Tuesday 20 March 2018

Go Greene, go global - just go for it

From selling chickens to his classmates to selling to the globe, Kenneth Greene tells Sean Gallagher how he built his ready-to-eat meat business

Sean Gallagher with Kenneth Greene, CEO of Greene Farm Foods, Rathowen, Co Westmeath. Photo: Tony Gavin
Sean Gallagher with Kenneth Greene, CEO of Greene Farm Foods, Rathowen, Co Westmeath. Photo: Tony Gavin
Sean Gallagher

Sean Gallagher

Travelling throughout Ireland as part of writing these articles, I am always delighted when I come across small and medium-sized businesses whose founders, through initiative, risk-taking and incredible hard work, have managed to create not just a successful business for themselves but much-needed employment in their local communities. That's why I often refer to these entrepreneurs as our unsung heroes. This week's entrepreneur is one such example.

Located just outside the small village of Rathowen, in Co Westmeath, Greene Farm Foods has grown to become Ireland's leading producer of cooked and ready-to-eat poultry and beef products.

Set up in 1991 by Kenneth Greene, the business now employs 160 staff, has an impressive annual turnover of more than €30m and 25pc year-on-year growth since 2011. I was keen to find out what is at the heart of the company's success.

"We class ourselves as 'specialist roasters' of chicken, turkey and beef," explains Kenneth as he welcomes me to his new 50,000sq.ft purpose-built production facility. The company has recently invested over €6m in extending the facility and a further €1.3m in packaging machinery, and this is now one of the most modern food plants in Europe.

The company currently supplies most leading Irish retailers - including Tesco, Dunnes Stores, SuperValu, Spar, Londis, Gala, Mace and Costcutters. Its UK sales have also risen in recent year and now account for 26pc of total revenues, with brand names such as Tesco, Costco, Bookers and OCADO among their largest customers there.

"All our products are made using 100pc natural ingredients, are low in fat, high in protein, have no MSG and use no artificial flavours or preservatives," explains Kenneth whose typical customers, he tells me, are time-pressed, young professionals and working families who want convenient but wholesome, nutritious and tasty meals and snacks.

"Quality is always our top priority," explains Kenneth. "All our meat is sourced from grade-A approved primary meat processors where there is full traceability from the individual farmer or grower to the fork."

In their onsite test kitchen, I get to sample some of their most popular sliced-meat ranges, including roast chicken breast, peppered turkey breast and roast topside of beef. There are also ranges of mini fillets, as well as their mouth-watering Moroccan spiced chicken breast and garlic and rosemary roast chicken. And then there are the more traditional joints and on-the-bone ranges, such as roasted joints, cooked chicken on the bone, thighs, wings and drumsticks. In total, they have approximately 250 individual types of products - or what they more accurately call in the business SKUs, or stockkeeping units.

Our next stop on our tour is the area where the food is marinated. Here, the meat is immersed in a mix of spices and ingredients and left to infuse for between 12 and 24 hours. Next, it's on to the large cooking area, where, depending on the product, cooking is carried out using a mix of inline and batch-cooking methods. The inline system is a highly-efficient automated process that ensures quality and consistency while increasing yield and throughput.

This results in maintaining the look and flavour of typically home-cooked, roasted or glazed meats. In another area, staff are using the more labour-intensive batch cooking method that uses low steam pressure in a slower process to achieve their signature succulent taste.

Once cooked, the meats are moved to a chilling area, where they are cooled in preparation for either direct packing or further slicing. The modified atmospheric-packaging methods help extend the shelf life to between 14 and 17 days, depending on the product.

"We aim to keep each part of the process as artisan as possible to maintain as natural a look and feel to each product."

Kenneth Greene grew up on the family farm, next to where the business is now located. As a teenager, schooldays were often cut short to get home early to work on the farm. And it was here that his work ethic was cultivated - whether through working on the land, building sheds or making and fixing things in the farm's workshop.

"My father always encouraged myself and my siblings to think outside the box," explains Kenneth. "From a young age, I knew that I wanted to own my business one day."

