The Herald recently interviewed our cheesemaker-in-chief Rory Stone to hear his personal and business story to date.
A link to The Herald website is below but here are Rory’s answers…
What is your business called?
Highland Fine Cheeses Ltd
Where is it based?
Tain, one of Scotland’s oldest Royal Burghs, in Ross-shire.
What does it produce, what services does it offer?
I’m probably the best cheesemaker in Tain. We make 200 tonnes a year. My parents started with 14 cows and a vicious, depressive bull called Geordie at their Ross-shire farm on the shores of the Dornoch Firth and were one of the first out of the starting gates when specialist cheese-making really started to take off the in the 1980s. My father quickly worked out that he could be a cheesemaker or a milk producer, but to try to be both was punishingly hard work, so the milk now comes from three specialist farms in the North of Scotland.
To whom does it sell?
Anyone with a credit rating. It’s all become a bit woo-woo in specialist cheese-making, and people are very prone to creating a mystique about it and falling for their own propaganda. I am keen to debunk that. It’s merely preserved milk. We’re taking a raw material from the cow and trying to render it safe for future consumption. It’s the original man-made product, probably the first food type to have its life extended. Our range includes Crowdie, Caboc, Strathdon Blue, Black Crowdie, Morangie, Highland Brie, Blue Murder, Fat Cow and Minger – the last a particularly pungent washed rind speciality. We sell to upscale delis throughout the UK, restaurateurs, chefs and major multiples. We want to sell to lots more retailers but a huge driver for us is getting UK chefs to recognise our efforts since they are so very influential in the market place.
What is its turnover?
Slightly shy of £2 million
How many employees?
When was it formed?
Why did you take the plunge?
There was no plunge; I inherited it. Public schoolboy short of qualifications and a trust fund so had to go into the family business.
What were you doing before you took the plunge?
I tried selling insurance on Harris, that didn’t work. Was a radio DJ. Had a fish van and sold a lot of haddock from Kyle of Lochalsh to Plockton. A welder’s helper at Nigg. Worked on an oyster farm in Nantucket, USA. Ran a dairy business in Inverness for a friend with 16 milk rounds and a distribution division. Had a wholesale fruit and veg run. But in 1994 I took on the firm and I have been herding cats and pushing balls uphill ever since.
How did you raise the start-up funding?
Vast inherited family wealth – I wish.
What was your biggest break?
Winning Best Scottish Cheese and a Gold at the 2000 British Cheese Awards. It was our first bit of national recognition and led to some UK wide business for a “four nations” promotion with Waitrose.
What was your worst moment?
Filling a skip with Strathdon Blue that wasn’t blue. Realising I’m not Elon Musk. Turning 40, then turning 50. Leaving the family business in the 1980s because all we ever did was argue and fight then realising to my complete horror that nobody was going to stop me. Can’t wait for my 60th.
What do you most enjoy about running the business?
Pushing fivers into a safe with a stick. Aside from that, I hate sitting in an office so I spend most of my day making cheese. It’s honestly the only place I can make a genuine difference but I’m always being told by clever, rich, successful people that I have to work “on my business, not in my business”, well that doesn’t seem to work for me for I have the attention span of a goldfish hence the incredible lack of qualifications despite the fortune spent on my education. The complexities of processing are endless but the synergy and symbiotic nature of cheese making is fascinating. Probably my greatest mistake is changing more than one thing at a time, I’m too impatient, but then you never truly know what made the difference. We believe in constant improvement, under-selling and over-delivering.
What are your ambitions for the business?
Our growth is only constrained by our capacity and we have just invested in a new pasteuriser, this will be our first pinch point in the process; next we must increase manufacturing capacity as we try to push our largely Scottish markets beyond Hadrian’s Wall and into the wider world. I want to double our turnover by finding new customers throughout the UK and abroad. It really matters to me that 280 million litres of Scottish milk travel the length of the M6 every year to be processed into commodity lines like milk powder and value cheddar. We must take our lead from the single malt distillers and recognise the value in raising our game, finding farmers who want to invest in their dairy herds to produce the low volume, high quality milk with constituents that make great cheese. We cannot and should not compete in a race to the bottom, that is a mugs’ game. We have to up-sell, drive value and quality into our produce. There is still a fantastic market for blended whisky but even they are moving toward deluxe branding, though the real value is in the aged single malts.
Other than that it is a case of “please God don’t let me go under”.
What are your top priorities?
Making something wonderfully edible. There are so many incredible cheeses out there and all the best ideas are nicked so one day I want to make a St. Felicien – it’s from the Rhone-Alpes region of France and is so completely delicious. Bloody French. They are simply too good at food.
What could the Westminster and/or Scottish governments do that would help?
What was the most valuable lesson that you learned?
We are taught to beat our chests and say we’re the very best, but it is not difficult to find someone else who is doing better, and it is imprudent to make too much of oneself. There’s always going to be someone funnier, richer, better looking, cleverer, taller.
It always gets forgotten how successful Scotland is as a brand. You travel to most places on the globe that have a basic education service, hold up tartan, bagpipes, whisky, haggis, golf clubs, Nessie, coronary heart disease and liver failure, people know you are talking about Scotland and its people. I’ve worn a kilt in New York to the Fancy Food Show and it simply draws attention, some unwarranted. The next day I wore a suit, no one gave me a second glance.
How do you relax?
Well there’s drink; I love Sunday lunches. Cooking for friends, a motorbike but don’t tell my wife because she doesn’t know I’ve bought one yet, walking the dogs. Yoga with my long-suffering instructor for I never, ever practice. Recently I’ve started wild swimming which is a strange one for me because I hate water, the cold and swimming. However I cheat, I have a wet suit. It’s unbelievably invigorating, you forget everything that might trouble you for the little time you are in the water and get out feeling reborn.
A version of this appeared in print and on its website here: