Saturday 7 December 2019

The juicy details of thriving

Family business and market leader Mulrines is reaping the fruits of its labours, as Sean Gallagher found out

Sean Gallagher with Malachy Magee and Peter Mulrine and apples from the Mulrine orchard. Photo: Brian Farrell
Sean Gallagher with Malachy Magee and Peter Mulrine and apples from the Mulrine orchard. Photo: Brian Farrell
Sean Gallagher

Sean Gallagher

One of my fondest memories as a child was spending my summer holidays visiting my uncles' farm near Ballybofey, in Co Donegal. Our Saturday evening treat was fish and chips in the local Navenny Grill washed down by a bottle of Mulrines orange. So it was with great delight I returned to Ballybofey recently to meet the Chairman of Mulrines, Peter Mulrine. The third generation of Mulrines to run the family business.

Soon to celebrate 100 years in business, the company now supplies over 50pc of all fruit juice sold in Ireland, employs 170 staff and has an annual turnover of more than €65m. Theirs is an incredible story of resilience and of continuous and never-ending improvement. I have come to learn from Peter the secrets to what has enabled the company to remain at the forefront of Ireland's food and drinks industry over such a sustained period.

"I think it is not only the quality of what we produce but especially the quality of the relationships we have built up with our customers over many years," Mulrine said. "Because we have to compete against some much larger international producers, we have had to develop greater efficiencies and operational excellence in everything we do."

While much of what Mulrines produces is sold under other companies' or retailers' brands, its own brands such as Jaffa Gold, Kulana, Bramble Hill, Juice Press, and Soya Press are also big sellers. It's not just apple and orange juices they produce, but pineapple, grapefruit, cranberry, tropical, tomato, mango, prune and multivitamin juices, as well as smoothies. It even makes tomato and brown sauces which are sold under its own Kandee brand.

"We're principally a business-to-business company in that we sell to retail multiples, the discounters and food service sectors such as hotels and restaurants," Mulrine said. "Some 40pc of our sales are in the Republic of Ireland, while 55pc are in Northern Ireland and the UK, with the remaining 5pc coming from continental Europe," he said.

As he takes me on a tour of the company's 170,000sq ft state-of-the-art manufacturing facility, a truck arrives to unload fresh apples from the company's own orchard in Kildare. The firm began growing its own fruit in 2013 and now has almost 300 acres of orchards.

"We are the only scale producer in either Ireland or the UK that is fully vertically integrated, in that we grow our own fruit, process it ourselves and then sell the finished juice. It's part of our strategy to become increasingly self-sufficient as well as controlling the quality and supply of our products from orchard to glass," he said.

Having been unloaded, washed and sorted, the apples are then moved to a large press where they are crushed into a mash-like substance. A large five-tonne hydraulic ram is then used to squeeze the juice from this mash. Next it goes through the process of pasteurisation before being moved for storage in large aseptic or sterilised stainless steel tanks. As we make our way through the storage area, we are dwarfed by 70 tanks, each 10 metres high, that tower over us like giant redwood trees in a forest. Capable of storing as much as 80,000 litres of juice each or 6million litres in total, this gives me an understanding of the sheer size and scale of this operation. I am also impressed to learn that the pomace or solid matter consisting of the skins, pulp, seeds and stems is removed and sold off to farmers as a nutritional feed for cattle and pigs, ensuring that nothing is wasted.

On to the filling lines next where investment in latest filling and packing technology means that up to 8,500 cartons, bottles or foil pouches can be filled per hour. There's even a pair of robots positioned like guards at the end of the packaging line whose sole job is to lift the wrapped cartons and place them on to pallets ready for retail display, something they do with absolute precision. Looking around it's easy to tell that this business has come a long way from when it was first set up by Peter Mulrine's grandfather in 1919.

"My grandfather was originally a publican who started out bottling beer with just four staff. He later moved on to bottling soft drinks before my father took over in 1955. Then he too continued to develop and expand the business," Mulrine said.

He joined the company in 1981, having completed a degree in Law in UCD. By the late 1980s he had taken over running the company.

"We got interested in the fruit juice business in 1982 when we discovered just how far behind Ireland was in the per capita consumption of fruit juice," he said. "Germany was at 17 litres per year, the UK at 11, while we were down as low as two litres per person, per year. It seemed to make sense that it was only going to go one way. So we made the decision to invest in a new Tetra Pak line and slowly began to build this side of the business."

It's been an interesting journey for him over the last 30 years, and given the company's location in the north-west of the country, one that has not been without challenges.

"We certainly had to work hard to move the company from a local player up to national and international level," he said. "This involved going out and finding new customers, acquiring their confidence and then working really hard to ensure we had the operational capability and capacity to deliver on our commitments. One clear advantage though of being based in a rural area is employee turnover is low. This helped us build expertise and maintain product quality and standards - something especially important in the food sector.

"Having to deal with the confusion among consumers about the difference between carbonated soft drinks and fruit juice has also posed a challenge for the industry, with some consumers rejecting both on the basis that they are bad for your health. The difference is that juice is essentially a squeezed fruit and when freshly pressed is actually good for you. If we can get the message through to consumers that a 150ml glass of juice can form one of your five a day, then we can encourage people to consume more fruit juice, which is good for them and will help the industry generally," he said, handing me a glass of the finished product to taste for myself.

I can certainly see why it has become such a huge seller. Before I leave, he introduces me to the company's new MD, Malachy Magee. He joined in 2004 and replaced Mulrine in that role when he moved to the role of Chairman two years ago.

"Malachy is the first non-family member to become Managing Director and his appointment is part of our progression from a traditional entrepreneurial-type business to a more structured corporate one," Mulrine said.

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