary released by Bernard Matthews Farms reports that Bernard Matthews CVO, CBE, QSM, died peacefully at home on 25 November, aged 80. He was an entrepreneur and philanthropist who will best be remembered for building a multi-national food business after hatching a dozen turkeys eggs in a second-hand incubator bought at Acle market, near Norwich in Norfolk.

He grew up in Norfolk and won a scholarship to the City of Norwich School. After National Service in the RAF with the famous 617 'Dambuster' Squadron he began his working life at Commercial Union, spending his spare time rearing turkeys in his future mother-in-law’s garden.

By the early 1950s, he was hatching 200 poults a week from eggs which he hand-turned twice a day helped by Joyce – whom he married in 1953.

As the business was growing quickly, the couple had the luxury of a one-day honeymoon as they had to get back to feed the turkeys.

This was a sign of things to come – they worked 13-hour days, living in a one bedroom flat and cooking their meals on an upturned gas fire as they laid the foundations of one of the UK's leading food brands.

After a dreadful set-back in the storms of 1953 when almost everything he had built was blown away, the business began to grow, and two years later Bernard and Joyce bought the iconic Great Witchingham Hall, which is still the headquarters of the business today.

Turkeys were hatched and reared in the bedrooms, and prepared for the table in the Hall kitchen.

Even in the early days, Bernard Matthews had a clear vision of making turkey affordable for everyone. A trip to the USA prompted his vision for the freezer revolution which would transform the demand for oven-ready turkeys.

Norfolk Manor Turkeys was formed in 1960 and the 30-year-old Bernard Matthews was already controlling assets in the region of £250,000.

Over the next few years, the growth of the company was very swift. Spotting the benefit of using a former war-time airfield at Weston Longville, he built what was listed in The Guinness Book of Records as the largest turkey farm in the world. It also initiated a friendship with the USAF which was to last a life-time.

As the business developed, Mr Matthews became a figurehead for the poultry industry, both at home and abroad and in 1965, he was invited to the Soviet Union to advise President Khrushchev on modernising the Russian turkey industry.

As chairman and president of the British Turkey Federation he presented a Christmas turkey to Harold Wilson and his wife on the steps of Number 10 – something he later repeated for Margaret Thatcher (who insisted on paying him for it!), and to John and Norma Major and the Blair family.

In 1971, the company went public. The Matthews family sold a 60 per cent shareholding on flotation but Bernard Matthews remained as managing director.

The rapid growth of the company continued and by 1976 had posted record profits of £2.5 million. By this stage, the company was shipping frozen oven-ready birds to Europe and claimed another first by exporting turkey eggs to the USA.

Over the next 30 years, the company was at the forefront of the food industry as it developed into one of Britain's best-loved brands.

During this period, when Bernard Matthews was asked by a director of a TV commercial to describe his turkeys, he coined the famous 'bootiful' catchphrase, which has been brought back to life in the current advertising campaign.

This formed the cornerstone of the business' marketing activity throughout the 1980s and 1990s as he became the face of this household brand.

In the mid 1990s, Bernard Matthews spearheaded the company's international expansion, with the acquisition of businesses in Hungary, Germany and New Zealand. The New Zealand arm was subsequently sold in 2007 but the company still continues to supply the European market through operations in Germany and Hungary.

In December 2000, in what was described as a 'bold move' at the time, Bernard Matthews and his management team decided to initiate a share buy-back to return the company to private ownership – after 30 years of being a listed company. During this time, the team successfully beat off take-over threats from other interested parties.

Over the next 10 years, Mr Matthews continued his role as chairman and in 2010 retired from the main board on his 80th birthday. He continued to sit as chairman of the Supervisory Board until he passed away.

Throughout his successful career, Mr Matthews supported many charities – often anonymously. He was an ardent admirer of the Caister Lifeboatmen 'who never turn back' and during his lifetime helped this independent charity to buy two new lifeboats, which subsequently saved many lives off the Norfolk coast.

He was vice-president of the Royal Society of Arts and president of the Norfolk Institute of Directors. He was a life-long supporter and president of the Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association, and through his interest in the life and times of Lord Nelson he became a trustee and benefactor of the Norfolk Nelson Museum, and financed the 'Norfolk –' Nelson's County' signs.

Bernard Matthews gave significant help to major projects at Norwich Cathedral, Norwich Hospital, University of East Anglia, True's Yard Museum, Norwich Castle Museum, USAAF Memorial Library and many, many others. In fact, there is probably not a town or village in Norfolk that has not benefited in some way from his generosity.

Alongside these charities Mr Matthews supported many local educational initiatives.

He was a founder Charter Member of the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme and a strong supporter of the Scout movement and the Prince's Trust.

In 2008, he launched the Bernard Matthews Youth Awards in association with the Eastern Daily Press to recognise the achievements of young people in Norfolk and Suffolk, and established the Bernard Matthews Fund with the Norfolk Community Foundation to continue to help local organisations across Norfolk, Suffolk and Lincolnshire.

In 1989, he received the Queen's Service Medal for services to the New Zealand meat Industry, became a CBE in 1992 and was awarded the CVO in 2007. He was a keen yachtsman and travelled extensively. He listed his main interests as food and had an encyclopaedic knowledge of wines. He had homes beside his beloved River Wensum in Norfolk, in London and in the south of France.

Bernard Matthews leaves a widow, Joyce, four children and six grandchildren.