A family business that just keeps on growing
Three generations of the Keelings have turned fruit farm into Ireland’s largest horticultural business turning over €300 million
Caroline Keeling in the pepper glass house at the company’s 140-acre farm in St Margarets, Co Dublin. Photograph: Alan Betson
If you have been tucking into some strawberries and cream during the recent fine weather, there is a one-in-two chance they were Caroline Keeling’s. The Keelings group, which she runs with her two brothers David and William, is based in St Margarets in north Co Dublin and grows around half of the annual Irish crop of 300 million strawberries. And each one is picked by hand.
“We are very very passionate about our strawberries and raspberries. We eat them ourselves all the time. We are constantly trying to drive improvements,” she says, in a slightly too obvious reinforcement of the “Taste the Passion” message behind the Keelings retail fruit brand. But passion is as good a word as any to explain how over three generations her family turned a north Dublin fruit farm into Ireland’s largest horticultural business turning over €300 million and exporting produce and services as far afield as China.
“The business started with my grandparents [in the 1930s]. It was a family farm producing a whole range of products; strawberries, apples, tomatoes those kind of products. My father and his brothers then got involved in it and my father Joe would have set up the trading business in the Dublin fruit market in 1973,” she explains.
The company now has five divisions; retail, Farm Fresh, market, international and solutions. The retail and market divisions, which are run by her younger brother David, account for around 60 per cent of sales. “That’s the really exciting part of our business. That’s the part where we have launched the brand. We have the Keelings brand on all of our berries. That’s been a great experience,” she says.
The decision to introduce their own brand came after “a good bit of research on whether there was a value in investing in a brand in Ireland, ” she says. The answer was a very definite yes . “A lot of the feedback we got from consumers was that they did want to directly interact with the producer”. The Keelings brand was the fastest growing brand in Ireland last year and is now ranked 35th here by Kantar Research.
Keeling’s other brother, William looks after the group’s property interest which include Food Central, a 140-acre food park adjoining the farm. The park is meant to be a centre of excellence for food that allows companies to come together to achieve economies of scale in areas such as transport. The other three divisions are run directly by Keeling, who is also the chief executive officer of the business.
They include Farm Fresh, which supplies the catering and hospitality sectors. In a somewhat unusual arrangement the business has been sold to Pallas – the Limerick based food service business owned by US group Sysco – but is still managed by the Keelings group. “To ensure the profitability is maintained,” explains Keeling.
Our roots are in growing
The international division comprises two companies in the UK and one based in Holland that trade fruit and vegetables across the globe. It accounts for the bulk of turnover outside of the retail and market divisions.
“Basically, what we would do is buy apples in New Zealand and ship them to China. Egypt was a classic example this winter. We bought a lot of strawberries in Egypt and shipped them to Hong Kong and some to Ireland, “ she explains.