Farm Ireland

Tuesday 16 January 2018

A winning formula - Carbery Group continues its expansion

Astute non-dairy acquisitions are driving Carbery Group's expansion but its local milk suppliers are still at the heart of the business

Carbery's dairy facilities are generating no less than the likes of Kerry or Dairygold's operations according to their CEO.
Carbery's dairy facilities are generating no less than the likes of Kerry or Dairygold's operations according to their CEO.
Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

Despite all the experts proclaiming that the industry needs consolidation and rationalisation, four of the smallest co-ops in the country - Lisavaird, Drinagh, Bandon and Barryroe - continue to defy all the odds, and turn in some of the best milk prices in the country. How do they do it?

Much of the credit for the success of the west Cork model has been laid at the door of the Carbery CEO that is charged with processing the co-op's milk - Dan McSweeney.

The nimble 60 year-old has worked at Carbery since the late 1970s and says that he has no plans to hang up his gloves any time soon.

But as Mr McSweeney talks about the Carbery business, you quickly realise that this is about much more than just milk processing.

In fact, some suppliers worry that their beloved dairy co-op is now more about the non-dairy flavourings and ingredients operations than the actual milk processing.

Indeed, the Carbery CEO openly admits that the non dairy businesses are much higher margin than the milk.

"That was the reason that we started investing in non-dairy businesses in the first place," explains Mr McSweeney.

"When the co-ops bought out the 80pc share owned by British-based conglomerate Grand Metropolitan in 1992, we knew that we couldn't expand milk production due to quotas. Instead, we took the decision to leverage the balance sheet and start acquiring companies."

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But it wasn't any old company that the Carbery manager was interested in. Their Ballineen facility had been one of the first in the country to start capitalising on the value of the protein fraction in the whey by-product from their cheese-making plant.

Whey protein concentrate was the precursor to the huge array of hydrolysed peptides and isolates that dairy companies make their biggest margins on today.

In developing the technology for protein powders, Carbery realised that they had both the skill-set and a customer base in a rapidly growing sub-section of food processing.

"The more you break down a product like milk, the less palatable some of the fractions that you are isolating out become. For example, the more refined your protein powder, the more bitter it becomes, and that's where masking flavours become important…and that's where we've developed an expertise," continues Mr McSweeney.

"The first non-dairy business we bought was in High Wycombe in the UK, and less than 10 years later we expanded out by buying the first of our flavour businesses in the US.

"They produce everything from cucumber and coffee flavourings to emulsifiers and 'delivery systems' tailored to customers all over the world. Some of those purchases have been very good to us. For example, the vanilla extract distillery that we bought in Rochester in New York is a global hub for natural vanilla flavouring. There's only 1,600t of vanilla produced in the world, in very specific locations in of Madagascar and Papua New Guinea. Tens of thousands of people are employed in these vanilla farms. Every pod has to be handled several times because they are all hand-pollinated.

"We're in the process of developing a 16ac site near Chicago where we've only built on less than 4ac of it so far. But that's where we're going to consolidate our US businesses that are spread across three locations at the moment.

"We've also got 25,000sqft facilities in both Sao Paulo and Bangkok, and a joint venture with one of the UK's largest farmhouse cheese makers in Bristol.

"They all generate close to €150m in turnover, but with a much higher margin than the €200m that we generate out of the cheese and whey plant here in Ballineen.

Post quota

"But our dairy facilities are generating no less than the likes of Kerry or Dairygold's dairy operations. And whatever we are losing out on in scale, we are probably gaining from the fact that we have all the facilities located on a single site here," says Mr McSweeney.

While Carbery's peak production rose by 20pc this year on last year, the business clocked something closer to a 13pc increase over the course of the year. It brings total supplies to the co-op to nearly 450m litres, but management don't expect the total to increase much beyond 550 million litres by 2020.

"Look at the farms around here. Most of the acres that can take a cow have one, so there's very little scope for start-ups or expansion."

And even though turnover is estimated to have increased by close to 10pc in 2015 on the €317m recorded in 2014, management emphasise that most of that increase is actually accounted for by growth in their flavourings businesses.

"Some of our fastest growing products are sports nutrition powders in places like Brazil, where we're seeing growth of over 20pc a year," says Carbery's marketing director, Noel Corcoran.

And what about rumours that the business is taking the first step on the same road taken by Kerry and Glanbia by breaking out the valuable flavours and ingredients side of the company, with an eye to selling or floating it in the near future?

Some suppliers believe that the move by Carbery last autumn to show the amount of the milk cheque that was being paid by the dairy business, and the amount being returned by the non-dairy business was a sign of things to come.

But Mr McSweeney waves off suggestions that the co-op would go that way.

"Put yourself in the head of our 1,300 suppliers. They've always been getting their cheque from here in Ballineen, and they'd be very slow to opt for a scenario where it ever comes from anywhere else. They've got a lot of control the way it is," he says.

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