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VMG boss Brown fired up to tackle any challenges

BEING in charge of a food producer when there is a major mechanical breakdown cannot be much fun.

LONG-TERM STRATEGY: VMG chief executive Cameron Brown has been in the food industry all his working life and wanted to stick to what he knew best. Picture: Colin Templeton
LONG-TERM STRATEGY: VMG chief executive Cameron Brown has been in the food industry all his working life and wanted to stick to what he knew best. Picture: Colin Templeton

It is to his credit that Cameron Brown, chief executive of VMG Foods, appears calm even although his main oven recently went up in smoke when a fire inside it left the device destroyed.

While he admits it is currently "pandemonium" on the factory floor, the genial 47-year-old has a solution in place.

The Glasgow business makes frozen pizza and speciality breads for a range of customers, including catering companies with public sector contracts and supermarkets.

So while the main oven is out of action, some bases are being bought in from a different supplier.

The installation of a replacement oven will take almost a week, but should be completed before Christmas.

Mr Brown said: "The thing about the food industry is you never know what will happen next. We lost three-quarters of our capacity when the oven went down, so there is always a challenge to be faced."

The father-of-three is no stranger to solving problems and overcoming adversity. Initial dreams of becoming a pilot were dashed by knee problems after just a year in the RAF.

A graduate trainee job with Marshalls led Mr Brown into the industry where he has spent his entire working life.

After several years at various Marshalls sites, he joined entrepreneur Bill Hazeldean as he built up Macrae Food Group.

Mr Brown ran the Strathaird Salmon business in Inverness before a spell as group chief executive of Macrae prior to the sale of the business to Young's Bluecrest.

However, a rock climbing fall left Mr Brown in hospital nursing a broken back, ribs, collar bone and shoulder.

Once he had recuperated, the offer of a move to the Young's head office in Grimsby held little appeal.

So in 2005, Mr Brown set up Food Investment Group with Mr Hazeldean and other investors and acquired Sheffield-based Thomas Food Partnership and Meadowbrook Bakery in Milton Keynes.

When the constant travel from his home in Renfrewshire to England began to become more onerous, Mr Brown began looking at opportunities closer to home.

The VMG Bakery, which had introduced the deep-fried pizza to Scotland in the 1970s, caught his eye and its owner Giovanni Giambastiani was looking to retire.

Negotiations on the deal began in 2009 and the newly formed VMG Foods began operating in February 2010, with 13 staff who had transferred across under TUPE regulations.

Mr Brown, who owns the company with wife Sandra and brother-in-law Graeme Finnie, said: "We thought it was a nice little business and we could come in and do something.

"There are lots of big pizza companies across Europe and we are not trying to compete with them as we just don't have the scale. But there are a lot of smaller niche areas which we can plug into which the big guys aren't in.

"I had been involved in businesses funded by [venture capitalists] and all the good and bad things that go with that.

"I wanted to do something long term and sustainable – not just 18 months of maximising profits and have an exit strategy. We want to run a business the way we want to run it and food was the only thing I know so that was the only option."

After what Mr Brown describes as some "false starts", involving customers not paying and contracts not delivering the volumes expected, he now feels the company is in a strong position.

Staff numbers have risen to more than 50 and should push above 60 in 2013 while turnover is predicted to grow from £2.5 million to nearer £5m in the coming year.

VMG has been helped by food giant McCain deciding to move out of making pizza.

A gap in the market for frozen sticks of pizza opened up and VMG was able to turn around a new product in just a few weeks.

The Mr Moretti-branded Pizza Stix are now being sold across the UK.

Mr Brown said: "It really fell into our lap. We knew the outline way of doing it and invested in a bit of kit.

"So now you will find it in Asda, Spar and Iceland, while Farmfoods has launched an own-label version.

"We are also launching with another major supermarket towards the end of January.

"There is a lot of margin to be released from it and we can release a lot more capacity but that is a project for next year as we talk to other supermarkets."

Mr Brown is keen to use local suppliers wherever possible with Carr's Flour Hutchisons in Kirkcaldy helping in dough mixtures, Glasgow agency VisualizeThis doing packaging design and Kinpac for the actual packets.

He said: "We like to do that to support the local area but we feel we actually get a better service.

"We are tight for space here so these guys can hold stock and deliver stock into us daily."

VMG, which has been backed by Royal Bank of Scotland and had funding from Scottish Enterprise, also hopes to grow its distribution in areas such as gluten-free and halal pizzas.

Mr Brown said: "We can probably squeeze a little bit more from this site but we are very tight and there are so many more opportunities out there with frozen pizzas and party foods, so hopefully we can deliver a lot more.

"The thing I have learned from my time in the industry is that you need to have a point of difference unless you have huge volume.

"We are flexible and we specialise in doing bespoke things and we are picking up more of these things as our reputation is building. It is all about giving customers what they need."

Curriculum vitae

CAMERON Brown was brought up in Bridge of Weir and studied geography and topography at Glasgow University.

After a year in the Royal Air Force, he was forced to give up on his lifelong dream of being a pilot due to problems with his knees. In 1987, he took a graduate trainee production manager at chicken specialist Marshall Food Group. He moved around its sites in Coupar Angus, Newbridge and Cambuslang plus Sandycroft in North Wales.

At the end of 1997, he left to join Macrae Food Group as general manager of its Peterhead factory.

Three years later he moved to become managing director of Strathaird Salmon in Inverness when it was acquired by Macrae.

By 2003 he was promoted to group chief executive of Macrae and the following year the business was sold to Young's Bluecrest.

Along with Macrae founder Bill Hazeldean Mr Brown set up Food Investment Group in 2005 and acquired Thomas Food Partnership and Meadowbrook Bakery. Current firm VMG Foods was established in 2010.

He lives in Houston, Renfrewshire, with his wife and has three children.

Although not able to be an RAF pilot, Mr Brown had a flying licence for several years.

He enjoys sailing, music and is a Kilmarnock Football Club season ticket holder.

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