Being the candid and self-deprecating executive that he is, Farmer’s Choice CEO James “Jim” Taylor readily admits that he has not succeeded in everything he has ever tried.
That is why, when we ask him about a product he introduced into the market that backfired spectacularly, he humorously talks about tomato-flavored sausages that his company briefly processed about 30 years ago.
“When I was young and thought I knew everything”, he starts, “I traveled around the world and in Africa. And I noted that most indigenous Africans added tomato sauce to their chips and fish.”
He thought he had had a light-bulb moment when he reasoned that selling a sausage with tomato flavor could take Kenyans’ taste buds by storm and do away with the need to sprinkle sauce on the meal.
He had the company import tonnes of tomato concentrate to make the sausages. His plan was to have a million sausages made.
“So, we introduced the most beautiful tomato-flavored sausage,” says Jim.
It flopped. It did not stop anyone’s urge to squeeze some tomato sauce into their chips. The dream crashed and Jim says the packages for those sausages still lie somewhere in the company’s premises.
“I think I was the only person who liked the sausages,” he says with a chuckle.
We are talking with Jim in his office on a calm Wednesday morning in the company’s headquarters in Kahawa West, Nairobi. As the interview progresses, tens of the company’s 1,600 employees are in a building next to us, packing and sorting sausages. The firm makes around 10 million sausages a week.
His is a story deeply intertwined with that of Farmer’s Choice, a company he joined in 1978 in his 20s.
Farmer’s Choice growth
When he was hired, the company was then known as East Africa Meat Products and under the wings of the family that ran the Block group of hotels.
The company became Farmer’s Choice in 1980 and Jim has been its CEO since 1983, during which its ownership changed hands from the Block family to the Lonrho Group in 1989. The current owners, Industrial Promotion Services (IPS), acquired it in 2000.
Jim lights up as he discusses the growth of the company from a roadside butchery on Thika Road to becoming Kenya’s market leader in the production of sausages and meat products; a company whose electricity bill for refrigeration currently averages Sh25 million a month.
As one of the long-serving chief executives in Africa, Jim often finds himself interacting with all sorts of people — from the hawker to the head of State.
He, for example, tells Lifestyle about his interactions with the ruler of Dubai (then a desolate place with only one hotel) that subsequently made Farmer’s Choice the first entity allowed to sell pork to Dubai, which was growing into an ambitious place that wanted to attract people from all over the world.
The company says it is currently a top supplier of sausage and frozen bacon to Dubai, now a bustling business hub full of expatriates and a far cry from what it was three decades ago when Farmer’s Choice was making inroads there.
Maintaining quality over the years is not easy — and apart from the complex processes, there is one cherished tradition in the company. The senior leadership of the company, including Jim, holds a meeting to taste sausages every day at 9am (new recruits gain weight, we are told).
Farmer’s Choice might not have been what it is if a young Jim had not received tough love from his mother.
He was born to British parents in Tanzania, where his father had been sent to be part of one of the most disastrous projects the colonial power has ever engaged in outside its borders — growing groundnuts.
With the failure of the £36 million project conceived after World War II, his family moved to Kenya.
“They moved to Kenya when I was two. My father was in the Kenyan administration, based at Kahawa. I was brought up initially in Kiambu in the old chaplaincy behind St Paul’s Church,” he says.
His father died when Taylor was 12, leaving him, his mother, and two step-siblings to face a tough life.
Due to financial constraints, he did not go beyond Form Six. He completed his A-levels at the Duke of York School (present-day Lenana School) and could not proceed any further.
His mother then gave him a cheque of £100 (Sh13,000) to enable him to travel using the Trans-Globe charter company.
“She said, ‘That can get you to most places in the world. Go forth and good luck,” says Jim, recalling that he was barely in his 20s then.
Looking back, he thinks his mother’s action sparked a go-getting spirit in him.
Farmer’s Choice Sales job
“By the way, she didn’t do it hating. She did it wanting me to realize the world out there is not that kind,” he says. “It taught me the value of money. It taught me the value of having to work for a living.”
With the wild card, he chose to fly to London where he took up a sales job with a company that dealt in chemical building products.
“That’s the only thing I knew how to do — selling,” he says.
