Farmers protest but you can't put a Goodman down. . .

From beef tribunal to horsemeat rumpus, he is the great survivor of Irish business. In a week when farmers protested over prices, Dan White profiles Larry Goodman

Beef baron Larry Goodman
Beef baron Larry Goodman
Farmers taking part in an IFA nationwide 48-hour beef price protest earlier this year

Dan White

This week angry beef farmers blockaded Irish meat factories. The blockade, which was organised by the IFA, was in protest at the prices farmers receive from the factories for their cattle.

The IFA alleges that UK meat factories are paying up to €350 a head more for cattle while the factories, for their part, point out that their prices are bang in line with the European average and that the comparisons being made by the IFA are "misleading".

While various IFA leaders were front and centre during the protests, Larry Goodman - whose ABP Group has dominated the Irish beef industry for almost four decades, was nowhere to be seen. Which is just how Mr Goodman likes it: Although he is by far the largest player in one of Ireland's most important indigenous industries, Mr Goodman has always shunned personal publicity.

By Thursday morning the farmers and meat processors reached agreement on some issues, but the saga over beef prices is likely to run and run.

Mr Goodman, who is now aged 77, was born into the meat industry. His father was a butcher and cattle dealer in Dundalk and Mr Goodman, who left school in his early teens, followed him into the family business. However, Mr Goodman was never going to spend his entire life behind a butcher's counter. In 1966, while still in his 20s, he purchased the Anglo Irish Meats plant in Dundalk.

This was the first building block in what was to become ABP, now the largest beef processor in Europe.

When looking at Ireland's apparently modern, hi-tech economy, it is easy to overlook the continuing importance of the beef industry to the country. It generated exports of €2.1bn in 2013 with lamb and pigmeat contributing a further €750m between them. Ireland exports the meat from nine out of ten of the 1.6 million cattle slaughtered in this country every year. In addition to the 7,000 people employed directly in the meat-processing industry, the vast majority of Irish farmers, about 68,000, are specialist beef producers.

Beef still matters. That is why Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney has been so keen to sort out the row. An extended beef industry shut-down would have serious economic implications.

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Unlike the dairy industry, where most of the output is processed by farmer-owned or controlled co-ops, the beef industry is dominated by just three privately-owned companies. In addition to Mr Goodman's ABP, the other major players are Kepak, which is controlled by the Keating family, and Dawn Meats, which is controlled by the Queally family.

Beef is a low-margin business in which razor-sharp trading instincts are essential. Mr Goodman possesses these in abundance. He is a major beef supplier to most of the UK food giants including Tesco, Sainsbury's and Asda. He has also developed markets for Irish beef across the world.

In recent years he has diversified into pet food, taking a majority stake in C&D, the company founded by Albert Reynolds. ABP's pet food division is now one of the largest private label producers in Europe.

Despite his preference for privacy, Mr Goodman has been dogged by controversy. He first came to the attention of the wider public when the then government took the unprecedented step of recalling the Dáil from its holidays in August 1990 following Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait.

Minister for Industry and Commerce Des O'Malley told deputies that Goodman International was owed £180m (€228m) for beef supplied to Iraq and it in turn owed various banks £460m (€584m). Clearly, unless emergency legislation could be passed to protect it from its creditors, Ireland's largest beef processor would go bust.

Then in May 1991, ITV's World in Action broadcast a devastating programme which made several serious allegations against Goodman International. This in turn led to the establishment of the Beef Tribunal to investigate the allegations. The Tribunal report, which was published in August 1994, upheld many of the allegations made by World in Action. It also led indirectly to the collapse of Fianna Fáil/Labour coalition led by Albert Reynolds who, as Minister for Industry and Commerce, had extended a taxpayer-funded guarantee to Goodman International's Iraqi beef sales.

Most businesspeople would have crumbled under the weight of these hammer blows. Not Mr Goodman. Over the next decade he gradually bought out the creditor banks, who had converted their loans into shares, and regained control of his company, since renamed ABP. Of course it helped that, lacking any detailed knowledge of what is a cut-throat industry, the last thing the banks wanted to do is run Europe's largest beef processor themselves.

By the early noughties Mr Goodman was back bigger and stronger than ever. He even succeeded in being repaid some of the money he was owed by the Iraqis. It was the most remarkable comeback in Irish business history. Of course it didn't happen by accident. Mr Goodman, a lifelong fitness fanatic and teetotaller, is renowned for his work ethic.

Mr Goodman has lost none of his ability to attract controversy since regaining control of his business. Last year ABP was embroiled in the horsemeat scandal when burgers it had supplied to Tesco in the UK were found to contain up to 29pc horsemeat. ABP blamed a third-party supplier.

In 2008 Mr Goodman stepped up to become ABP chairman with Paul Finnerty replacing him as chief executive. However, no-one is in any doubt as to where ultimate control of ABP rests. The beef baron with the survival instinct is still very much the boss.

Since regaining control of ABP, Mr Goodman has diversified his interests, mainly by investing in property. In 2011 he displayed his old cattle dealer's instincts by purchasing the former Bank of Ireland headquarters on Baggot Street for a bargain €40m. Not alone did he catch the bottom of the market, Bank of Ireland had been one of his major creditors back in 1990 having lent Goodman International over £100m, a coincidence that would not have been lost on Mr Goodman. And earlier this year he gained effective control of the Blackrock Clinic.

However, this week's protests serve as a reminder that most of Mr Goodman's estimated €650m net worth is tied up in the meat business. This means that he was always likely to resist the IFA's efforts to push up cattle prices as far as possible.

The beef farmers may have strength in numbers but it would be a brave, or foolish gambler, who bet against Mr Goodman's guile.      

Beef: in figures

€2.1bn: The value of Ireland's beef exports of in 2013

1.6 million: The number of cattle slaughtered in this country every year. Nine out of 10 are exported.

7,000: The number of people employed directly in meat-processing

68,000: The total number of Irish farmers specialising in beef.

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