Those intensely blue eyes are twinkly but steely. His face, though quick to break into a boyish grin, is earnest. What you get when talking to Andy Gustar is a huge sense of integrity.
Andy is a Rotarian, the leader of a youth band, and father of five. Oh, and he’s the man behind Hamilton’s Fine Foods, the largest producer of Island food. “Sustain” is his most frequently used word – though not just about his business. He wants children’s interest in music to be sustained: he wants discipline in education to be sustained, and he wants local businesses to be sustained in the face of the supermarkets.
Andy has only been at the helm of Hamilton’s for the past 14 years, but its rise to ubiquity – his products are in the Co-op now and are served in Island schools – is down to his dogged determination to maintain standards. He hit the headlines a year ago over a bust-up with the Farmer’s Market in Newport. Although he had been at the forefront of the movement, working on the Farmers’ Market committee from day one, some felt that as he wasn’t a farmer he didn’t have a place there. Andy left, “agreeing to disagree” and started the Vectis Food and Craft Market which runs alongside the Farmers’ Market. But despite the acrimony he still wishes the farmers well: “It is the supermarkets we have to fight, not each other. But some of the farmers saw me as the competition.”
Had Andy been able to guarantee that his products only contained Isle of Wight meat, there wouldn’t have been a problem. “If there isn’t enough Island pork I have to use Hampshire pork. It’s not being unfair, it’s being honest about how to make the business sustainable.”
He had, he says an idyllic childhood. Andy was born of a master mariner, and brought up in Newport. The youngest of four, he had space, fields, a river to row and time to think, to plan and to dream. “I didn’t have television till I was about 14. If you make your own entertainment you’re more inventive. A lot of that’s been lost.”
He fell into butchery quite by chance, through a Saturday job: “It was hard work, up early, on a bike delivering meat in all weathers. But you learnt the importance of your rapport with the customer.”
At 18 he went to work in Shanklin – which, after Newport, was a huge culture shock: “It was empty, then around 10am all the local boys would run to the station with prams and trollies to collect people from the trains. There was suddenly a wave of people coming round the corner, like a Tsunami!”
If that seems a lifetime away – and it is a mere 42 years – Andy used to love listening to a colleague of his who had in his youth been a drover. Frank Griffiths used to walk from Shanklin to Yarmouth, get the ferry to Lymington, bring cattle back to Yarmouth, and walk them back to the slaughterhouse at Shanklin. “He was like a living history book,” recalls Andy. “He taught me different parts of the trade. You never stop learning.”
One of his most important lessons came about when he moved into the slaughtering side of the business, with a charismatic boss called Reg Davey, who took the business to new levels. “People think slaughtering is cruel, but animals have to be well looked after. If the animal is stressed the adrenalin makes the meat inedible.”
It wasn’t all work and no play. In the 1960s Andy was out several nights a week playing guitar with a rock band, The Escorts. He earned more than he did at his day job, for which he had to get up early. “That’s when I learnt to be busy,” he smiles.
He rose to become a director of the company, but disaster struck. The business went under, just as his wife had to be hospitalised for a large part of her fifth pregnancy. He was offered a job but despite being in desperate financial difficulties he had to turn it down. Fortunately the job was still available when his wife was able to take up the family reins again. Andy Gustar started working with Roy Hamilton, developing the brand until now, 14 years after he took over the business completely, he has four shops on the Island – a rare position to be in considering the decline of the industry in general – as well as a catering unit. Also he is now able to use Isle of Wight beef 52 weeks of the year – which has been hard work, he says, but is now “sustainable”.
Music continues to play a big part in his life. He leads a children’s marching band, and is constantly amazed at the ability of the children of around 14 to march in a routine (he does the choreography) and remember a repertoire of 45 pieces. “Playing, coordinating hands and feet opens channels in their minds, it improves their ability to learn,” says Andy. Even more important is that the skills and the discipline required teaches them to respect themselves and others.
His own children, all of whom were involved in the band, were raised with the same principle of respect for oneself and for others. Three of his sons followed him to the industry, and while Mark and Ian have since been lured away to work for Vesta Windblades, Neil is still part of Hamiltons. Robin is in the army – recently returned from Iraq – and his daughter Kerry, who was also in the army for nine years, is now his business partner at Hamiltons.
Who better to ask whether a successful businessman can truly be as full of integrity as he appears? It is a horrible thought that you might have been drawn in by those twinkly blue eyes and a smooth line of patter.
“He’s a real genuine person,” says Kerry. “If anyone asks for help he gives them twice as much as they expect. I can tell you that as a parent, in private life and in business – he is amazing.”