The company then decided to expand to Africa and he convinced the CEO to start with Kenya. He recommended a Kenyan-based company that would be an agent.
“I also recommended that they send me back here so that I could help, which I did,” says Jim.
In 1973, he was back to Kenya, working with a company that sold various iron products used in the construction industry. He jumped ship after a year.
“I was a young, cheeky little fellow and I got a bit bored because this wasn’t my line at all,” he says. “I was approached by a company called Phillips, Harrisons & Crossfield who were importers and distributors of every type of consumer product that you could think of.”
The company supplied such products as corn flakes, skin blemish-clearing gel, and over-the-counter pharmaceuticals, among others.” They approached me to become their sales manager. I thought this was wonderful because, in those days, they were the main suppliers of everything,” says Jim.
He started off in 1975 and soon rose to the rank of sales and marketing director. Then one day, he was approached by Mr. Tabby Block, one of the entrepreneurs in the Block family.
“I was in a shop in town as a sales director in Kaunda Street and I felt a tap on the shoulder,” recalls Jim.
That was the beginning of a conversation that would see him quit his job at Phillips, Harrisons & Crossfield and forfeit a brand new company car he had been given. The next destination was East Africa Meat Products, a company under the Block-family owned Kulia Investments, where he was to be the sales manager.
When he first visited the premises of his new company, and on seeing the cockroach-infested car that would be his company locomotive, he says, he wished he had not accepted the switch. But it was too late and he decided to give it a try.
James “Jim” Taylor Big challenge
At the time, the company was grappling with a big challenge: Only 20 percent of the animals they slaughtered were being used in the hotels — through the extraction of the so-called meat primal that includes the round, loin, rib, and chuck in cows and the ham, Boston butt and picnic in pigs. A majority of the carcasses went to waste.
The company sent Jim to the UK to learn about meat processing. He went to the Bowyers of Amersham meat plant and also to Highgrade Meats, who were sausage manufacturers.
He returned to Kenya when his employer decided to venture into sausage production in 1979.
But producing a sausage was easier said than done. Initial attempts to make a sausage for the Kenyan market were disastrous.
One incident is the most laughable. When moving to East Africa Meat Products, Jim had come with Mr Hezron Ndung’u alias “Bwana Sausage” from their previous employer.
“I poached him as everybody else does,” Jim jokes. Mr Ndung’u, who worked with Farmer’s Choice until his death last year, was a marketer then.
On one occasion, Jim and Mr Ndung’u went to market their sausages to a fast food joint owner on Tom Mboya Street in Nairobi. It ended in a mess when the piece they had placed on a frying pan exploded and sprayed meat on everyone in the kitchen.
But after many attempts, they came up with just the right sausage with a casing tough enough to withstand cooking under high temperatures.
They have since been using imported collagen casings, most that come from Scotland.
“Initially, we used hog casings which are derived from a pig’s stomach, that are used elsewhere in the world. In the early ’80s we switched to collagen casings,” he says. “Collagen casings are much more hygienic. They are derived from the beef hide and they’re much more economical.”
Through aggressive marketing campaigns where they projected sausages as a simple meal that is easy to prepare, Farmer’s Choice slowly won the hearts of fast food outlets and Kenyans by extension.
The first business to accept their sausages was K&A, which ran fast food joints in Nairobi.
“They had 12 fish-and-chips shops in the city centre. We gradually managed to replace fish with sausages and fish-and-chips shops became sausage-and-chips shops,” says Jim.
Today, the company has more than 40 sausage types on the market. Smokies, reckons Jim, are the products he is proudest about.
“When the smokie leaves here, it’s Sh13 per piece. When it gets to the vendor, it’s Sh30. Think of the money people are making,” he says. “We have seen bankers resign to take up this.”
The company says it has more than 50,000 smokie vendors across the country, which translates to about 600,000 livelihoods supported by the products.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, he says, a street in Nairobi’s Westlands dotted by a number of entertainment joints was their biggest smokies market in the country.
“We sold a tonne (of smokies) a night on Fridays and Saturdays. We’ve lost all this business,” a crestfallen Jim remarks.
The company has grown from a small meat shop to a firm owning a tracts of land and other properties. The headquarters where we do the interview sits on a 10-acre parcel of land that also has the company’s slaughterhouse and processing plant.
