How a promise to a dying pet led to Norfolk Business Awards success for feed firm Thunderbrook Equestrian
- Credit: Sonya Duncan
Thunderbrook Equestrian won the Future50 One to Watch award at the EDP Business Awards 2017. The win capped a remarkable four years for the animal-feed company, as MARK SHIELDS reports.
The story of Thunderbrook Equestrian's success can be traced to a dark day in the winter of early 2014: an injured dog lies on a vet's operating table, close to death, as Eddie Linehan and his partner Deborah Carley watch on.
Career shepherd Mr Linehan is facing a decision: to say goodbye to his beloved companion Heidi, seriously injured after being run over, or to find the £10,000-plus that it will cost to save her life.
It was then that he made a promise to his dog: if she pulled through, he would make her her own dog food, and put her picture on the bag.
Four years on, both Heidi and her owner have held up their sides of the bargain.
But the transformation of Thunderbrook Equestrian has been equally remarkable, having gone from a small-time operation run from its founder's dining room to a brand now being sold across the country and attracting the attention of some of the biggest players in the multi-billion pound animal feed industry.
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That step-change has largely been driven by Mr Linehan, who set himself to work full-time at Thunderbrook to pay off the debt of £13,000 to Dr Carley, who footed the final vet's bill.
The business moved out of Dr Carley's kitchen and into a shipping container in the yard, before outgrowing that and moving into its own premises in Griston, near Watton, as it has racked up year-on-year growth of more than 30%.
The company sells organic animal feed and supplements, mainly for the equine markets, based on a formula Dr Carley devised herself after her horses began to experience health problems shortly after she moved them to Norfolk a decade ago.
But it was not until Mr Linehan, 44, set himself the target of making Thunderbrook a £1m company that its growth accelerated.
'I'm very driven and I'm my own worst critic,' said Mr Linehan. 'When I was a shepherd I wanted 50 sheep, then I got them, and I wanted 100, then 200. I eventually got to 1,500.'
The company is now close to the £2m mark, having caught the mood among owners for organic feed which, it says, means healthier animals.
In the past four years, the company has reversed the trend for most retail businesses by moving its customers from online sales to in-store.
With a database of 2,500 online customers, the company was able to prove to wholesalers that it had a ready-made local clientele keen for its products, eventually persuading them to stock their line. Thunderbrook now sells in a month what it used to sell in a year.
'Horse feed is bulky for online order, and you don't get impulse purchases in online sales. People need their supplies now - they don't want to wait a couple of days,' explained Mr Linehan.
While the business is built on its specially formulated feeds, devised by Dr Carley, it has been driven by Mr Linehan's instincts – a division of duties he jokingly characterises as 'the brains and the brawn'.
'I've not taken it to where I have through business knowledge,' Mr Linehan conceded. 'It's been through sheer determination, and I've had a lot of luck.'
'As we've grown, we've stayed loyal to the suppliers we've had, even though now we might be able to get better prices.
'They were there at the start, when I was working 100-hour weeks and sleeping on the floor of the office. I'm very loyal.'
The win at the EDP Business Awards was an important breakthrough for the pair and their small team, convincing them that they were on to something special.
'The big thing the award did for us was it made me believe in myself. I went there thinking we didn't have a prayer, and I had my jacket and bow tie off when our name was read out,' said Mr Linehan.
'The lead-up forced us to get our house in order, and understand our business even more. And since then, the award has gone up and down the country with us.'
Thunderbrook's growth has drawn admiring glances in the industry, especially from bigger players keen to muscle in on their success in the premium organic sector.
Attracting that attention has been a victory in itself for Mr Linehan and Dr Carley. The satisfaction is neatly summed up in a sign that hangs at the company's office.
It reads: 'First they'll tell you that you can't do it. Then they'll ask you how you did it.'
• This article is the latest in our series on the 2017 winners of the EDP Business Awards.
The Norfolk Business Awards 2018 open for entries on May 23, with a deadline of July 27. They seek to unearth dynamic companies and pioneering entrepreneurs, and the visionary and ambitious leaders who are breaking boundaries and fuelling growth. Don't miss your opportunity to share your success story. Entry will be via the EDP website.
The Norfolk Business Awards ceremony will take place at the Norfolk Showground Arena on Thursday, November 22. It is a key date in the business calendar and last year hosted more than 450 guests from more than 100 local businesses. Demand is traditionally high, so you can reserve your tickets now. Call 01603 772371 or email Stephanie.firstname.lastname@example.org.