Innovator helped create one of the state’s largest poultry companies
Born: January 20, 1937
Death: August 12, 2021
Innovative Northern Irish businessman Billy O’Kane has died after a long illness. With his brother Desmond, he founded the family business O’Kane Poultry to become one of the largest poultry processing companies on this island. In 2010, O’Kane Poultry was acquired by rival Northern Ireland poultry processor Moy Park [then owned by the Brazilian food giant, Marfrig], ending the family business that the father of the O’Kane brothers – also Billy O’Kane – started from scratch in Ballymena in 1932.
Billy O’Kane was a founding member of the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association and was the representative of Northern Ireland at Bord Bia, the Irish Food Council. In 1989 he received an award from the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for his service to the food industry. He retired from the company in 2010.
After school, he decided that the best way to learn about the family poultry business was to work from the bottom up rather than continuing his education until graduate school.
O’Kane Poultry started when O’Kane’s father started selling chickens to customers at his fish shop on Bridge Street, Ballymena. When his sons Billy and Desmond joined the company, they were among the first to import so-called modern chickens. [bred for eating rather than for egg production] the United States. The farmers bought the chicks and flour from the O’Kane family who then bought the chickens back from the farmers to sell to customers. The business first operated on High Street, Ballymena, before moving in the early 1960s to Larne Road for the first purpose-built poultry processing plant on this island. In the 1970s, O’Kane Poultry was renowned for being the first poultry processor to import Dutch machinery to fully mechanize the production line.
The business has grown from supplying small grocery stores to supermarket chains in Ireland and the UK. In the early 1980s, O’Kane Poultry bought the Castlemahon Chickens company in Newcastle West, Co Limerick, [and later sold it in the mid-2000s].
The O’Kane Group has also established a large distribution center in Naas, Co Kildare. In 2009, the year prior to its acquisition by Moy Park, O’Kane Poultry employed approximately 1,500 people, with net sales of £ 132 million. They were producing 120,000 chickens and 5,000 turkeys per day. Two hatcheries, a feed factory, two processing plants and testing facilities were included in the £ 26million sale in 2010. At that time, the poultry processing industry was dominated. by a few big players and since there was no natural successor in the family, the sale was seen as the best way to secure work for the longtime employees and the farmers who supplied the chickens.
Outside of work, he spends weekends on the family farm in Crebilly and with his brother-in-law, Paddy Logan, takes advantage of many trips to the west of Ireland to buy cattle for fattening.
Born in Ballymena, the oldest of Billy and Elsie O’Kane’s four children, O’Kane attended Ballymena Academy. There his love of history and mathematics was fostered and his talent for rugby discovered. After school, he decided that the best way to learn family poultry farming was to work from the bottom up rather than continuing to graduate school. However, a year later, a friend and neighbor persuaded him to accept the offer of a place at Queen’s University in Belfast to study economics. He flourished there, showing a particular aptitude for statistics and graduated with honors in 1959.
O’Kane then completed an apprenticeship with a large poultry film in Ipswich in Suffolk before returning to the family business. It was while “working on the trucks”, going to local farms to collect birds for processing, that he first saw Mary Logan, the daughter of a farmer in Ahoghill. The couple married in 1961 and raised their six children in the family home, Red Dyke, on Galgorm Road in Ballymena. Sadly, their son Michael died in a traffic accident at the age of 13.
O’Kane was a calm-spoken man with a sharp mathematical brain. His modest manners made him popular with the staff. During his long career he has served on numerous boards, including the Belfast Port Commissioners, the Pig Marketing Board and the Agricultural Trust. He was also a director on the board of directors of Ulster Bank.
Outside of work, he spends weekends on the family farm in Crebilly and with his brother-in-law, Paddy Logan, takes advantage of many trips to the west of Ireland to purchase feeder cattle.
He also had a long-standing interest in rugby and supported the Ballymena Rugby Club, Ulster, Ireland and the Lions. Years later he became Chairman of the Board of Governors of Ballymena Academy and Chairman of Ballymena Rugby Football Club.
Billy O’Kane is survived by his wife Mary, his children Billy, Terence, Moira, Alison and John, his 15 grandchildren and his siblings Desmond, Elizabeth and Geraldine. His son, Michael, died before him.