Top meat processor Dunbia set to go on the block as new owners sought
One of the biggest meat processors on the island could be put up for sale as the business actively begins looking for new buyers.
Dunbia, the Co Tyrone beef, lamb and pork processor is one of Northern Ireland's biggest firms, turning over almost £800m (€1.1bn).
It's understood a teaser document has now been prepared, due to be sent out to businesses who may have an interest in snapping up the Dungannon-headquartered firm.
That's normally the first step in establishing interest in a business, before a formal bidding process would begin.
Any potential sale could include the whole business, or a large part of its operations, which are scattered throughout the UK and the Republic.
One market source said a "formal process" would be the next step. He also said interest was likely to come from outside Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
A spokesman for Dunbia confirmed the business is now "considering options for maximising the potential of the company going forward" after having "received several serious expressions of interest from would-be investors over the past two years".
"Dunbia has enjoyed consistent growth over the past number of years and has ambitious plans to grow and expand the business," the spokesman said.
"Market dynamics are continually evolving and we are currently exploring the best options to ensure that we are well placed to meet the demands of the marketplace, now and in the future.
"We have received several serious expressions of interest from would-be investors over the past two years and we are now considering options for maximising the potential of the company going forward."
But the company said it remains "business as usual".
"While we are working on plans for the future, our focus very much remains on day-to-day operations and delivering a first class service to our customers."
There has been speculation over the last few years that the company - which has around a dozen sites across the UK and the Republic - could be sold off.
In the last four decades, Jim and brother Jack Dobson have grown their small Dungannon butcher shop into a meat giant, with sites throughout the UK and Ireland.
Pre-tax profits for the company fell during the course of the last financial year - ending March 2014 - dropping by almost £3m to £4.6m.
Set up in 1976 after the brothers bought over a small frozen meat shop in Dungannon, Dunbia has grown to employ 4,000 staff - 1,200 working in Northern Ireland.
It's one of Ireland's largest locally owned meat processing companies, and exports beef, lamb and pork across the globe.
Earlier this year, Northern Ireland poultry giant Moy Park was sold to Brazilian food group JBS SA in a deal worth almost £1bn. There had been speculation that Dunbia was a potential target for JBS. On the question of Dunbia's future plans, co-founder Jim Dobson told the 'Belfast Telegraph' earlier this year: "You can't get married until you are asked. If we were going to shape ourselves to do that, we wouldn't be running the business as we are."
Economist John Simpson said that while Dunbia is one of Northern Ireland's "most successful red meat companies" it has dealt with "fine margins", along with much of the food processing industry here.
"On the face of it, this is a success story, which risks now moving some of its business outside of Northern Ireland," he said.
"Much of the employment in Dunbia is spread around the UK, and elsewhere.
"But if they sell off the organisation around Great Britain, then the employment fortunes will lie elsewhere.
"It would be a pity if Northern Ireland doesn't [keep it]."
Speaking about potential buyers, Mr Simpson said it is likely to attract meat firms from Britain and further afield.