Mar 01

UK processor invests to grow with ‘partner’ Lidl, eyes £100m turnover

Skin-packaged seafood specialist Copernus is investing in its plant and targeting sales of £100 million as it rides the growth wave of its primary customer Lidl GB.

Copernus is now processing the bulk of the skin-pack salmon and whitefish in Lidl, which is in growth mode. Lidl GB is planning to add 200 more UK stores to hit 1,000 by 2023 after seeing a boost in trading from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

As a result, the Hull-based processor is investing in a coated line and has also applied for planning permission for a 400-pallet cold store and increased office space, Dean Simpson, Copernus’ managing director, told Undercurrent News.

“Coated fish is a market for us to venture into. Our new coating line will be operational this year, having secured two new listings. The driving force behind this is to utilize as much of our raw material as possible,” he said.

More coated products will follow later in the year. “Goujons, nuggets and fishcakes are all in development and will hit the shelves at the end of 2021,” Simpson said.

The coated line’s addition comes off the back of other wins in Lidl, after the company took on more salmon business with the retailer last year. “Lidl is our main customer and we are focussed on our partnership with them,” said Simpson.

The total cost of investment across the site, including the new machinery, is £2m.

Last year, Copernus invested £1.2m in its primary processing operations, adding salmon and whitefish filleting and portioning equipment.

“This is to pre-empt the ever-dwindling number of people we see with the traditional skill of hand filleting,” Simpson told Undercurrent.

“With the site expansion, we’re targeting £100m in sales in the next two years. That will be possible through a combination of organic growth and new business,” he said.

Copernus’ retail exposure means the COVID-19 pandemic has provided a boost, in addition to Lidl’s growth plans.

“We’ve experienced a positive impact on sales because of COVID and it’s given us the impetus to invest back into the business,” he said. “We’re fortunate that the largest part of our business is retail, so when foodservice took a hit last year, we were lucky only to feel a small impact.”

As well as growth in Lidl, Copernus has seen other areas of its business grow fast in the pandemic, such as meal kits from the likes of Hello Fresh, he said.
The company is on track to hit £49m in sales for its latest year, closing at the end of March.

“That’s up from £38m the year before. We’re forecasting £65m-£66m for next year,” he said.

In the company’s last reported financial year, up to the end of March 2020, the net profit margin dropped to 1.5%, from the 3.3% reported for the eight months to March 31, 2019. Copernus’ profit has since increased along with sales, however, said Simpson.

As well as the retail boost, the company has benefited from the drop in raw material prices, upping margins.

“Profit margins improved when COVID hit demand in foodservice and raw material prices softened,” he said.

The company plans to add a new sales director soon, having brought in Andy Middleton from 2 Sisters Food Group as its general manager in August 2019. “We’ve had to develop and expand our management team to ensure that we get the best out of every day,” said Simpson.

Copernus’ processing expansion will also mean Simpson brings in more plant staff.

“In 2020, we had around 155 staff. We’re going to 200-220 now, plus agency staff, with the new business,” said Simpson.

UK consolidation trend

Despite being “proud” of Copernus’ status as an independent operator, Simpson said he’s got one eye on the consolidation going on in the country.

With New England Seafood International just being sold to Sealaska, a big Alaska Native Corporation, Copernus is one of a handful of bigger family-owned firms left.

We’ve seen a lot of consolidation in the sector in the UK and we’re one of the only independent fish processors left. We’re very proud of being a family-owned company. In the future, who knows? I’d be open to talking to people about investment and synergies that add value,” he said.

Ocean bound plastic project

As Copernus grows volumes in Lidl, the company is also supplying more fish in “ocean-bound plastic”, in a partnership with an NGO, Prevented Ocean Plastic.

In March 2020, Lidl announced an initiative with the NGO to use packaging made from plastic that would have otherwise ended up in the ocean, collected from beaches and coastline around South East Asia. This will initially prevent more than 60 metric tons of plastic from being introduced to the sea per year, which is the equivalent of 2.5m plastic water bottles, the groups said at the time.

“We were excited to work with Prevented Ocean Plastic and this motivated us to become the first fish processor in the UK to use ocean-bound recycled materials in all of our skin pack range for them [Lidl],” he said.

The launch focused on salmon and cod, but the program has been expanded, he said.

“Everything we currently supply is in ocean-bound plastic. All species, not just salmon and cod. Haddock, seabass and pangasius are also now in ocean-bound plastic,” said Simpson. 

Editorial credit: Tom Seaman, Undercurrent News