By Scott Wright

IF you are planning to celebrate Burns Night in the traditional culinary style this week, the chances are you will come across Simon Howie’s haggis.

The Perthshire butcher’s haggis has become a mainstay in Scottish supermarkets since Sainsbury’s became its first stockist in January 2000. These days its factory in the village of Dunning has the capacity to produce around 30,000 haggis per day, with multiple variations of the product (traditional, vegetarian and bonbons, to name a few) sold across all of the major grocery multiples and more besides.

With the Burns sales period now in full swing, the man behind the eponymous brand is in upbeat mood. Mr Howie told The Herald sales were “excellent” in December, when the firm put out a nearly two million packs of product and generated its highest monthly sales outside January, and “really strong” throughout 2022. “The brand seems to be getting good recognition out there and customers seem to like what we are doing,” Mr Howie said.

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This month looks set to be another successful Burns campaign for Simon Howie. The sales effort was ramped up recent weeks by a “haggis hunt”, offering people the chance to win a Burns Supper for free. Anyone with the first initial R and surname Burns and was willing to change their social media identity to R Burns had the opportunity to win one of 100 limited-edition Burns Night hampers, featuring goodies from brands such as Mackie’s crisps, Walker’s shortbread, and Mrs Tilly’s tablet.

In such gloomy economic times, it was a good-natured way to raise awareness of the brand and Scotland’s national bard, and perhaps divert attention from the challenges many people and businesses are currently facing. And Simon Howie, which also has a strong reputation for its bacon and sausages, is no exception.

While sales have been performing well, the company, in common with food manufacturers across the board, has seen margins come under intense pressure because of rising costs. Mr Howie said he is aware that his firm is not alone in facing these higher overheads and has to be “fair’ to its suppliers which are under similar pressure.

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“Inflation is real, and it is not just something that affects someone else,” he said. “It is affecting us. We are having to pay more for our meat. Cattle, sheep, and pigs are more expensive. Our labour cost has had to go up quite significantly to avoid losing people – there is quite a competition for good people. We recognise it is a luxury to ourselves. To be fair to our colleagues, why would we allow talent to leak out of the business for the sake of a few pounds?”

Asked if Brexit was contributing to the staffing challenges, Mr Howie replied: “I’m speaking personally here. I don’t have anything good to say about Brexit. I can’t think of anything positive that has happened because of Brexit. It seems like one of the big[gest] acts of self-harm that a country has done to itself in a long time. It is not on the scale of what we are seeing on a geopolitical level, but in terms of the UK I can’t think we have done much to ourselves that has been more harmful than Brexit.”

Equally, Mr Howie is “really quite disappointed” with how the UK’s political leadership has handled the energy crisis and said preparations should have been made to insulate people from the surge in prices that followed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. His own business and its suppliers are dealing with energy costs that are up to 10 per cent higher than a year ago.

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“There seems to have been an awful lot of point scoring going on, and not enough focus on what we actually need as a country to keep ourselves insulated from bullying,” he said. “I think that is what is happening. We have been paying climate change levies on our electricity accounts for the last 15 years to help subsidise renewable energy, and as soon as Mr Putin did his thing in Ukraine last year, all energy prices have gone up. But what about all the subsidised power that we have paid for? We should be able to enjoy a fair price now and not a rip-off price that we are actually being asked for.”

Noting that the government should have been aware of the consequences of major power stations such as Longannet, Cockenzie and Hunterston coming offline, Mr Howie added: “We are seeing energy costs at a level of seven to 10 times what we were paying last year. That is a consequence of poor management. It is not just geopolitical issues because if we have a bigger store of energy, or a larger generating capacity, we wouldn’t be at the mercy of the resellers.”

Mr Howie, who also has business interests in the property, cargo handling and recycling sectors, is hoping to reduce energy costs by developing a two megawatt solar farm on land at the family’s Findony Farm, where its 12,000 square factory is based. It is in the process of securing the necessary consents for the £2m project, which he hopes could be up and running by midsummer, but Mr Howie said there is a way developments such as this could be speeded up.

“I have actually written to Victoria Quay (Scottish Government headquarters in Leith) to say I think there should be a moratorium on having to even going for planning on it,” Mr Howie said. “I think companies that have the ability to put renewables in should just have a deemed acceptance.

“Now, I recognise a whole number of issues could come with that but this is extremely serious. It is not just [about] the neighbouring businesses that might be affected by someone putting in renewables, but if we don’t do this, food costs are going to go through the roof. We need to find ways to reduce our costs and reduce the effects on our customers without going back to them and saying you have got to pay me more for my product. There comes a point at which they will not pay it.”

Mr Howie said the company currently employs 135 people, and praises his colleagues for running the business in a way that allows it to make money to invest in projects such as the solar farm. Turnover for 2022 was 13% up on 2021, when accounts show Simon Howie Butchers booked revenue of £21.7m, but Mr Howie noted that the “impacts of the costs will mean we are slightly down on the previous year”.

He added: “Crucially, if we did nothing about investing and protecting our fixed costs then we would see a downward profit swing of over £2m in 2023.”


What countries have you most enjoyed travelling to, for business or leisure, and why? 
America for business and pleasure – the place never stops and has so many good ideas; France because it is chic in the south; and Germany, as I have learned much from its manufacturing firms. 
When you were a child, what was your ideal job? Why did it appeal?
A farmer. It has everything – outdoors life, animals, and big toys. 

What was your biggest break in business? 
I have been lucky there have been many, but meeting Peter Davies, the boss of Sainsbury’s, in 2001 was a game- changer when he suggested we took over his meat counters within the stores.

Who do you most admire and why? 
The real heroes to me are the people who spend every day making our businesses tick. I have real talent by my side.

What book are you reading and what music are you listening to?
I am reading Titan, about John D Rockefeller, Snr, the first billionaire, and listening to Scottish music of all kinds.