An offer of a job promotion in the 1980s was the moment when Roger McKechnie stepÂped off the corporate ladder. He turned down the role of marketing manager at Smiths Crisps because he did not want to leave his lifestyle and friends in his native north-east England for the south.
However, faced with the bleak economic realities of his home region in the Thatcher era â€“ â€œthe north-east was totally decimatedâ€ â€“ he realised that searching for another job was futile. So he would have to be self-employed, and develop a career based on his creativity and people skills.
Others might not have taken the leap. After all, the tortilla chips idea had emerged when he worked at Associated Biscuits and a product tasting panel rejected the potential new snack â€“ 90 per cent of the tasters gave it the thumbs-down.
â€œThey didnâ€™t realise who the 10 per cent were,â€ he chuckles. â€œ[They] turned out to be affluent home entertainers, drinkers who lived in the south-east and shopped at Waitrose.â€
He followed his instincts. â€œIf you get a good idea, go for it and bash on,â€ he says, speaking in the no-frills business unit that houses his current venture, Tanfield Food Company. Indeed, following his intuition has made him one of the most successful entrepreneurs in a region where historical dependence on big, heavy-industry workplaces and â€œjobs for lifeâ€ created an employee mindset.
Ultimately, tortilla chips made Mr McKechnieâ€™s reputation and fortune. In 1982, he remortgaged the family home and invested Â£50,000 in Derwent Valley Foods, making snacks for adults. His wife did not mind, he says: â€œI was so excited about doing it, I didnâ€™t consider failure.â€ The McKechnies have also brought up nine children, six of their own and three relatives, following a bereavement.
The tortilla chips, along with other exotic-sounding nibbles such as â€œmigÂnons morceauxâ€, and their eye-catching packaging made quite an impact in the 1980s in a dreary crisps and Twiglets market. The brand was enÂhanced by memorable television advertisements based on Phileas Fogg, the character in Jules Verneâ€™s Around the World in Eighty Days, which Mr McKechnie had read as a boy. The idea of Phileas Fogg came to him in a pub, after days of unsuccessful group brainstorming.
â€œEverybody laughed and said what a stupid tosser I am.â€ But he was convinced it would work.
The joke was that Phileas Foggâ€™s â€œauthenticâ€ exotic snacks emanated from DVFâ€™s base in unglamorous Medomsley Road, Consett. The private irony was that this â€œaround the world in 80 daysâ€ promotion was devised by somebody whose career has been resolutely rooted in his home region.