Future-proof: feeding a fast-growing international market
An innovative approach to nutritional advice and manufacturing nous has served the Keenans well
Gerard Keenan: “Rather than selling increasing numbers of machines, we decided to also sell solutions with the machines.”
When Gerard Keenan left his job in the marketing department of John Deere in 1978 to embark on an agricultural start-up with his dad and brother, little did he know it would develop into a multi-million euro, multi-award winning feed technology company.
The Carlow-based company began selling mixer wagons, before going on to develop a comprehensive nutrition support programme, to help farmers increase animal health, reduce labour and create long-term farm profits.
By the end of 2011, the company had amassed more than 25,000 customers in 40 countries, with annual turnover reaching nearly €50 million.
Designed by Gerard’s dad Richard Keenan, the first Keenan mixer wagon was introduced in 1983, to produce an optimal physical mix of cattle feed.
“As well as the general recession, there was also a very bad recession in the agriculture in the 1980s. Land prices collapsed and banking was tough. We were a start-up struggling to make money and we’d sunk a lot of cash into our business,” he recalls.
“We were developing innovative products but we couldn’t find enough customers. Once we got that right though, the money started coming in and we grew from nothing to turnover of nearly €6 million by the end of the 1980s.”
In 1990, the company took on a full time nutritionist, so a comprehensive nutrition support programme could be offered along with the machinery. The move was a success and, by the mid-1990s, the company was exporting mixer wagons to Australia, South Africa and mainland Europe.
However, all was not plain sailing. “We expanded into too many markets too quickly. We thought a business model was enough, but you also need an organisation that can handle it. Ours couldn’t and we were completely overstretched.”
The Carlow-based business opted to set up its own franchises abroad, rather than relying on distributors to sell their machines.
“Conventional machinery distributors didn’t buy into the 24/7 servicing mentality or the nutritional advice. They just wanted to sell the machines. Servicing and nutritional advice were fundamental to our success in Ireland and the UK though.”
In 2003, the company put together a science advisory board, made up of internationally respected agricultural scientists from the US, Britain, Ireland and Australia, to identify trends and developments in the massively changing agri-business sector.
“The outlook for agriculture in 2003 was all doom and gloom. Issues such as global warming and food security were beginning to emerge. Fixed quotas were coming in and subsidies were on the way out.”
The board identified the emergence of multi-function agriculture, requiring the industry to simultaneously meet multiple challenges, such as environment, animal welfare, consistent quality food production and increased global competition while also achieving profitability.
New business model
The result was the Keenan Mech-fiber system, launched in 2007 following €8 million in investment. The system offers farmers greater control over their feed efficiency through the simple management of the physical structure of the total mix ration.
The property downturn and global economic crisis led to a new business model at the company, which currently employs 170 people at its base in Borris and 80 abroad. Instead of relying on sales, the company is focus ing on creating joint ventures and partnership agreements with big feed companies.
“In 2009, the current recession hit all our markets. We had to re-organise our business and re-focus our value for existing customers. Rather than selling increasing numbers of machines, we decided to also sell solutions with the machines .”