'How war-torn Libyan crisp venture left a €2m bad taste in my mouth'
THE man behind Tayto crisps has admitted that ploughing €2m into a crisp factory in war-torn Libya was a "mistake".
But the company still hopes to revive its operations near Tripoli after the building survived months of NATO bombing and the civil war that led to the fall of Muammar Gaddafi.
The Tayto operation was hastily withdrawn from Libya and the equipment was shipped back to Ireland when violence broke out last year.
Raymond Coyle, CEO of Largo Foods, told the Irish Independent that the original plan had been to use the factory to avoid a 20pc charge on importing crisps into Libya. The company sends thousands of packets of snacks to the country each month.
But the founder of the business, which is based in Ashbourne, Co Meath, now says he is "nearly ashamed" of the amount of money spent on the stalled project.
The 80,000sq ft factory, built in 2008, was a joint venture between Mr Coyle and Libyan businessman Dr Salah el-Ghraim, who had lived in Ireland and worked as a Halal meat wholesaler here.
For almost three years, it churned out Tayto products and according to Mr Coyle it became profitable in its last four months before violence erupted in February 2011.
Asked how much he had contributed to the project Mr Coyle said: "I'd nearly be ashamed to tell you. It's over two million I put into it. It was a mistake, in hindsight. Of course, if I had known what was going to happen, I wouldn't have done it."
The abandonment, for the time being, of the Libyan operation was revealed in the company's 2010 accounts, which also contained a brief note, stating: "The equipment was returned to Largo post year end and before the turmoil began."
The records show that the company was owed €631,596 in relation to the project last year and that "the promoters have confirmed their intention to repay outstanding amounts".
Mr Coyle said Largo Foods was "fortunate" to have been able to salvage any equipment, something it was only able to do because some of the machinery had remained unpacked in containers on the Tripoli docks.
According to Mr Coyle: "The troubles in Benghazi started and I felt that we didn't want to be more exposed to this, so let's try and bring back the machinery".
Dr Salsh stayed in Libya during the violence, which saw the grisly end of Colonel Gaddafi after more than four decades in power.
Mr Coyle said he had heard mixed reports on the fate of the other 44 factory workers who had been making Tayto crisps there.
"Some people had relations who were involved in it (the civil war) and lost their lives but I get different reports the whole time. I just don't know how everybody fared," he said.
Hostilities broke out just over eight months after Largo Foods had taken part in an Enterprise Ireland trade mission to Libya, led by then Fianna Fail junior minister Billy Kelleher.
The state agency spent more than €30,000 on promoting Irish business during the three-day mission to Tripoli in May 2010 -- with the itinerary including meetings with officials from the Gaddafi regime and functions for local businessmen.
Mr Coyle said that, despite the factory being out of action, Libyans were still able to munch on Tayto crisps, as last month the company exported more than four-and-a-half-thousand boxes of snacks to the North African country.
And he now hopes the company could yet return to Libya if the country stabilises, adding: "It's not lost yet. We'll just have to wait and see.
"The factory hasn't been looted -- nothing has happened to it. But you would want some stability out there to be able to go and reopen it."
Despite the uncertain future of the Libyan project, the company posted profit figures of €10.1m in 2010, partly helped by the opening of its new theme park at its headquarters in Ashbourne.
Largo Foods, which also has operations in the Czech Republic, Moldova and China, became infamous in recent years for its advertising campaigns for Hunky Dory crisps, featuring scantily clad women playing rugby and Gaelic football.