From two saucepans of milk to farm business with €3.7m sales
When Valerie Kingston earned €110 after selling homemade cheese at a farmers' market, husband Alan saw his cows in a new light
IT'S early morning when I arrive at the family farm of Alan and Valerie Kingston in Drimoleague in beautiful west Cork. It is here that the husband and wife team run Glenilen Farm, a farm-based business specialising in the production of yoghurts, cheesecakes, desserts, creams and butter.
The morning milking has just finished and the cows are back out grazing happily in the fields. "It's an idyllic location for dairy farming," Alan tells me. "The lush hills of Drimoleague offer our cows a rich and plentiful supply of nutritious grass and they in turn supply us with the rich tasty milk that goes to make all our delicious products."
The farm has been in Alan's family for generations. While he loved farming and tending to his dairy herd, Alan was always open to exploring other opportunities. And one such opportunity came along when he married Valerie.
She was a farmer's daughter from Macroom, Co Cork. Having studied food science technology at UCC, she worked for a number of years with Dairygold in the area of research and development. It was during a two-year stint, volunteering in the poorest areas of west Africa, that Valerie first got introduced to small-scale butter, cheese and yoghurt production. She was helping to manage a food development project supporting local farmers to start small dairy enterprises as a more sustainable alternative to their traditional nomadic way of life. In addition, it created a more stable environment for families that allowed their children to attend school more regularly.
After the couple got married in 1997, Valerie decided that she wanted to be a stay-at-home mum. To facilitate this, she decided to start her own business by using the milk from the farm to make homemade cheese and cheesecakes which she sold in local country markets.
Alan wasn't, however, paying much attention to her enterprising skills at the time. Not until one August bank holiday weekend when he realised the potential of what she was doing.
That weekend, she returned from the farmers' market in Bantry with the money she had made. "When Alan realised that I had just turned two large saucepans of milk into €110 cash, his ears immediately picked up," Valerie says.
"I was amazed. It was only then that I fully realised the potential for adding value to the milk that we were already producing on the farm. It was revolutionary for me," Alan admits. "In farming, like any business, you have to make money to survive.
"From that moment on, I fell in love with my cows all over again," laughs Alan. "And from that moment on, I was no longer on my own," Valerie says with a grin.
In 2002, and with the help of the local County Enterprise Board, the couple began supplying local shops and retail outlets such as SuperValu and Spar. "Things grew steadily from there," Valerie tells me.
They couldn't afford expensive marketing campaigns at the time and so it was largely through word of mouth that their reputation began to spread. "Our growth was more reactive than proactive," admits Valerie. "We were responding to demand, rather than driving it."
"The farmers' markets continued to be an important outlet for us," Alan tells me. "And a great way to get customer feedback to help us decide what new products to bring out next."
Where did the name come from? I ask. "The River Ilen runs through the farm," Alan explains. "There's also a glen at the end of the farm and one day we were looking out the window and thought to ourselves, why not put the two together and create the name Glenilen," he tells me.
In 2008, the couple took their biggest leap forward when they built a new 12,500sq ft food unit on the farm. Here they were able to bring together all the components of their rapidly expanding business under the one roof, including production, packaging, storage and office administration. "It was also great for our children to get the kitchen back as a family space," laughs Valerie.
With this new facility in place, the business could now scale up. Soon they got their next big break when they were listed with many of the country's large multiples. Today, their products are available in Musgrave, Tesco, Dunnes, Superquinn and around 100 independent stores including Avoca Handweavers, Fallon & Byrne, Donnybrook Fair, Nolan's of Clontarf and Morton's of Ranelagh.
In 2010, and with the help of Bord Bia, the company launched into the UK. They began by focusing on small niche, high-end stores on the high street, such as Selfridges, Harvey Nichols, Waitrose, Booths and the Whole Foods chain. Just this month, they began supplying more than 50 Tesco stores throughout the UK. It's incredible progress for a one-time kitchen-table business.
On a shelf full of different producers, how does Glenilen differentiate itself, I ask? "Our products are authentically farm based and the taste of our products reflect the fact that the milk is from our own and neighbouring farms. And we don't use any additives," Valerie stresses. "Simplicity is at the heart of everything we do," she adds.
But such growth can also bring its own challenges. "Scaling a business like ours is a balancing act," says Alan. "Whilst we work to achieve growth, we also have to retain the level of quality that is such an integral part of our core ethos as an artisan farm-based business," he tells me.
"When you look at a brand like ours, it is like looking at an iceberg in the sea," Valerie explains. "What most people see is only a small portion of the entire operation. The real success of our business lies in what people often don't see; the passion of our staff, the care and attention that goes into making our products and the integrity we strive for in dealing honestly with all our staff, suppliers and customers," she adds.
Today the couple employ 33 staff. "Finding the right people is so important," Valerie tells me. "In the beginning, we couldn't really afford to hire them, and now, we couldn't afford to be without them," she adds.
In 2012, the company achieved an impressive turnover of €3.7m, of which 17 per cent was from exports. This year, they are on target to reach €4.5m.
"There's no room for sitting still though," Alan explains. "Customers and retailers are constantly looking for new products and, as a result, innovation has become a key part of our operation." To help keep the company focused on being innovative, Alan and Valerie have made the decision that 10 per cent of each year's turnover will come from new products that are developed in that year. "While this is challenging at times, it does helps us stay invigorated and energised," he adds.
Their approach has won them many awards. The walls of their offices are decorated with a multitude of plaques from the likes of Bord Bia, the Bridgestone Guide, Georgina Campbell, FBD and the Irish Farmers Journal. Last year the couple were finalists in the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year awards.
So what about the future, I ask? They have just launched fromage frais-style yoghurts as well as a new healthy baby and children's range called Yummy Yoghurts.
In addition, they recently received planning permission to build a visitors' centre to accommodate school and other tours who want to learn about food production in the most authentic of settings – on a farm.
As we sit down to lunch, Alan leads with a short grace. Their faith is important to Alan and Valerie. It's a faith that guides them and in which they trust to see them right. It's a faith that provides a greater purpose to all they do. Like being honoured to be stewards of the land they farm. Like the immense sense of responsibility they feel for the staff they employ. Like the charities they support in Uganda and Sri Lanka which provide education, health and clean water to those less well off.
Sometimes it can be hard to grasp the essence of people you meet.
But as I leave Drimoleague, I leave with a great sense of admiration for Valerie and Alan. They have grown a successful business by adding value to what they were already producing on their farm. They have tapped into a growing market where consumers want additive-free, farm-produced products. And they have focused on both quality and innovation as the cornerstones of their business.
In particular, I leave with a feeling of admiration for the passion they have for what they do and for the integrity with which they do it. They remain true to the values of the faith that guides them.
I am reminded of the words of my friend and mentor, renowned author of the Chicken Soup for the Soul book series, Jack Canfield, who often advises those seeking greater meaning in their lives to "let all that you do come from your purpose and your passion and you will experience success, happiness and abundance". I think he might very well have been referring to Alan and Valerie Kingston.