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
Trading with China is done from the Dublin office and clearly appeals to Keeling. She explains how in May the group shipped several pallets of strawberries in heart shaped punnets to Hong Kong-based retailer ParknShop.
The international business is built on a base of growers in 42 countries – of which Keeling has visited 38 herself . “Frequently, we are not buying the full range from a grower. We might only want a particular size [of fruit] for the Irish or the UK market, but the Chinese might want a different size.”
It sounds a bit like the business of Fyffes, their better known peer. Not so, says Keeling, with a smile that betrays a intense rivalry. “We have a different strategy. We have a different way of working. In Ireland particularly we have our own production. We grow ourselves. Our roots are in growing. I think that when we meet with growers we understand them. I think it gives you a much stronger relationship with a grower when they know you are [a grower] and the two of you sit and bitch about the weather”.
The final piece of the Keelings jigsaw is the solutions division. It manages chilled distribution for Tesco, but the potential jewel in the crown is the solutions division’s software business.
In the early 2000s, Keelings decided to write its own software to manage the business having failed to find a suitable off-the-shelf product. “We looked around and we didn’t find one that delivered the kind of information we wanted; the quality, the speed and the accuracy. So we wrote our own system”.
In 2011, a separate company was formed to sell the system to other producers. “Its very, very successful, Ahead of our own expectations. We are live in one Dutch company and we have licensed the software to a Chinese company. Last year, we signed the deal and they should be going live by the end of the summer,” she explains.
China’s largest flower grower has also come on board in a half a million euro deal. “There are amazing opportunities for that business,” predicts Keeling.
“Our strength is that we actually understand how to run the business. We are not just selling them software. That is why it is called Keelings Solutions. We are selling them a solution and it is helping them dramatically drive process improvement in their business,” she says.
“Over the next five years we believe that division will be very strong for us. We are hoping for significant growth particularly in the European and Chinese markets.”
It is a very different business from growing strawberries, but the margins are considerably better. “We can manage the European [support] from our Irish office and we have gone from six employees to 22 in the software business, and we’ve got a company in China that is going to help us with some of the the initial support. User support rather than code. They are also helping us with training as most of my staff don’t have Chinese.”
Keeling says she is learning bits and pieces “to be polite” before rattling off what sounds to the untutored ear a fairly fluent phrase to the effect that I want to speak Chinese but I am too busy.
The bossy one
Keelings is owned jointly by Joe Keeling (who recently took up the role of chairman of Horse Racing Ireland) and his three children. It is unlimited and the shares are held through Isle of Man entities. As a result, it does not have to file annual accounts. Keeling is happy to disclose the group’s turnover, but replies to a question about profits with a laugh and the comment “not enough” before expanding her answer slightly: “Sorry we don’t share that”.