Wednesday 11 December 2019

Expansion and technology are really bearing fruit for Keelings

Caroline Keeling has eaten duck's feet and fish heads – all in a day's work – while growing the family fruit business, writes Roisin Burke

Caroline Keeling portrait by Don Berkeley.
Caroline Keeling portrait by Don Berkeley.

Roisin Burke

Keelings' first crop of Irish strawberries is already ripe and ready. We are standing in a colossal, super-hi-tech greenhouse the size of five football pitches, sampling a big, ripe, luscious fruit straight off one of a line of plants stretching to vanishing point.

It's delicious, full of flavour and a breed apart from the watery imposters on many supermarket shelves.

It's one of 150 million strawberries that Keelings, the third generation family fresh produce company, will sell this year – supplying 60 per cent of the Irish strawberry market.

Another several stadiums of acreage is devoted to growing different coloured peppers on plants that tower triffid-like at over six feet and will grow to twice that – so high that cherrypickers are needed to harvest them.

Keelings supplies six million peppers – 90 per cent of the Irish market. Elsewhere there are apple trees, and peaches and cherries are being trialed, and in Co Louth flowers are grown.

Cardboard box hives of bees are dotted around the place to pollinate the plants, and to reduce the use of pesticides, little packets of 'natural predators', insects that scoff greenfly and other plant-munching pests, are released to roam.

Keelings employs over 1,200 people full-time in mostly skilled growing, packaging and distribution jobs as well as for its rapidly growing software arm.

Sales have risen over a challenging decade by over 30 per cent to €300m. Profits, concealed by an Isle of Man company ownership, have taken a hit, driving the business to become more creative and diversify.

With that in mind, Keelings entered Asia last year and this year will sell 270 tonnes of apples in India and continue expansion in China.

Keelings also runs Tesco Ireland's massive Irish distribution centre, from where the retailer's stock is dispersed to stores countrywide.

It supplies Dunnes Stores, Tesco, Musgraves and Marks & Spencer with both homegrown and internationally sourced fruit and veg from 42 countries.

It has its own branded berry punnets and snack pots. It's a unique move that's worked – recent Bord Bia research showed 68 per cent of shoppers have heard of Keelings, an unusual level of awareness for a fruit-and-veg supplier.

After the strawberry tasting, it's back to the office to meet Caroline, the group chief executive.

She and her brother David, who runs the retail and wholesale business, gobble punnets of berries, she tells me, and it's certainly doing her no harm.

A promised coffee is delayed and while Keeling tranquilly sips from a bottle of mineral water, her interviewer is racked with caffeine deprivation.

"I don't drink tea or coffee particularly," she cheerfully relates, "maybe one cup of tea a month. I think coffee would make me a little OTT seeing as I generally have a lot of energy at the best of times."

She rarely eats stodgy sandwiches, preferring bean salads, raw fish and loads of fresh fruit and veg and fresh juices.

An occasional can of Diet Coke is her one vice. A caffeine-addicted, nutritionally delinquent Sunday Indo reporter can only gaze in awe and horror. She needs all the energy she can muster for this wide-ranging international business.

Keeling's grandparents set up the business in the 1930s, initially growing strawberries and other produce on a farm that sold into the famous Dublin Fruit Market.

Her father William and his brothers expanded the business further around Ireland and into Britain.

"Then my brothers and myself joined the business and expanded it further over in the UK.

"When David joined in 1998, he revitalised our growing side. We weren't growing but he really got stuck in. We invested a lot of money in expanding our Irish production, and the Northern Irish market. It means a lot of Irish food miles coming off the road and equally a lot more Irish jobs."

Living proof that every business is digital now, there is Keelings Solutions, a rapidly growing software company developed from decades of experience of the needs of fresh produce companies. It provides a system that helps firms manage everything from forecasting to sales, to managing crops, to trading.

One of its first clients was Goodfarmer, a massive Chinese fruit and vegetable distributor. Leading Dutch international fresh produce company Jaguar is a major client.

"We fit a very tailored solution for fast-moving consumer goods companies. Our system is very live and gives very accurate detailed information but is also quite flexible because our industry changes rapidly."

Keelings has vied with the likes of Google to win developer talent for this project, she says.

