Farm Ireland

Sunday 17 December 2017

Bord Bia boss still pushing the limits after 10 years in job

Aidan Cotter, Chief Executive of Bord Bia
Aidan Cotter, Chief Executive of Bord Bia
Success: The Origin Green scheme rolled out by Bord Bia
Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

Despite representing less than a 20th of the Department of Agriculture's total spend, its food promotion arm, Bord Bia, appears to punch way above its weight.

That may well be in no small part due to the efforts of its CEO for the last 10 years, Aidan Cotter.

The north Cork native has chartered some stormy seas during his time with the organisation, but he believes that he still has plenty in the tank to keep going for another few years yet.

"I plan to keep going for some time yet," says the understated Cotter.

He needs to. The company is in the midst of developing its next three year strategy, something that will set the direction for the state agency from 2015 on.

"The last 2012-2014 strategy set out our 'pathways to growth', which were the creation of an umbrella brand (Origin Green), increased investment in education and developing markets (fellowship and ambassador programme), and a bigger focus on consumer insight," Aidan explains.

While he remained tight-lipped about what was in the melting pot for the coming programme, Cotter does reveal that he has seven full-time 'ethnographologists' studying in minute detail the eating habits of families in Senegal, Indonesia, Vietnam and South Korea.

"These are basically expert researchers that go to live with people in their own homes to find out what, when, how and why they eat the foods that they are eating.

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"They are asking questions, making videos, poking around in their fridges, and literally measuring the grams of individual foods that people in these developing markets consume. It all builds a huge database of information that will influence where the Irish food industry should be targeting their resources over the coming years," he says.

It's no coincidence that these four countries, with a combined population equivalent to the whole of the US, are some of the fastest growing markets in the world for dairy and meat products.

Companies such as Glanbia and the IDB are already enjoying stellar growth for milk powder products in the likes of Senegal, and obviously the strategists at the top level of the Irish food sector see plenty more potential.

Whatever new initiatives are launched in Bord Bia's next strategy plan, it is likely that Origin Green will still play a central role, with the green concept likely to be one of Cotter's lasting legacies at the organisation.

"I've said it before, but it's worth saying again. Over 30 years ago 80pc of the value of businesses in the Standard and Poor's top 500 companies was made up of physical and tangible assets.

"Today 80pc of the top companies' worth is comprised of intangible assets, such as brands, reputation," says Cotter, warming to one of his favourite topics.

"We've a huge natural asset in the Irish food industry in terms of our climate, soil and farming methods. We know that we are perceived as being among the most sustainable food producers in the world. The purpose of Origin Green is to prove that by measuring it.

"That's what the carbon audit of all our quality assured (QA) beef and dairy farms is about. Then, when we have a benchmark, we will be able to put in place strategies that will allow us to prove that we can improve our position even further.

"So the potential and scope of this project is huge, and there is still no other country in the world even coming close to replicating it, so at this point we are miles ahead," smiles Cotter.

That's not to say that Bord Bia's QA schemes are without their critics. With the beef QA scheme costing about €4.5m a year to run, this figure will only increase with the addition of the dairy sector into the mix. Despite the considerable investment, the debacle of the horsemeat scandal in 2013 proved that some Irish companies were flouting the rules.

More recently, there were no consequences for quality assured pig farmers who were found to have breached the regulations set out in the scheme.

And the recent surge in milk imports by Irish processors has generated suspicions among dairy farmers that the new dairy QA scheme is nothing more than a marketing scheme dressed up as an audit.

"The reaction of the market place is sufficient evidence for us that these schemes are a success," Cotter responds.


"All these QA schemes have been benchmarked against industry standards, and while we have tried to ensure that no farmer is left behind, there is a scoring system critical non-compliance issues in relation to food safety that farmers must fix within a month or two of notice.

"The bottom line is that people who, for whatever reason, fail to participate in these schemes are going to find it impossible to get good outlets for their produce."

Cotter is no stranger to being in the firing line, given that Bord Bia are often one of the first ports of call for media outlets when any food scandal breaks.

"There's always going to be food scandals, in every country in the world," declares Cotter. "It's just not possible to police everything 100pc of the time. You've just got to be prepared for them.

"We've got to be able to demonstrate that we are taking all reasonable precautions and that we've the measures in place to cope with these situations. That will secure your reputation."

But why was there no accountability or legal proceedings taken against any Irish party for their roles in the horsemeat scandal?

"The law is a ... it requires a lot of evidence before somebody can be held accountable. I'd like to think that the legal framework here has been used to ensure that the law is observed and enforced. Personally, I feel the evidence pointed to more wrong-doing outside of Ireland," he says.

The Cotter File

Name: Aidan Cotter

Job: CEO of Bord Bia, with a budget of €4.8m and a staff of 89 in 11 offices worldwide

Education: Grew up on a 30-cow dairy farm in Glanworth, north Cork. Studied agricultural science in UCC and UCD, followed by a Masters on young farmers

Family: Married to Joan, with three children

Career: Worked in the National Bureau for Science, the Pigs and Bacon Commission, the Meat Bord, before undertaking a number of foreign postings with Bord Bia

Hobby: Running – "It's a habit that I think helps me relax and be alert. 6am, five times a week around Leopardstown racetrack for about 40 minutes

Last book: Thinking Fast and Slow

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