Greencore Plc must shoulder blame for loss of our vital and strategic sugar beet industry
Last week was terrible for confidence in our Irish leadership and structures. In the midst of our worst financial crisis and with the IMF in town, we got only spin and codology from cabinet ministers Ahern and Dempsey.
Alongside this came the revelation from the EU Court of Auditors that Ireland's sugar beet industry had been lost because we acted on flawed assumptions. Two sad messes that could have been avoided, but have arisen from bad governance and leadership.
Presumably the right steps will bring economic recovery -- in time. But will we ever get back our sugar beet industry?
It's worth retracing the steps that led to such a damaging blow to our tillage farming and national economy. To my mind, Greencore Plc must shoulder the blame for the running down and eventual loss of this historic and strategic industry from Ireland.
Greencore was established in 1991 when the Irish Government privatised 55pc of the state-owned Irish Sugar Company that had been in existence since 1926. Greencore was floated at the equivalent of €1.46 a share. This week, almost 20 years on, Greencore shares are at less than €1.35. Greencore has lost all links with Irish sugar but instead is now making low market sandwiches in the UK. Even the familiar "Siúcre" brand sugar, so familiar to Irish homes, is no longer distributed by Greencore.
I would liken the Greencore performance in Irish sugar processing to a son taking over a farm that had been in the family for generations only to blow the enterprise through a series of bad decisions and poor management. Similarly, Greencore lost any commitment of its inheritance; it lost the feel for its industry. Ireland and Irish farmers have been deprived of an industry of fundamental importance.
Greencore actually had a good start. Led by Irish Sugar chief executive Chris Comerford, the new entity stayed within agriculture, building up a complementary malt and grain business through the purchase of the Williams Group and the Food Industries from the stricken Goodman empire. This brought Greencore into malt and flour milling, businesses which were allied to Irish sugar. A potential bid for British Sugar in conjunction with a German processor fell through when the German government pushed the company to invest in newly opened East Germany instead. But at least the effort signalled the Greencore intention to grow the sugar business.
Instead, David Dilger's promotion to chief executive in the mid-1990s led to a series of strange decisions and investments. The worst of these was the $50m foray into the US-based Imperial Holly. Meanwhile, the cash cow of Irish sugar processing kept Greencore afloat and bailed out loss makers such as Imperial Holly.