It was while still at school that he got his first taste for entrepreneurship - rearing and selling chickens and turkeys to his schoolmates and their families. After school, he attended Mellows (Agricultural) College in Athenry, where he specialised in poultry husbandry and breeding. The next few years were spent working in or managing poultry farms in Monaghan, Mayo and Laois. For a time too, he considered building his own poultry breeding operation on the home farm. But as most potential poultry business customers were located in Cavan, Monaghan or Wicklow, he wasn't convinced the idea would work.

Instead, he returned to work on the family farm and at the same time decided to buy and rear 500 turkeys for the following Christmas market. When the time came, he sold these to local butchers and with his first venture successfully behind him, he began contacting hotels, bars, restaurants and supermarkets to see if there was a viable ongoing market for fresh chicken and turkey meats.

"I began really as a poultry wholesaler covering the Midlands and while it was hard graft and slow to take of initially, I eventually built up a successful wholesale business," explains Kenneth.

In 1991, he decided that it was time to go into production for himself. He began by converting a shed on the farm into a cutting facility where he boned, rolled and removed wings from chicken and turkeys and resold these to the contacts he had made during his time as a wholesaler. Four years later, he added his initial cooking facilities, where he was now able to add further value to his produce. Around this time deli counters were growing popular and the market for his pre-cooked meats was on the rise.

In order to meet growing demand, he set his sights on his own purpose-built facility. Completed in 2000 and comprising of 12,000sq.ft, this allowed him to target a wide variety of market segments, including the hotels and catering sector, food service outlets and, of course, retail.

"However, my three-year strategy was always to move exclusively into the retail market and to focus on a high-volume model yet retaining the highest quality range of meats.

"And that's what we did," explains Kenneth. "Our initial listings were with Dunnes and SuperValu, where we supplied a range of plain chicken and turkey slices. These were almost an instant hit, generating over €1m in sales for us."

From there, the company expanded into Superquinn and Tesco. At the same time too, they worked on developing and expanding their range of meats. By 2009, they had also entered the UK. They were now in definite growth mode.

"In 2011 and based on changing trends and feedback, we made the strategic decision to go fully natural under the Greene Farm Brand," explains Kenneth. "All artificial flavours and preservatives were removed to create a clean deck of ingredients and to provide consumers with a form of natural and nutritious protein in a ready-to-eat format. As well as being 100pc natural, all branded products are also gluten-free."

Innovation and product development are central to the company's future strategy, as is the whole area of sustainability. Recently, they switched from oil to gas, upgraded their refrigeration and introduced smart metering across the entire facility. Their most significant commitment to sustainability has seen them build a new integrated wetland area close by the facility, which now treats all their waste water.

Looking to the future, Kenneth is upbeat about the company's potential to grow export sales well beyond 26pc of current revenues.

"I hope to double revenues to over €60m within the next three years. Having a local or regional focus is no longer enough - we have to have a global focus if we want to achieve that," he adds.

He plans to establish a base in the UK. He also hopes to break into Denmark, with plans already in place for an initial listing with a major retail chain there in early 2016. Holland and Germany also offer significant potential in the near term, as does the UAE, where, Kenneth informs me, the company is currently going through that country's strict approvals process.

As I prepare to leave Greene Farm Foods, Kenneth has one final comment for me.

"While we all should never forget where we come from, if we want to be successful in business these days, we all need to remain open to change." Great advice, indeed.

For further information see www.greenefarmfoods.com

Kenneth's advice for other businesses

1. Be goal-focused and target-driven

I often draw on advice my father gave me many years ago which holds good for everyone in business - 'Set yourself a target and just go for it.' Once you set your mind on a goal, write it down and then share it with your team, you stand a much better chance of achieving it. Not only are you focused, so too is your whole organisation.

2. Keep your customer central

First, you have to know who your customers are, what they want and what matters most to them. This involves staying in close contact with them and constantly consulting with them about their changing needs. Market research is especially important when it comes to trialling new products or entering new markets.

3. Go where the water is deep

There's a saying that If you want to launch a big ship, then go where the waters are deep. Similarly, if you want to grow your business, you must focus on bigger markets where there is potential for scale. To achieve scale, surround yourself with good people who support your vision. Then learn how to delegate to them.

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