Richard Kennedy is about to tuck into a salad when I arrive for our interview at a business park in the shadow of Belfast's former industrial behemoth, Harland & Wolff. Such is his frenetic schedule, the chief executive of agri-tech company Devenish is forced to eat and talk.
We're lucky to have caught him at all given what seems to be a never-ending schedule of travel for him – both within and outside Ireland. Last week alone, he was in Liverpool on Monday and Tuesday, Belfast on Wednesday, then Dublin on Thursday and Friday, and that's a relatively quiet week.
Such is the life of a chief executive targeting aggressive growth for a business that is becoming increasingly more important as our climate expectations shift.
While now an agricultural technology company, Devenish started life as a pre-mix animal feed manufacturer. For every tonne of feed, the company would provide roughly five kilograms of micronutrients and influential nutrients. But even then, they knew that animal feed wasn’t simply a formality: what cattle, pigs and sheep are being fed is of considerable importance given the way it trickles through the food chain.
“If we provide healthy nutritious food for the soil, it, in turn, will be healthy ... If we do the same for animals, they will be healthy and their welfare will be better,” explains Kennedy, sitting in a boardroom at the company’s headquarters.
These days, the company’s strategy is to “ensure one health from soil all the way to society”. Think farm to fork, but with added layers.
Devenish isn’t in the business of devising lofty mantras just for the sake of it though. One of its more ambitious projects was delivering omega-3 – fatty acids known to improve eye health and risk factors for heart disease – to consumers through chickens.
We're used to getting our required omega-3 through fish which, in turn, get it by consuming plankton. Given the mass market appeal of chickens, Devenish partnered producer Moy Park and supermarket group Waitrose – as well as the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) – to come up with a better way to deliver the important nutrient. A clinical trial by the RCSI demonstrated that regular consumption of the naturally enriched omega-3 chicken and eggs is likely to reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke, dementia and depression.
And while these chickens are more expensive than their non-enriched counterparts, Kennedy notes that the potential for them to have an impact on public health – similar to the addition of fluoride to water – is huge. The Government has yet to take notice, he says, but some political leaders are and in several cities Devenish is providing omega-enriched chicken and eggs to schools.
And, as the country watches farmers protest the poor price they receive for their produce, our meeting was timely. Kennedy says innovations like the addition of omega-3 to feed have the potential to change the game.
“The significant thing about this is that this is innovation at farm level because farmers feed the animals and that’s where the value add occurs,” something he compares to supply chain where food becomes more valuable once processed.
Omega-3 wasn’t Devenish’s first foray into innovation in animal feed. In 1998, the company developed a technology that lowered emissions and smells from pig farms by roughly 50 per cent in a study conducted by UCD that was also peer reviewed.
It is now in the process of developing technology that has the potential to wipe out emissions from the State’s cattle herd by 2025. Although light on detail, the company aims to deliver carbon neutral milk and beef within five years.
With agriculture such a focus of the Government’s climate action plan, surely this move by Devenish is a godsend. Are the powers that be paying attention?
“Hopefully they are ... we would see that instead of farming and food being the issue, it could be a solution,” Kennedy says.
That will only happen, he believes, if the island as a whole works together. That also applies to those farmers and processors who are at loggerheads over beef prices.
“[Both sides were] more interested in scoring points amongst one and other than actually saying ‘how do we create a world leading industry’,” Kennedy said.
Creating a world leading industry, however, is probably lower down the list of priorities for the agricultural sector just now than getting is trying to get to grips with the shifting tide of public opinion. Once the darling of Ireland's export industry, beef farming is now increasingly blamed for the State's failure to meet emissions standards. It also has to contend with the possibility that the Mercosur trade deal could flood Europe with cheaper South American meat and, to add insult to injury, vegan diets that are encouraging people to move to plant-based meat substitutes.
With Devenish very much in the business of meat, does Kennedy have a concern over this shift to veganism?
“I don’t promote or demote any diet, that’s a consumer’s choice, but it should be based on the best information ... We won’t feed the world on vegetarian diets. [And] there’s a carbon footprint with any diet and we need to recognise it.”
Kennedy is not anti-vegan. “I would support anyone who thinks they should eat vegan,” he says. But, while we all have free choice, we should “understand the consequences of that choice”.
Very clearly, he believes that a balanced diet is important and that this can be achieved in a sustainable way.
The warnings over meat and climate have been stark. A study published in the medical journal Lancet earlier this year warned that meat consumption may need to drop by 90 per cent to avert a climate catastrophe. Kennedy says few people looked beyond that headline.
