London-based middle-market private equity firm Rutland Partners is said to seek a sale of Bernard Matthews, Europe’s largest turkey producer, which Rutland acquired in August 2013.

In an email to staff, Rutland Partners’ executive chairman Alan Jamieson said consultants PwC had been appointed to look at possible buyers, according to the BBC, adding that the poultry firm had experienced “disappointing results” over the past year.

British food tycoon Ranjit Singh Boparan, known as “the Chicken King,” is said to be a front-runner in a flock of bidders for the company, according to The Telegraph. Boparan is a British businessman, and the founder and owner of 2 Sisters Food Group with his wife Baljinder Kaur Boparan. Boparan Holdings is the group company, which owns all of the couple’s subsidiary holdings. They have an estimated fortune of £190 million. Last month, he acquired the Giraffe restaurant chain from Tesco PLC (LSE: TSCO), adding it to his Harry Ramsden’s restaurant chain, Goodfellas frozen pizza and Fox’s biscuits. Boparan entered the turkey market by buying Irish business Grove Farms in April.

Boparan’s 2 Sisters Food Group is a Birmingham, England based food-manufacturing company. Founded in 1993 by chief executive Ranjit Boparan, as a frozen retail cutting operation, it has grown rapidly through acquisition and expanded to cover 36 manufacturing sites in the UK, eight in the Netherlands, five in Ireland and one in Poland. The group employs 23,000 people, with annual sales of £3.4 billion. It was listed 14th on the 2014 Sunday Times Top Track 100, and is reportedly the largest food company in the UK by turnover.

Bernard Matthews Farms is also said to have attracted interest from Northern Ireland’s Moy Park, which was sold to Brazil’s JBS last year, and Faccenda, the UK’s second largest chicken processor. Foreign buyers may have an extra advantage because of the cheaper pound and the Brexit aftermath.

Bernard Matthews – best-known for its ‘Bootiful’ advertising catchphrase – is named after its founder, who in 1950 set up the business by buying 20 eggs and a second-hand incubator. He sold the dozen turkeys which hatched to a local farmer for the equivalent of £9 in today’s money, said Sky News.

Matthews, a high-school dropout and son of a mechanic and a cleaner, was only able to join the business full-time after national service with the RAF and an apprenticeship as a livestock auctioneer in Norwich. In 1953, he borrowed £3,000 to buy the dilapidated Great Witchingham Hall and filling its 35 rooms with turkeys. Great Witchingham Hall in Norfolk, England, is a country house built in the 16th or 17th century but extensively remodeled in the 19th century.

While Matthews and his wife lived in two unheated rooms, turkeys were hatched in the Elizabethan manor’s dining-room, reared in the Jacobean bedrooms and slaughtered in the mansion’s kitchens. The historic estate eventually became the head office of Bernard Matthews Farms.

great_witchingham_hall_bernard_matthewsIn 1964 he met Nikita Khrushchev to discuss the modernization of the Russian poultry industry. In 1980 the company launched its first TV commercial featuring Turkey Breast Roast, with Matthews himself introducing the famous “Bootiful” catchphrase in his thick Norfolk accent, and becoming part of the “national consciousness.”

In 1989 Matthews was awarded the Queen’s Service Medal by the Government of New Zealand for services to the New Zealand meat industry. He was later appointed a CVO in the 2006 New Year Honors List, for his service with the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, a scheme for which he had also previously been appointed a CBE. In January 2010, he retired as chairman of Bernard Matthews Farms, and died that year at the age of 80.

Matthews was a multi-millionaire with a fortune reportedly estimated at its peak, at over £300 million, although at the time of his death it is said to have amounted to £40.5 million. In addition to Great Witchingham Hall, his possessions included a £12 million villa in St Tropez, a yacht, a private jet, and a Rolls-Royce motor car.

However, behind a jovial façade, Matthews was known as a solitary, deeply private and complex man. He shunned the limelight and refused to give interviews. “I hate hearing myself speak,” he told The Telegraph in a rare moment of candor. “I find it very embarrassing.” His personal life was complicated, too, strewn with affairs and broken relationships. In 1975, he left his wife, Joyce, with whom he had adopted three children, and moved his Dutch lover into the family home. The couple had a son but separated when Matthews started an affair with an American model eight years later. In 1987, he began a relationship with his third mistress, Odile Marteyn, which lasted 23 years, The Telegraph said.

Bernard Matthews Farms, based in East Anglia, is the market leading producer of turkey in the UK operating across 50 farms and 4 processing facilities. The business breeds, raises and processes circa 7 million birds per annum in the UK and supplies the market with 1.5 million fresh birds over Christmas.

Bernard Matthews operates a fully vertically integrated business model owning the entire supply chain from ‘farm to fork’ for both primary markets (fresh turkey) and secondary markets (cooked meats). In addition, Bernard Matthews has meat processing businesses in Germany and Hungary. The firm employs more than 2,000 people across Norfolk and Suffolk in the UK.

Despite enjoying an important market position in the UK poultry industry with a strong brand, Bernard Matthews has faced some trading challenges in recent years.

In January 2007, the company faced an outbreak of H5N1 bird flu virus at his Holton, Suffolk, plant. The company is also said to have faced a challenging market environment with the soaring cost of turkey feed in 2011.

Last year’s accounts show that in the year to 28 June 2015 sales fell to £276.8m from £306.8m during the previous 12 months, according to Sky News. It made an operating loss last year of close to £1m, and its directors said that investors including Rutland had injected an additional £10m of funding in August 2015.

“With the investment by Rutland and the renewal of the secured lending facility through to August 2018 the directors are of the opinion that the group has sufficient funds to meet its liabilities as they fall due and have prepared the financial statements on a going concern basis,” the accounts reportedly said.

“The directors have received information from the parent company, Bernard Matthews Holdings Limited, of its intention to financially support the company such that the company can meet its obligations as the fall due for a period of at least 12 months.”

A report in The Sunday Telegraph last month said the company had made dozens of staff redundant and was exploring the sale of some of its land-holdings in an attempt to raise cash.

Rutland Partners, a specialist turnaround and restructuring private equity investment firm founded in 1986, has raised to date £800 million in committed capital across three funds. It operates as a subsidiary of Rutland Fund Management Ltd. and invests primarily in companies based in the UK. The firm also owns electronics retail chain Maplin Electronics, European printing group Walstead, and Pizza Hut in the UK.

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