"We've competed with the US multinationals on the college recruitment side. A fruit business winning against the big tech players, people choosing to come to us instead, is quite something, but we've got a good story and it's something different and IT people get to really understand how a business works."

Another diversification, an interesting and ambitious €30m investment called Food Central is also being developed. On the more traditional side of the business, "we're constantly looking at better ways of growing, new varieties, new techniques and trialing different things to improve quality".

The Irish consumer is mad about berries, buying 11 per cent more blueberries, raspberries and strawberries last year. And Keeling herself is evangelical about their wellness and nutrition benefits.

"It makes such a difference with your health. We've a massive belief that it does help performance and helping people maintain their performance in a balanced way."

Keelings has been making advances into European markets, particularly in France, where Carrefour, a Tesco-sized multiple, is a customer, as is major retail chain Auchan.

Supplying India started only months ago through a carefully sourced local wholesaler and supplying fruit into China began just last year on both the retail and wholesale side.

In Britain, Keelings supplies the main retail giants – Tesco, Sainsbury and Morrison's. That market makes up at least 35 per cent of the group's turnover.

Caroline joined the company in 1994 following a stint at what was then Green Isle food company, where she enjoyed being part of a bigger operation, but she thrived back in the family business fold.

The way she tells it, the group is a haven of familial harmony.

"We would all have different opinions at times, which is part of the success; frequently when you put three or four opinions together you can get a better result than one."

Ah, come on. You must argue sometimes?

"We would all be very passionate about things. We don't agree on everything but if one of us is responsible for an area it's their call and it works well that way."

Maybe having very distinct roles helps. David runs the wholesale, retail and farming business in Ireland. Caroline is chief executive of the overall group, older brother William runs the property side, and William snr, Caroline's dad, is chairman. "And my mother tells us all what to do," she adds, only half joking.

"It's challenging to step back," she says of the level of parental input. "As the years have gone by and we prove ourselves, there's less involvement. And that's a very fair deal. The more you prove yourselves, the more you get the chance."

As technical manager, she travelled a lot, turning up woman-from-Delmonte-like at remote farms in Brazil or a growers in northern Pakistan.

"One particular supplier was not going to deal with me unless I spent the weekend with his family in Costa Rica. I got the deal in the end – I'm fairly sure that approval came from his grandmother."

Now she is in China a few times a year, has politely eaten ducks' feet and fish head and eye delicacies at business dinners and is learning Mandarin.

The push into China that resulted in the Chinese VP visiting Keelings HQ during an official trip to Ireland last year happened almost by chance.

"Somebody told me we had a very bright Chinese guy working for us. So I saw him in the canteen and I started chatting to him and over a period of about six months he convinced me that there were opportunities. This was the end of 2011.

"He went to have a look at what was possible and he came back with this group who were doing a tour of the UK, Germany and France to see the produce market. There were some government officials and local business people. Ireland was not in their schedule and he did a great job to get them to come over.

"When they came here we really entertained them and we all had lunch in my parents' house."

That visit was intended to lead to deals on fresh produce supply but the Chinese were really taken with the Keeling software product. The first deal, drafted out on a Starbuck's napkin that Keeling has framed in her office, was signed in 2012 and several other Chinese software clients are signed up now, including The Yunnan Flower Company following an invite from a Yunnan province government official to meet companies there.

A range of other opportunities, borne out of that initial Irish family dinner hosting, are being chased up.

"There's such a scale of potential there, we just have to take it slowly, steady, make sure we do it right, understand how the culture works." And of course Ireland is still an obscure location to most Chinese.

"I was having lunch in Kunming and the person next to me was quite a senior government official in that region and he turned to me and said, 'So tell me about Ireland. The first time I heard about Ireland was last year when somebody gave me a Westlife CD'."

At home, things are still challenging, Keeling says.

"The export side is bringing in more money but domestically things will remain quite tight for a long time.

"The economy is going in the right direction with a lot of good signs but it's still very tight; there isn't a lot of money out there. And with the little there is, people are being very cautious. But there's a light at the end of the tunnel – and I don't think it's a train," she jests.

"It's been a tough environment needing smart thinking and smart working. A business can be crushed under the pressure or it can become a diamond."

Sunday Indo Business

Also in Business