Caroline Keeling joined fruit producer and food distributor Keelings in 1994 as technical manager, and is now chief executive
In 2002, she became the managing director of Keelings Multiples and in 2005 took over as group managing director for Keelings.
Headquartered in Dublin, the company operates in Ireland, the UK, Europe and Asia, and employs approximately 2,000 people. The Keeling family started producing fruits and salads on their farm in the 1930s, supplying produce to local Dublin markets. They have since expanded the company to include five divisions – Keelings Retail, Keelings Farm Fresh, Keelings Market, Keelings International and Keelings Solutions.
Keelings Solutions offers a suite of software and services that provide industry-focused solutions in procurement, stock management, warehouse and production planning, as well as sales and quality assurance.
In 2012, Keelings had revenues totalling €300 million. The Keeling family is still very involved in running the business with Joe Keeling as chairman, Caroline Keeling as CEO, William Keeling as property director and David Keeling as managing director of the retail and market divisions.
What vision prompted you to start-up your business?
My grandparents started the business growing a range of fresh produce and built the business from nothing into a substantial business in the 1960s with a turnover of €100,000 per annum. Continuing the family business legacy, my brothers and I joined the business, working with our father to expand the company. William developed our UK business to become 34 per cent of our group and David refocused on our farming so we now grow €20 million worth of our own production on 500 acres.
What moment or deal would you identify as the “game changer” or turning point for the company?
Launching our Keelings brand in 2010. We developed the brand in response to consumer research that indicated that Irish consumers wanted a locally-produced brand they could trust. The Keelings name has now become synonymous with fresh, quality produce. The range is growing rapidly year on year and, this year, we’re launching a new snacking range – which will be our first venture into on-the-go convenience foods.
What are the biggest challenges you face now?
The key difficult-to-manage challenges are the Irish weather for our crops which, as we all know, has not worked with us farmers over the last number of “summers” and rising costs with consumers having increasingly limited spending power.
Do you plan to expand your operations into new regions within the next 12 months?
Yes, this year we’re focusing on the Chinese and French markets – prior to 2012, we did no trade with these countries whereas this year we’re on track for more than €18 million in sales. We’re also investigating the potential to develop trading links with a number of other Asian countries. Targets for the group’s business growth in 2013 are €40 million and an additional €50 million in 2014.
In our software business, we plan to focus on sales in the Chinese and European market for 2014, while researching additional markets.
Has your “Irishness” contributed to your success?
In Ireland, consumers want to be able to buy fresh, local produce when possible. However, it’s not limited to Irish consumers – we’ve discovered that Irish strawberry quality is recognised as far away as Hong Kong where we supplied some Keelings Irish strawberries for their Mother’s Day this year. The other key advantage to being an Irish company, in general, is that we have a great natural skill in communication.