Sunday 22 September 2019

Ray Coyle: From struggling farmer to being Mr Tayto

Self-made businessman Ray Coyle tells how he built up a booming empire – and made a packet

Ray Coyle, founder of Largo Foods which manufactures Tayto crisps and other snack foods
Ray Coyle, founder of Largo Foods which manufactures Tayto crisps and other snack foods
Sean Gallagher

Sean Gallagher

WHEN Irish people leave for foreign parts, they often miss their home comforts. And who could blame them?

After the mammy's cup of tea, the next thing they miss is, of course, the packet of Tayto crisps.

I had that in mind as I journeyed to meet Ray Coyle – the man who owns Largo Foods, the company that makes Tayto crisps and the man whose vision it was to build Tayto Park. Located near Ashbourne, Co Meath, the park is a unique mix of theme park, activity centre, zoo and educational facility, all rolled into one.

Opened in 2010, it attracted over 240,000 visitors in its first year of business. Today, that number has grown to 450,000, among them, a blended mix of school tours, birthday celebrations, Holy Communions, corporate days away and family days out.

Before Ray explains how it all came about, he first takes me on a tour of the park's main attractions. We start with the Tayto Twister. Here, visitors are invited to climb the tall tower before spiralling to the ground through the 20m-high tubular slide. For the more adventurous, there's the opportunity to tackle the large climbing walls or conquer the high ropes of the park's famous Sky Walk. Or even better still, to experience the thrill of flying through the air on the park's 212 metre zip line.

"It's all very safe," says Ray reassuringly, as he spots my hesitancy. But then, the park isn't geared for me. It's actually targeted at those from the ages of three to 18 who are obviously much more courageous.

Next, it's on to the hugely impressive timber lodge. Like something you might expect to see high up in the Rocky Mountains, this imposing structure, with its shops and restaurant, is the centrepiece of the park.

Here, Ray treats me to coffee and some of the chef's gluten-free chocolate cake. He also introduces me to his wife, Ros, and his son, Charles, who both work in the business. But before I get too settled, it's off to meet some of the park's 100 species of birds and animals. Among these are the herd of powerful American Bison with their burly shoulder humps and distinctively large heads.

Next, we visit some of the nine different breeds of wild cats, ranging from the small meerkats to the much larger mountain lions, leopards and tigers. These wild cats look remarkably calm as they stroll casually through their secure compounds. However, I am treated to a rare glimpse of their incredible speed and power when one of the staff invites me to help her feed them a piece of fresh meat.

Putting the meat on a long spear-like metal rod, I slowly poke it through the wire mesh fence. In an instance and, almost as if from nowhere, a large female tiger pounces forward towards the wire mesh, and snatches the meat. Before I can realise what has happened, she has retreated to enjoy her spoils.

It's easy to see why teachers and parents bring children to see these animals. What better way to learn about nature and wildlife than to experience it firsthand. Next, it's on to see the smaller farm animals where a group of pygmy goats and Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs lie stretched out lazily on the grass. Nearby, Ray shows me some unusual looking long-eared rabbits as well as a number of emu and wallabies.

As we head back to the timber lodge to finish our interview, Ray points out the Native American village area complete with tipi tents and totem poles.

Where did the idea for the park come from?

"I came across a number of similar type parks in the US, such as Hershey Park in Pennsylvania, which was built by Milton Hershey, owner of the world's first chocolate factory. He built the park as a place for his employees and their families to relax.

"Over time, it grew to become a major tourist attraction," explains Ray. "I decided I wanted to build a similar type theme park based around the Tayto brand. By locating it beside our factory, visitors would now also be able to see how we make our Tayto crisps," he adds.

The initial results of the professional market research studies he commissioned concluded that it was a high-risk project. However, if done right, Ray felt it would work.

But it wasn't going to be without its challenges. After they were 60 per cent into the €16m-build project, the bank withdrew its support. Undeterred, Ray became more determined than ever to complete the project, so much so that he made the decision to sell a factory he had built 14 years earlier in the Czech Republic. The money from the sale allowed him to finish the project and so, in early 2011, the park opened.

"We had 25,000 visitors during the Easter period that year and I knew then that it was going to work," he says.

