This Working Life: ‘Retiring as a high jumper was a challenge so I launched myself into something new’

Deirdre Ryan Director of Sustainability & Quality Assurance Origin Green Programme, Bord Bia talks to Mary McCarthy about the high jump, German and innovation in foods

Deirdre Ryan says she was always looking to get back into Bord Bia. Photograph: Iain White/Fennell Photography

Mary McCarthy

My job is to develop, implement and monitor our national sustainability programme for farmers, producers, manufacturers and retailers.

Positives on the horizon

We provide guidance and support so people understand sustainability and at the farm level, to increase awareness with farmer feedback is hugely important. On the company side we work with farmers and businesses to improve sustainability. Recently we had 300 companies on a webinar learning about setting emission targets.

When I got the job two years ago it was exciting but scary as the scope to drive momentum for the whole food industry is so wide and there’s a big responsibility to get it right.

I’ve taken opportunities before when I wondered if I could manage, but I know I’m really hard working, will do my absolute best and I’m able to ask for help.

The first six months were challenging, I was being torn in different directions, learning what to do. I started two weeks before the pandemic and we were able to work well online but now I’m extremely excited to be back with the team in mid May when we start our hybrid policy.


I loved studying International Commerce at UCD, taking Italian as a nice escape from the business subjects. During my Erasmus in Milan was when I got really into athletic training.

After graduating in 2004 I studied at Smurfit Graduate School and went to Belgium for secondment.

Following a McKinsey internship, I worked as a credit analyst for Unicredito Italiano in the IFSC. I was assessing viability for loans, so different from what I do today. No real thought had gone into why I applied but the bank was really incredibly accommodating with my two training sessions a day. I’ve been lucky to always have flexible bosses. Today we have a hockey player on our team and I remind myself how supported I was.

Clearing the hurdles

My interest in sustainability took off when I moved to Germany for my sporting career. All athletes are obsessed with food and nutrition and I also got into provenance and food sustainability.

I made the European finals for the High Jump in 2006 and decided to give it a proper go. A year later I found an amazing German coach and I moved to Leverkusen, then Cologne, for four years. My coach did not speak English which made me learn German.

A girl from my Masters, her father had a consultancy firm, and needed someone with an English mother tongue so I worked in business development strategy for two years in Germany and I was able to work from home and train twice a day and then I joined a UN sustainability think tank, not in a management role, it was a supporting position, but it set me on my course.

I set an Irish record when I qualified for the London Olympics in 2012 and had my best year at the world championships in 2011 when I came sixth in the high jump, eventually 5th when one Russian athlete was banned.

I was injured at the London Olympics and it persisted into summer of 2013 when I didn’t make the Moscow World Championships, my body was broken. I decided to retire and do the Origin Green Ambassador Programme, a two year masters funded by Bord Bia at Smurfit.

The mix of business sustainability and work experience was perfect and I did my placements in Dusseldorf, UK and Switzerland with Metro Group, Subway and Nestle.

Retiring from something so all consuming was a challenge. I had wanted to keep going to Rio – where in the end 1 metre 95 would have medalled as all the Russians were banned for drugs, but I had purposely launched myself into something new and exciting with my Masters which made it easier.

I came back to Ireland and worked for a year for Ornua (dairy group) in communications and found promoting Irish producers abroad so rewarding. The Masters was great for networking and when the head of corporate social responsibility position came up at Lidl in 2016 they asked me to apply as they were looking for a German speaker.

Lidl then back to Bord Bia

At Lidl, developing their sustainability strategy was a blank canvas and the Managing Director JP Scally was really open to trying new things. It became so much more front of line for companies around this time and the first thing I did was join Lidl as a member of Origin Green.

I traveled abroad to see what initiatives other retailers had embraced with things like packaging and food waste, it was interesting work.

I was always looking to get back into Bord Bia and I remember going to an award ceremony with colleagues from Lidl and seeing CEO Tara McCarthy speaking about their strategies and values and I did think I would love to work with her.

Sustainable workflow

I try to plan ahead. First thing in the morning unless something is really urgent, my partner Neil and I get some coffee and go for a walk in the park, exercise really helps me de-stress.

I love a list, so if things are flying at me I jot down what is important today. I’m online by 8am, if not 7.30am, and take an hour for admin. We have a leadership two to three hour meeting every Monday with people from all over the world and on a Tuesday a team catch-up.

I will be reviewing documents, having one-to-one meetings with the team, or with industry representatives, one of our big companies or the Department of Agriculture.

I block off half a day to read reports. Some days I also block off 9am to 10am for reading and catching up on industry trends, and half a day for strategic work.

I attend many webinars, it’s hard to replace the in-person event but it’s very efficient, and more sustainable, so I hope they stay online with the occasional in-person event to exchange knowledge.

I do need to switch very quickly – I could be focused on farm auditing and then talking to an international customer after but this suits my personality as I am that type that could get bored quickly; the variety keeps me on my toes.

Neil is an engineer so could be on site but if we are working at home we have lunch together and in the evening I normally do a bit of reading. I try to limit it but this stuff really interests me.

Public speaking

I could be speaking at a conference once a month. For the first six months I was unsure of myself but this was in lockdown so I had my notes in front of me and now I don’t get nervous although sometimes I surprise myself and find my foot is shaky.

I like public speaking, it feels a bit like competing, there is an adrenaline to panel discussions or speaking at a big customer meeting explaining what we are doing, the nuts and bolts of the schemes.

Resting up

I go to the gym, run, and visit my parents. We try to get out for dinner once a week and take it in turns with cooking.

There is no replacement for a good night’s sleep for feeling on top of things though I’m an awful woman for the middle night wake up thinking ‘oh, did I put an attachment on that email’.

I’m quite good with stress. From my sporting experience I know how much you have to develop your team. You need the medical people, agents, the nutrition team - everyone pulling together to be successful. It’s the same with work.

I joined the board of Sport Ireland last summer so attend a monthly board meeting and it’s so great to be back involved and able to bring Bord Bia experience to Sport Ireland as well as sporting experience and vice versa.