'The company's preference is that there was no Brexit' - Lakeland boss tells Secretary of State
On a whistle-stop tour of Newtownards late last week, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley swept into Lakeland Dairies' factory, which bosses say exports 99.9pc of its produce outside Northern Ireland, and where chief executive Michael Hanley said that it would be the company's preference "that there was no Brexit."
Lakeland Dairies brings together over 750 family farms producing 600m litres of milk in Northern Ireland, employing 225 people at Newtownards and supporting some 700 further jobs among suppliers and contractors across Northern Ireland.
About 15pc of the products from the Newtownards factory are destined for Europe.
Mr Hanley said that approximately 30pc of the firm's total produce was destined for Europe, describing it as the "biggest single trading partner or destination for our products".
"Our preference would be that there was no Brexit, but the vote has taken place and Brexit is going to go forward in some shape or form," he said.
"The deal that's on the table at the moment is a good deal for the Lakeland Dairies NI business. We export a lot of our product off the island of Ireland and this deal facilitates good exports, continuation of business, and us being able to service our farmers and the farm families in Northern Ireland."
General manager for food service operations Tim Acheson said he believed Lakeland Dairies was "fairly well insulated against job losses, depending on what happens with Brexit."
"You could argue that Lakeland is well-positioned by having operations both that will remain within the EU and which will be in future outside the EU," he said.
"I think from a commercial perspective clarity as quickly as possible would be very important. Certainly a positive outcome in the next couple of weeks would give confidence to our customer base.
"We are already getting questions from our customers about continuity of supply."
He revealed that, after the referendum, the company had the opportunity to halt investment towards its major new £5m packing hall - officially opened by Princess Anne in September - but instead committed to the project.
"The planning application went in before Brexit," he said.
"Whenever we heard about the Brexit decision there was an opportunity to stop the investment programme, but as a business we decided to commit. At this stage there's no concern about job losses - in the last couple of months we've increased the permanent workforce of staff."
Later, it appeared the Bradley charm offensive - which included the Secretary of State donning a blue hairnet, goggles and a white overcoat for a factory tour - had worked.
Post meeting, Mr Hanley said Mrs Bradley was "acutely aware" of the importance of a good Brexit deal for local farmers, dairy and dairy processing businesses.
"The Secretary of State recognised the importance of a business like this to Northern Ireland with all the jobs it's creating, and with buying milk from farm families across Northern Ireland," he said.
"I felt that the critical part for us today was that the Secretary of State recognised the importance of being able to access markets as seamlessly as possible," he continued.
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