The family behind Heck sausages and the secrets of succession

Brand new start: Heck is now the country’s most successful premium sausage brand Credit: Jake Hudson

Heck sausages have made the Keebles a fortune they plan to hand down.

A ‘what the heck’ moment during a family meeting convinced Debbie and Andrew Keeble to launch their successful gourmet sausage brand – and also inspired its name – but the couple are determined not to take any chances when it comes to handing the business down to their four children.

They know what is at stake, having sold their previous sausage business to a larger company in 2005 before quitting, feeling they had lost control of the brand.

“When we set out this time it was with a specific desire to set up a family business we could keep our hands on,” Debbie says.

After starting up Heck in 2012, the Keebles consulted independent experts and advisers in the family business community.

When we set out this time it was with a specific desire to set up a family business we could keep our hands on

“I noticed an organisation called Family Business United, which covered topics about running a family business,” says Debbie.

“This was all with the kids in mind. One of the biggest problems in running a family business is planning for succession.

“I’ve grown up seeing the difficulty of splitting up farms – a huge single asset. This is different. We are looking at options such as setting up a trust to secure the future of the business, defining individual family positions and protecting the brand, even if the children fall out. It’s a thorny issue but something we need to do.”

Brand new outlook

Memories of the couple’s previous venture were still painful but they have learnt from the experience. The adventurous Heck is very good at what it does.

It is the UK’s most successful premium sausage brand, selling 60 million sausages a year. It is on track for a turnover of £20m this year. This is counter to market trends; fancy sausages have hardly been winning hearts of a more health-conscious public recently.

Country life: Heck's headquarters are south of Bedale in North Yorkshire Credit: Jake Hudson

Three of the Keebles’ four children – aged 19 to 26 – have been present at Heck’s headquarters near Bedale, North Yorkshire, during the process.

“We talked through the values with the kids and how we wanted the business to be in the future – all the stuff you go through when building a brand.

“They are all interested in continuing to work in the business,” says Debbie. “Ellie, my daughter, has aspirations to be financial director. They’ve all got different skills. We’re trying to help them grow so they are ready to take over when we are ready to let go.”

Meat and veg too

Heck launched a vegetarian sausage, and its gluten-free and lower-fat chicken sausages are winners. “We knew we couldn’t just keep inventing another Cumberland,” Debbie says.

The company is to open a £3.5million factory this year that will produce more than 700 sausages per minute. “It’s important to keep control of our production and quality,” says Debbie.

Large turnover: the brand is selling 60 million sausages a year Credit: Jake Hudson

The couple initially ploughed £700,000 of capital into the business and have raised loans amounting to £500,000 and a further £500,000 of investment.

“This time, though, we made sure we remained 75 per cent shareholders,” says Debbie. “We don’t plan on retiring any time soon. We’re looking at securing the future of the business without restricting new ideas.”

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