Big appetite for quality food in the Middle East
Conor Ryan saw gaps on the food shelves in Dubai and moved in to fill them
Conor Ryan, director of Pan Euro Foods
Speaking to Conor Ryan is like interviewing the Duracell bunny after he’s chugged down a dozen espressos. The 52-year-old from Tipperary has a huge amount of energy.
“I wish I’d known about the potential of the Middle East 20 years’ ago,” he says about his move to Dubai.
The director of Pan Euro Foods began his career as a farmer in the 1980s. After more than six years working the land, he decided he preferred promoting food rather than producing it.
“I moved into sales and worked for some great companies, including Kerry Foods and Avonmore, over the years,” he says.
In April 2000, Ryan set up his own business. “We started off selling chickens as well as boiled and peeled eggs.”
As the business grew, the demand for certain produce clearly reflected Celtic Tiger Ireland. “We moved into importing foods like pesto, sun-blushed tomatoes, olive oil from Spain and duck from France. ”
Unlike the Celtic Tiger, Ryan’s business continues to roar. “We have more than doubled and sometimes tripled our business year-on-year. I think it’s a mix of timing and aggression that makes it a success. I am never happy and am always looking for new brands to promote.
“Whenever I travel, I go to a local supermarket and see what’s on the shelves,” which is exactly how Ryan ended up opening an office in Dubai. “I stopped off there on the way to South Africa to visit a friend and have a few pints. We went to the supermarket and I saw big gaps on the shelves, so I decided to see if I could start exporting brands there.”
Ryan’s clients include a list of Irish products as well as European brands. “There’s a huge demand for Club Orange, Ballymaloe Relish, Kooky Dough, Glenisk, Cashel Blue cheeses, Dunn’s seafood and Clonakilty pudding abroad. We also promote a company from Down called Mash Direct that makes pre-packed mashed potato, carrots and parsnips and turnip. They are flying off the shelves.”
But while these brands many be popular with Irish people living abroad, that’s not who Ryan is targeting. “I think you limit yourself if you are only aiming to sell to the Irish. I’m interested in promoting good products, wherever they come from.”
With over three decades of experience Ryan is keenly aware of Ireland’s strengths and weaknesses when it comes to promoting food produce.
“We are considered quite a green and organic country. Traceability is also one of our strongest selling points in terms of meat and dairy.
“However, I think many Irish companies fall down when they try and sell their product outside Ireland. People think they can just export a few boxes directly to a company, but they don’t realise there is a lot of red tape involved.
“For example, everything we export to the Middle East has to be relabelled with Arabic ingredients and the best before date added according to local law, which all has to be done by hand in a warehouse first.”
And that’s where Ryan and his team at Pan Euro Foods come in. As well as outsourcing, he employs about a dozen people, including his wife-to-be Julie. The couple are getting married in September and, never one to miss an opportunity, Ryan has timed their honeymoon to coincide with one of the world’s largest international food fairs. The pair have no plans to slow down once they get married.
“Our next goal is to expand into Asia and open offices in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore. There is huge market potential for dairy there. The cow doesn’t work in Asia because of the climate, so beef and milk products are big sellers.”
2014 will also see Pan Euro Foods push to expand in the Middle East. “I’m really hoping to get established in Iran in the next 18 months. There are 85 million people there, so it’s a huge market.”
But having a seemingly endless supply of energy to succeed doesn’t make it any easier to do business in the region as Ryan understands.
“You need patience and money here. Indian and Arab people do things differently. It can take up to five meetings before they’ll agree to something. You drink a lot of coffee before you can sign a deal and earn their trust. But when they decide to come on-board, they will give you their full support and they’re worth the wait as they put in for huge orders.”