Across the road is another of the company’s properties used by its fleet of 150 vehicles.
Not too far away, there is the Choice Meats premises, which is strictly dedicated to beef products to ensure its halal-certified foodstuffs are made away from the main plant.
There is also a 33-acre pig farm not too far from the headquarters.
Farmer’s Choice also owns a 248-acre property in Uplands. It bought the property in 2000 from Uplands Bacon Factory, a government parastatal that went under in the 1980s then was placed in receivership. The collapse of the factory was one of the factors behind the rapid growth of Farmer’s Choice.
In Uasin Gishu County, the company owns another 30-acre parcel of land dedicated to breeding pigs.
About 70 per cent of the pigs they slaughter are reared by external farmers, who are supported by Farmer’s Choice, while the rest are raised by the company itself.
Besides selling to Kenya, Farmer’s Choice also exports to Uganda and Tanzania by road and to Dubai and the Middle East by air.
The Dubai export started after Jim met the leader of Dubai, from the Maktoum dynasty, about 30 years ago.
“I had to have a face-to-face meeting with him and he explained things to me. He said, ‘Mr Taylor, please don’t think I’ve gone mad, and I’m not abusing my religion (by importing pork to a Muslim territory).”
The leader explained to him his plan to have Dubai as an expatriates’ and tourism haven in 20 years, thus the need to have a variety of diets. Jim reckons that the leader’s vision came to fruition because today, a majority of those living and working in Dubai are from other countries.
Jim is proud that Farmer’s Choice has grown to its current heights, saying the sales department has been the core of this.
He is a strict time-keeper and an early riser, so much so that some staff told us they feel embarrassed coming five minutes late. We are relieved when we beat the Nairobi traffic to arrive in time for the interview.
One of his leadership policies, he says, is keeping track of what everyone in the company is doing.
“I am a great believer in knowing what everybody does in the company; whether they’re drivers, whether they are toilet cleaners; whether they are my number twos and threes. It’s important that you know what they do and you congratulate them on the day’s work,” he says.
He also believes in listening to the ideas of anyone with a positive contribution.
“A person can’t always think that they know everything,” he says, adding that the greatest lesson from his long tenure is that you should always hire the right people.
He admits that his reign has not been perfect but he credits hard work and team spirit for where the company is.
“The harder you work, the luckier you are. And there is no shortcut to hard work,” he advises.
Despite not having a university education, he is proud that he has led Farmer’s Choice thus far.
By March last year, the company had identified a successor in the managing director-cum-CEO position because Jim plans to go into semi-retirement.
However, the Covid-19 pandemic introduced shocks not witnessed by the company since the 2007 post-election violence. Markets crashed, a production crisis ensued, and debts owed by hotels and other businesses piled up.
Jim says the company is now on the recovery path, though it has not fully returned to where it was before the pandemic — when it was making up to 500 tonnes of sausages a week and also produced tonnes of meat primals.
“That (succession) was put on hold immediately as there was no way I could hand over a company going bust,” he says. “I plan to exit the scene. (After leaving) I have committed to staying on as a consultant if indeed my consultancy is required. But we have to get the company back to where we were first.”
To freshen up and to keep fit, he used to run every day.
“But age has overtaken the ability to do that. But I do a lot of cycling and gym work,” he says, adding that he also watches sports for leisure.
Being active, some people believe, is the reason he has not piled on the weight despite the fact that he eats sausages almost on a daily basis for the last four decades.
“A daily tasting panel is conducted each morning at 9am,” he says.
“With a quality assurance manager chairing the panel daily, the purpose of the panel is for all departmental heads and certain products and sales departmental heads to sample products taken at random from each batch produced the previous day to ensure taste, cooking properties, packaging, and overall quality meets our standards. If the panelists are in doubt, then the product is not sold into the market; it is withdrawn,” adds James “Jim” Taylor.
The writer then asks him how one can be a CEO early in his career like he did.
“Try to get the company that you want to lead out of trouble,” he advises. “Try and think out of the box — of innovations that the Nation can be made that would actually take them further ahead. That’s how you do it. Be recognized by your superiors.”Would you like to get published on this Popular Blog? You can now email Admin any breaking news, your Bio, articles or advertise with us on: [email protected]