Lives Remembered

Billy O'Kane: Innovative business leader and encourager to all

BILLY O’Kane was a business leader whose eye for innovation helped turn the family poultry firm in Ballymena into an international success story.

Working alongside his brother Desmond, O’Kane Poultry moved from modest premises on High Street to the first purpose-built factory of its type in Ireland.

The brothers provided a perfect example of how a family firm should operate, learning the business from their father, Billy senior, and then combining their talents to provide secure employment for generations of people in the area.

They pioneered new methods of growing, processing and chilling chickens and developed a customer base the envy of competitors across Europe.

By the time O'Kane Poultry was acquired by Moy Park for £26 million in 2010, it employed around 1,500 people and was producing 120,000 chickens and 5,000 turkeys a day.

William Patrick O'Kane was born in Ballymena in 1937, the eldest child of Billy and Elsie (née Pedlow). He was a brother to Desmond, Elizabeth and Geraldine, with whom he remained close throughout his life.

He attended All Saints Primary School and on passing the first ever 11-plus exam, transferred to Ballymena Academy.

It was there that a love of history and maths was encouraged and he discovered a talent on the rugby pitch.

Billy’s passion for the sport continued throughout his life, supporting Ballymena, Ulster, Ireland and the Lions as well as his old school team.

He would serve as chairman of the board of governors of Ballymena Academy and chairman of Ballymena RFC, who described him as a "mild-mannered gentleman and encourager to all".

Billy O'Kane snr had started the family poultry business from scratch in 1932, selling chickens to customers in his fish shop on Bridge Street in the Co Antrim town.

On leaving school, his eldest son decided that the best way to learn was from the bottom.

He initially opted against going to university, but was persuaded to take up a place studying economics at Queen’s and flourished there, showing a particular aptitude for statistics.

He then completed an apprenticeship with a large poultry firm in Ipswich before returning to the family business.

It was while working “on the lorries”, going around local farms to collect birds for processing, that he first set eyes on Mary Logan, the pretty daughter of an Ahoghill farmer.

Billy was smitten, and the couple married in June 1961.

Five children soon followed, although tragedy visited the family in 1978 when their precious son Michael (13) died following a road accident.

Four years later the family was overjoyed with the arrival of another son, John.

Billy had a very pleasant, unassuming manner which made him very popular with his staff and workers, demonstrated by the number of long-serving employees. He always made himself available to talk with everyone in the factory on Larne Road.

He was recognised as a shrewd businessman across Northern Ireland and beyond, and served on the boards of many groups.

He was a director on the board of Ulster Bank and sat on the boards of Belfast Harbour Commissioners, the Pig Marketing Board and the Agricultural Trust.

Billy was also a founding member of the NI Food and Drink Association and the north's representative to Bord Bia in the Republic.

His achievements were honoured in 1989 when he was awarded an OBE for services to the food industry.

Outside of work and rugby, he had a passion for farming and spent many weekends on the family farm at Crebilly.

He and his brother-in-law, Paddy Logan, also enjoyed long trips to the west of Ireland to buy stock for fattening.

Most of all Billy was a dedicated family man, enjoying time with Mary and their children, Billy, Terence, Moira, Alison and John, as well as his 15 beautiful grandchildren.

His health had been in decline in recent years and he was nursed at his “Red Dyke” home, on Galgorm Road, by his family and a team of devoted carers.

Billy O'Kane died peacefully at the age of 84 on August 12.

A wonderful man, he will be deeply missed by all his family and friends.

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