Monday 18 December 2017

From Dublin to Dubai, the crisps dynasty are making a packet

With a host of awards plus exotic export destinations, Tom Keogh tells Michael Cogley of his company's continuing expansion

Tom Keogh at Keogh's farm and crisp factory in Oldtown, Co. Dublin. Photo: Douglas O'Connor
Tom Keogh at Keogh's farm and crisp factory in Oldtown, Co. Dublin. Photo: Douglas O'Connor
Michael Cogley

Michael Cogley

After spending some time walking around Keogh's potato farm in north county Dublin with its managing director Tom Keogh, it doesn't take too long to realise why business has taken off.

At the heart of everything the family-run company does is a commitment to quality.

The firm, which has become a major player in the luxury crisp market in recent years, takes quality control seriously and the benefits of it are passed right up the food chain.

In 2015, Keogh's secured 5pc of the overall Irish crisp market while staking a claim to over 30pc of the high-end segment.

Exporting now accounts for 15pc of the company's overall trading and now they've got the Middle Eastern market on board.

"We export potatoes and crisps to the retailers in Dubai. I was working with a distributor to try and actually supply potatoes to the five-star hotels in Dubai. They wanted a very high-quality potato product and it was during one of those conversations where somebody said something about retail potatoes.

"What actually made the difference was our easy cooks, the cook-in-the-bag potato. So that product was presented to a retailer in Dubai - and bang straight away they listed it.

"So they air freight it out twice a week. Air freighted potatoes. There are a few pallets that go out every week with Emirates," Keogh said.

The cook-in-the-bag potatoes, which is now the company's biggest selling line, didn't begin life as a roaring success.

The idea stemmed from a similar concept being used on cauliflower and broccoli heads in the Netherlands. Back in 2006 Mr Keogh figured, given that 80pc of potatoes are water, surely the same concept could be applied to the humble spud.

"We launched the product with Superquinn and it failed. It was too expensive, it was in a tray, it was over packaged and it just didn't work."

Mr Keogh marks branding as a crucial part of the farm's success and also highlights that the firm was one of many to benefit from the rise of social media.

"It was about 2006 or 2007 and we identified there were no brands in fresh produce. And it was quite common across Europe. In America there were some brands to an extent in fresh but in a European context it just doesn't happen.

"In order to market what we did here and promote the quality of the farm, we decided to go out and rebrand the business.

"All a brand is is a bit of a logo on a piece of paper, it's the story behind it and it's building a brand. So the logo was designed we decided to go with the family name because it was going to be a family brand.

"The approach we took was to just tell our story and we knew that from day one and we were just transparent and honest with it, and it just took off.

"What really helped us was in 2010, 2011, was the rise of social media and the way small brands like ourselves, which do not have large marketing budgets, can actually get our story across to the consumer."

Today Keogh's farm sits on 400 acres of planted potatoes with between six to seven acres of production. That's set to increase.

The crisp-maker is at the start of a three-year expansion plan that will see Keogh's establish another factory, which will increase production by 50pc.

The expansion is to keep up with continuing growing demand for its Irish product. To give it some context, while touring the farm, I saw the packaging machine sealing 115 packages of crisps a minute. Big business.

However, with the Keogh family based out in north Dublin for over 200 years potatoes haven't been the only thing they've tried their hand at.

"If you look at pretty much everything we've produced over the years from tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbage, cauliflowers, sprouts, onions. Every single one of those lines we had to get out of because it was not feasible to produce them in Ireland due to the cheap imports coming into the country.

"Potatoes were always part of what we did, we had a good name for potatoes, we grew a high-quality potato. One thing that has protected the market here is that the Irish consumer's palette is tuned to flowerier potatoes, so it doesn't lend itself to import potatoes into this country because Irish consumers just won't eat them.

"In a way the Irish consumer has protected the potato industry in Ireland."

In the UK the company has a deal with Tesco, which has seen its products included in the "World Foods" section.

Its inclusion there is set to change however, with Tesco in the process of redeveloping the section. As a result Mr Keogh is now aiming to have his products inserted into the main aisles of the supermarket giant. While only a small amount (around 2pc) of the company's trade is in the UK Mr Keogh isn't baulking at the possibility of a British exit from the EU.

"The only difference will be currency really and that's there already.

"Will they do that (place tariffs on trade)? I can't see them doing that. Not to Ireland. Ireland is such an important source of food, look at the meat and dairy sectors that export into the UK. I can't see them putting tariffs on that.

"It's very easy for me to say that because very small amounts of my business is based in the UK, if I had 80pc of business based in the UK then yes I would be worried."

While creating jobs in the local community stands as a major part of the company's ethos, machinery too is just as important.

Technology is a major part of the farm. In the fields the tractors, which are manned, are controlled remotely by satellites.

On the company's packaging, you'll find the field from where they came. Head onto the website, type it in and there you have it. Google maps will pin point the exact field from where the original potatoes came from. It's called Spud Nav.

In quality control the firm narrows the risk of human error by employing a machine that can gauge the temperature of each crisp as it flies by on a conveyor belt. Should one be undercooked, small vents of air will open up to push it off into the waste crisps. The dedication to quality has led to numerous awards across a variety of areas. In 2012 the firm won 'Startup business of the year' at the Small Business Awards as well as the 'Startup company of the year' in the same year from Enterprise Ireland. Keogh's has also claimed a number of Great Taste awards, and won the Small Business Marketing award in 2014. Mr Keogh was named marketer of the year in 2015.

While it may be his primary product he is happy to stand to defence of the potato against criticisms that it isn't healthy.

"Potatoes are a superfood. There's more vitamin C in them than there is an orange, there's more potassium in them than there is in a banana, there's more fibre in them than there is in an apple.

"It's one of the only food types available that you can actually live on alone. You remember that film with Matt Damon, 'The Martian'?"

Mr Keogh's family are heavily involved in the running of the firm. His brother Ross manages production and sales at the company with his father Peter handling the paperwork end of things, while his cousin Derek and his uncle Tony look after the management of the farm.

Mr Keogh has no plans of moving out of the food game anytime soon. "I wouldn't put by name on a bag of crisps if my intention was to sell the business. I meet a lot of people in food and the only reason they're in it is to sell in three or four years time and they've an exit plan in place.

"It's about a family business and it's about creating jobs in the area and it's about selling Ireland overseas.

"That's something that makes me proud is selling a really high quality Irish product overseas. You're actually representing your country through a food product overseas.

"And if you do that badly, that's terrible and it closes door for other good Irish food producers. And I've seen it in other food products where they would not treat their consumers well or the product wouldn't live up to the consumers' expectations."

With another flavour on the way in the summer and more innovations that he couldn't quite talk about at the time, Keogh's has spent time preparing itself for the future.

"It takes great people to make great products. It takes great people to make a longer play a success in a business.

"We've done that over the last year, we put in place a really good management team in Keogh's Crisps.

"There's a lot of expertise have come in, thanks be to God, because I literally stepped off a tractor and started making crisps.

"There's some really good people in the business now from financial, marketing to sales and exports. That's the future, getting good people into the business."

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