Ray grew up about 200 metres from where the theme park is now located. His family were farmers who reared cattle and grew barley. For a time too, they ran the local pub.

Ray was young when he first set up his own farming enterprise, planting 12 acres of potatoes and four acres of vegetables, which he sold in the Dublin fruit and veg market. By the Seventies, and still in his mid-20s, Ray was making a lot of money; in fact, over £1m a year. Soon he was able to buy 800 acres of land and began to grow potatoes on an even larger scale.

By 1980, he was supplying potatoes to the company that was then making Tayto crisps.

"I never could have imagined back then that, one day, I would actually end up owning the brand," he says. However, in 1981, things went terribly wrong for Ray. Along with many other farmers, they lost their contract to supply Tayto. He would subsequently lose almost everything.

"At the time, I owed the bank £1.2 m and had no way of paying it back," he admits. "I wasn't even able to raise enough money from selling my farm at the time," he adds.

In what can only be described as a stroke of genius, Ray decided instead to raffle his farm. Selling 4,000 tickets at £300 each, he was able to raise the £1.2m and clear his debts with the bank.

He then looked around at the market and, realising that Tayto had 90 per cent of the Irish crisp market, he decided that there had to be an opening for a new entrant into the Irish snack-food market. And so, in 1983, he set up Largo Foods. A year later, he purchased the Perry brand and in 1996, he acquired the Sam Spudz brand when he bought out Donegal-based Irish Snack Foods. The same year, in a move to enter the UK market, he came up with the now famous Hunky Dorys brand. He had now cemented his company's position as a significant player in the snack-food market.

In 2005, Tayto, which was then owned by C&C, closed its crisp factory and out-sourced production to Ray's Largo Foods business. The following year, in a brave and courageous move, Ray bought the Tayto and King brands in a deal valued at €68m. The acquisition transformed the company.

In 2008, Ray partnered with German snack-food company Intersnack in a move that allowed the company invest in automation to further enhance efficiencies and maintain competitiveness.

What about future plans for the park?

"Our plan is to reach one million visitors per year by 2018 and we are well on our way to achieving that," insists Ray.

However, to achieve this, he is investing a further €25m in the park. He has bought a further 88 acres, which will bring the total size of the park to 125 acres. He has plans too, to build a 4D, 300-seater cinema, a new car park with capacity for almost 3,000 cars and a new roller-coaster which, when complete, will be 1.2 km long and be capable of top speeds of up to 115km.

Creating employment has also been a major factor in Ray's story. He insists that he is immensely proud of all his staff and points out how some have been with him since he first started Largo Foods over 31 years ago.

Ray Coyle is a remarkable man. He has shown incredible ambition and extraordinary drive throughout his life. When, at an early age, he lost almost everything, he found a way to get out of debt and start again.

When he spotted an opportunity to enter the crisp business, he showed little fear in taking on competitors that were much larger than he was. Similarly, he was unafraid of the challenges of acquiring other firms in order to both grow and scale his own business. But perhaps the biggest risk he took and the greatest challenge he faced during his career was building Tayto Park in his native Asbourne.

Whatever he does next, Ray Coyle has built a great legacy. But his most impressive legacy will be the example he has set and the role model he has become. A role model who helps inspire the rest of us to see opportunities and to go after them with determination, self-belief and a sense of imagination.

 Ray's advice for other businesses

1 Plan carefully – but go for it

"It's naturally important to consider your plans carefully and to weigh up all the risks involved in a project. However, sometimes in order to be successful, you have to trust your belief in your own judgement and simply go for it."

2 Have finance fully in place

"Sometimes projects can run into difficulties – and it's not because they are not really great projects, but because they run out of money before they are completed, or before they can become profitable."

3 Be patient

"Projects and businesses often take time to develop and become successful. While it's of course important to push ahead and not sit back, sometimes you also have to learn to pace yourself and to be patient. It will happen."

Business Masters

Company name Tayto Park

Business Theme park and crisp and snack manufacturer

Set up Largo Foods set up in 1983 and Tayto Park in 2010

Founder Ray Coyle

Annual turnover €11.2m for Tayto Park and a further €115m for Largo Foods

Number of employees Tayto Park employs 36 full-time and 220 part-time. In addition, Largo Foods employs 660 staff

Location Ashbourne, Co Meath

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