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
Keeling’s ascent to the helm of the family business was not ordained. She went to UCD to study science after school. She had planned to take a degree in physics but switched to chemistry. “I loved chemistry so I did my degree in chemistry and wasn’t quite sure how that was going to earn me any money, so I then did a masters in food science because I have always loved food and chemistry in food science is very useful.”
Her first job was with Green Isle. “I had a great time there until Dad asked me would I join the business for a couple of years and see if I liked it. That was 19 years ago. I definitely got bitten by the bug.”
She joined the family business as technical manager and spent four years in the UK where Keelings had a banana business. It was “absolutely fantastic fun. We were growing the business at an incredible rate. We were constantly doubling”.
The banana business was sold to Chiquita in 2003, with the proceeds used to buy out a 25 per cent stake in Keelings held by Chiquita. However, Keeling had returned to Ireland in 1998, and in 2002 she was put in charge of what was the precursor to the retail division.
It was around that time she realised she was more businesswoman than scientist, although she admits to still having “science tendencies”.
“I had no real training in business other than sitting at the kitchen table. Where you do pick up a bit,” she explains.
Most of what she learnt was through direct on-the-job experience.
“I was very lucky being a family member. I was brought to a lot of quite serious meetings as soon as I joined, which was really good for me because I could go to the meetings without the accountability for the result.”
She clearly learned enough to earn her father’s confidence and the stewardship of the business was gradually handed to her over the past five years. It has also seen her shortlisted this year for the Entrepreneur of the Year award run by accountants Ernst &Young.
Did her father find it hard to let go? “I would say its challenging. I don’t know if it’s easier, father-daughter. I am not really sure,” she responds.
“We did it over a period of time. I think both of us – for want of a better term – wanted it to work. That kind of helps.”
“We will always heed his advice,” she says , but the day-to-day running of the business is left to the three siblings.
One last question cries out for an answer. How did she beat her brothers to the top job? “I am the bossy one!” she replies with another laugh.