Tuesday 26 September 2017

After years in the top job at Wexford co-op, PJ hangs up his hat



THE CLASS OF '66 at the CBS in Enniscorthy produced a couple of high-profile businessmen. Sam McCauley of pharmacy fame is a household name across his home county of Wexford, while Michael Foley made the headlines during his turbulent brief stint in command of Aer Lingus.

A third individual from the same cohort in the Brothers has beavered away in less of the limelight. Though PJ Darcy has shied away from the front pages, the quiet man from Ballyhogue has nevertheless carved out his own significant niche in the Model economy.

As he reaches the age of 65, PJ is due to step down as chief executive of Wexford Farmers' Co-operative later this month after 18 years in the top job and 42 years all told on the Old Dublin Road. In his own word, he has been a ' lifer' with the coop, gradually building up an enterprise that has its tentacles in all parts of the county.

The size of his office may have changed but he has scarcely known any other work environment, barring a brief spell in the accounts department of Clover Meats shortly after leaving the CBS. He arrived in Enniscorthy in 1970 as a fledgling accountant, recruited by an organisation that had just one significant string to its bow.

A couple of years earlier, several thousand local farmers had clubbed together to build the biggest covered cattle mart in Europe. Under manager Ray Bowe, young Darcy was thrust into the pandemonium of thrice weekly sales, so busy that 60 staff were needed as the business of selling cattle required three rings running simultaneously and the last bid was frequently made long after midnight.

The new recruit was not required to pull on his wellingtons or to wield a drover's stick. His job was to balance the books at the end of those long days. This was a world in which he was instinctively at home. Among his childhood memories is the recollection of a day when he herded cattle into town, to stand on the road at Slaney Street in Enniscorthy looking for buyers. It is a happy memory but the mart was immediately more modern, more businesslike and much fairer.

PJ Darcy takes his hat off to the men who put up their money to take cattle sales off the dung strewn streets and into the sawdust covered auction ring. He comes from the same background and his brother continues to tend the family farm at home in Ballyhogue. PJ qualified as an accountant in 1971 and has gone on to turn many millions of euro over through the co-op but he has never cut himself off from those agricultural roots.

The mart continues to be one of the mainstays of WFC, though computerisation and a less fevered trading environment have halved the manpower required. Still, it has an annual turnover of €24m and it remains very much in the top division of cattle sales in the country.

However, under the direction of Blaise Brosnan and, since 1994, of PJ Darcy, the organisation has gradually built up a range of other interests, hoovering up other co-ops and other, smaller marts along the way. It has also become a significant player in the property market, while managing to avoid the worst effects of the post- Celtic Tiger crash.

WFC was in the past proud owner for two decades of the Enniscorthy Motor Company, which was acquired out of a natural agricultural interest in tractors. It has become and remains a significant buyer of grain, purchasing more than 20 per cent of the corn grown in Wexford fields, while providing the seed, fertilisers and sprays required by arable farmers. The WFC stores in Enniscorthy, Wexford, Bridgetown, Bunclody, Gorey, Monamolin and New Ross are local landmarks.

It is also involved in the oil business. The co-op now boasts turnover of €70m annually, with 140 employed. Along the way, not everything has turned to gold. The Wexford Quality Foods fruit and vegetable processing enterprise succumbed to East European competition in 2002 after 12 difficult years.

PJ has steered the co-operative through the choppy waters of property investment. Developing the SuperValu complex in Bunclody and a retail part with apartments in Gorey proved profitable. As the economy stalls, however, land banks on the outskirts of Wexford and Enniscorthy have been left lie largely dormant.

Probably the shrewdest investment was the decision to take a stake in Green Biofuels plant in New Ross. WFC was drawn to the project as a possible outlet for growers of rapeseed. Instead, as it has turned out, most of the raw material for production of green fuel comes in the form of used cooking oil and animal tallow. The very profitable plant now runs round the clock, churning out 32 million litres of biodiesel each year with glycerine and fertiliser as by-products.

'I have enjoyed every minute of it,' says the WFC lifer as he prepares to step down in favour of a long time colleague. PJ will remain on the premises for a while in an advisory capacity, a firm believer in the co-operative ideal. He steps off centre stage with a warning to all the farmers who are the shareholders in the business that changes are on the way: ' The days of stores on every crossroads are gone.'

The co-op will survive but only by evolving. The model has worked pretty well so far, growing in value from the initial investment of €85,000 to a current worth of €33m.