British turkey tycoon dies at Thanksgiving

London – A British turkey tycoon who became a cult figure thanks to his catchphrase “Bootiful!” has died at the age of 80 – just at the start of the US Thanksgiving holiday.

Bernard Matthews rose from a humble start with just 12 turkey eggs to become a multimillionaire and Europe’s biggest turkey processor, with his cheery television commercials spawning a generation of playground imitations.

“It is with a great deal of personal sadness that I confirm Bernard Matthews passed away on the afternoon of the 25th November,” Noel Bartram, chief executive of the Bernard Matthews company, said in a statement.

“I have personally known Bernard Matthews for well over 30 years, and on behalf of myself and my fellow colleagues, I wish to express our great sorrow and extend our thoughts and sympathies to the family.”

Matthews’s death on the fourth Thursday of November coincides with the US holiday of Thanksgiving – a celebration often referred to as “Turkey Day” due to the traditional poultry dish.

The son of a mechanic, Matthews started out 60 years ago with a dozen turkey eggs and an incubator in rural Norfolk, eastern England.

His business grew into the biggest of its kind in Europe. It is expected to farm seven million turkeys next year and has an annual turnover of £330.5 million (about R3.6?billion), according to financial details for last year.

It survived a 2007 outbreak of bird flu in Britain as well as an image problem over some of its processed food lines after they were criticised by British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver.

Matthews became a household name in Britain thanks to a series of commercials starting in 1980 in which he appeared promoting his own products, pronouncing the word “beautiful” as “Bootiful!” in a thick Norfolk accent.

He also won international recognition, with premier Nikita Kruschev inviting him to the Soviet Union in 1964 to discuss the country’s poultry industry, according to the company’s obituary.

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