For the Kelleher family of Riverview it's the egg that always comes first
From a henhouse in Cork, to a multi-million euro business, the Kellehers really have cracked it
THE lorries are being loaded up with fresh eggs as I arrive at the company's modern packing and distribution centre just outside the village of Watergrasshill, a few miles north of Cork city.
"Eggs have become part of many people's daily diet and are a very affordable source of nutritious protein," enthuses DJ Kelleher, managing director of Riverview Eggs.
As we tour the company's highly automated packing facility, DJ explains that their eggs are all sourced from local and national producers. Most are family-run farms, including those run by two of his own brothers, Richard and Mortimer.
The company supplies all the major multiples, including Dunnes Stores, Tesco, SuperValu Centra, Spar and Mace – as well as a variety of wholesale firms, hotels and catering outlets.
In 2012, they won the contract to supply Londis nationally and, more recently, secured the contract to supply the Costcutter group.
Over tea and scones, DJ's mother Margaret tells me the fascinating story of how she and her late husband, Dan Joe, started the business back in 1966.
"We were farmers, and after we got married I really wanted to do something outside the home to help supplement the family's income. So we decided to convert one of the barns on the farm into a henhouse. That's how it all started," she recalls.
"In the beginning, we sold the eggs to the central market wholesalers in Cork city. At that time, you got three shillings for a tray of eggs. But because we put a lot of emphasis on the quality of our eggs, we were able to charge three shillings and four pence," she explains.
It was that extra four pence, Margaret insists, that enabled her to gather enough money together to buy her next batch of hens. This time, she was able to buy 1,000 hens. Over the next five years, the couple continued to grow their business until they were able to afford to build their first purpose-built henhouse, complete with 6,000 hens.
"Country markets and local shops were important outlets for us but so too were farm-gate sales," remembers Margaret. "Because of our proximity to Cork city, we had a continuous flow of cars arriving, wanting to buy eggs directly from the farm," she adds.
Over the next 20 years, Margaret and Dan Joe worked hard. They gradually added additional hen houses until, in 1990, they had more than 60,000 hens.
"At that point, we had begun to break into the hotel and restaurant market," explains Margaret.
However, the pivotal point for the business came in 1992 when Margaret and Dan Joe bought a local egg distribution company called Riverview Eggs. The move allowed them to quickly access a much larger market than they had up to that point.
The same year, having studied poultry science in Scotland, DJ joined the family business. By 1995, he had become its managing director.
"I did everything, from packing to delivering the eggs, so as to learn the business from the bottom up," explains DJ. "That experience became hugely helpful when I took over the running of the company," he insists.
In 1999, he was joined in the business by his sister Mary, now the company's financial controller.
Because eggs have a very definite shelf life, and a best before date of only 28 days after the eggs are first laid, speed of delivery to stores and customers is critical.
"We pack over one million eggs a week," explains DJ. "The eggs that you see being received here today will have been laid yesterday on the farms. These are then graded and packed the same day in order to be on the supermarket shelves tomorrow," he stresses.
"Quality has been key to our success to date," insists DJ. "We employ two staff whose sole responsibility is to carry out quality checks including rigorous testing for cracks or defective eggs," he explains.
He explains how the colour of an egg shell is not an indication of either the quality of the egg or the feed the hen has eaten but is, instead, dictated by the particular breed of the bird.
Traceability, from the farm to the spoon, has also become a key consideration for the business. In a highly automated process, each egg is individually stamped with the identification code of the farmer who produced it as well as its best before date.
Their efforts in the area of traceability have certainly paid off with Riverview Eggs becoming the first company ever to be approved under the Bord Bia Egg Quality Assurance Scheme
Did the downturn affect the business?
"For a period, there was a marked decline in consumers' disposable incomes which had a knock-on effect on the business," admits DJ.
At the same time, too, the industry as a whole was faced with higher feed prices which added to the pressure on the business. As well as having to absorb a reduction in their margins, the company's response was to enforce tighter cost-cutting measures, become even more efficient and work harder than ever before to grow their customer base. This focused strategy proved effective and ensured that the business, not only survived, but thrived.
"Sales of eggs are on the rise again thankfully," explains a relieved DJ. "They are a very versatile food and with as many as 18 different vitamins and minerals, they really are a powerhouses of nutrition," he insists. "Importantly too, in today's economic environment, they represent very good value for money for the consumer," he adds.
Although still involved in the business, these days Margaret is happy to take more of a back seat role.
Looking back, what have been the most significant landmarks for her within the business?
"I think buying Riverview Eggs allowed us to scale up more dramatically than if we had simply grown organically," she explains. Our decision, too, to focus on quality assurance helped bring about a big shift not only within our own business but within the sector overall," she explains.
On a personal level, her greatest delight is that, as it approaches its fiftieth year in operation, her children now run the business. She is pleased too, that they have been able to create and sustain employment in the local area.
Both Margaret and DJ recognise that their success could not have happened without the support of staff, their producers and importantly, their customers. They have great praise too, for the support that they, and the entire industry, receive from Bord Bia.
They have had good mentors too. Ted Whittaker of Whittaker's Hatcheries, in Cork, provided great advice to Margaret and Dan Joe in the early days. Today, that role is provided by their independent chairman, Alf Smiddy. Alf, himself, is a seasoned business leader who was formerly chairman and managing director of Beamish and Crawford Plc.
"Alf's extensive experience has been instrumental in helping make sure we stay focused on strategic issues and not just operational ones," insists DJ. What about the future? "We have experienced growth of around 15pc per annum over each of the last three years. We are now very focused on achieving annual sales of €10m over the next three to five years," he explains enthusiastically.
"However, as we continue to look for ways that we can add value for our customers, we remain hugely committed to maintaining our focus on quality and standards," he insists. As I finish my visit to Riverview Eggs, I am glad to have had the opportunity to meet the Kelleher family. The story of this hard-working and enterprising family is truly an inspiring one.
I also realise that, while it is important in business to keep driving forward, sometimes it is equally important to stand still, to pause momentarily and to acknowledge what has actually been achieved.
Almost 50 years ago, Margaret Kelleher and her late husband Dan Joe, bought their very first batch of hens. They did so in an effort to supplement their family's income. They never imagined for one moment that the purchase of those hens would ever have developed into, what is now, a multi-million euro business.
The Kellehers' story at Riverview serves as a reminder – to everyone who is starting out in business – that even the longest journey can often start with just one small step.
DJ's advice to new businesses
1 Quality really matters
Ensure that you are delivering quality when it comes to both your product and service. This will be your best PR when you go chasing new customers.
2 Keep focused on your strategic plan
It's vital that you don't get stuck in the trenches so much that you lose sight of the bigger picture. Keep focused on your longer-term strategy.
3 Train your staff
Hiring the right people is obvious. But don't forget that so too is training and upskilling of your staff to ensure that they consistently deliver customer satisfaction.
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