If they had, he says, they would have noticed that people would be expected to eat almost 18 times as much dry beans, soy and nuts to get the required daily intake of calories. If the world went vegan, we’d rapidly run out of food.
While his business serves animal husbandry, he takes a personal interest in sustainability. That might put him out of step with some business leaders but Kennedy isn’t necessarily like other business leaders, which was perhaps a factor in him being crowned EY Entrepreneur of the Year last week.
Although he’s a company man, he doesn’t buy in to the hierarchical business structures of old. “I don’t like this idea of people reporting to me,” he says, adding that he has tried to rid the company of a pyramid structure in favour of a flat structure “where people take responsibility for themselves”.
Kennedy comes from an entrepreneurial home in a rural part of Sligo. He grew up in Tourlestrane and Aclare in an archetypal rural parish with two pubs, a shop, a church and a local population of around 1,200 people. His love of the place was highlighted at the EY awards ceremony when he said on stage that he'd rather "break stones than leave Sligo".
He learned from his father at an early age that there are “customers everywhere for everything”.
His dad started his working life as a shop boy before acquiring a confectionary business and subsequently establishing an ice-cream business and a mineral distribution business. Later he built a livestock mart. That piqued the interest of the young Kennedy who went on to study agriculture in NUI Galway and UCD.
His first year in NUIG was tough, he recalls, and he was troubled by homesickness. His father told him that, if he wanted to come home to work, he’d need to nearly triple or quadruple the turnover at the mart otherwise he’d have to work elsewhere. And so, Kennedy went off to UCD to finish his degree.
His first job was with Uniblock, a company that sold mineral blocks which farm animals lick to get their nutrients. After two years, he left to work with Newtech where he met Owen Brennan.
In 1997, Brennan acquired Devenish with Kennedy coming on board as a roughly 5 per cent shareholder. At that time, the business had about £5 million in turnover.
In the 20 years since, Kennedy has rifled through job titles. He has held roles including export director, sales manager and operations director. Over the course of his career at Devenish, turnover has risen to £250 million with the company last year posting earnings of £8 million.
All the while Kennedy has lived in Sligo. It gives him a sense of place in a schedule that has him regularly on the road. Next week, he'll be travelling around Europe, the following week he's scheduled to be in China and in January he'll be taking a trip to the US. Even when he's in Ireland, his work seldom brings him to Sligo. Does the endless travel tire him?
“No. I would find it more difficult just to stay in one place,” he says.
He did step back from Devenish at one point, in 2006, after the death of his uncle. That event made him question whether the sector with which he had been engrossed since the age of six when his father had set up the mart was still for him. He decided to set up his own consultancy, specialising in sustainability and renewables but, “within a year”, realised he wanted to be back at Devenish.
“The two people I thank are Owen [Brennan, now the chairman of Devenish] and Jacqueline [Kennedy’s wife] because both were instrumental in allowing me to do what I needed to do but also saying, ‘right, now you’ve got that crap out of your system, sort yourself out’.”
And he did, returning to the company after an 18-month sabbatical. He took over as chief executive when Brennan decided to separate the roles of CEO and chairman, both of which he held, as the company grew significantly. That growth continues under Kennedy’s watch, with the company looking to improve its turnover by 40 per cent to £350 million over the coming three years.
He recently secured investment, led by the European Investment Bank, totalling €118 million which the bank said would help Devenish fund research into optimised animal nutrition, food innovation, health and sustainability.
It gives Devenish “quite a bit of working capital”, Kennedy admits, but he said the business will likely seek equity investment from private investors.
“We have a number of very, very significant projects in the pipeline now which are multiple millions in terms of value so, for us, we just wanted to make sure we had the capital resilience to deliver them,” he said.
Kennedy expects to be there to see them through, given his apparent aversion to rest. While most are lying in on a Saturday morning, he is on his farm in Sligo feeding cattle. And when he tears himself away from that, he is to be found on the sideline of a football pitch most Sundays with the Tourlestrane junior GAA team he coaches. He’s also involved in the Sligo under-20 team – “on the periphery giving support” to the manager.
It may be a trope, but where Kennedy is concerned it seems accurate to say you can take the man out of Sligo, but you can’t take Sligo out of the man.
Name: Richard Kennedy
Position: Chief executive of Devenish
From: Aclare, Co Sligo
Family: Married to Jacqueline, they have two sons, Oisín and Rian, and a daughter Molly.
Interests: Football – he coaches junior teams at his local GAA club and is also involved in underage county teams
Something you might expect: Given his lifelong work in agriculture, Kennedy has a farm on which he relaxes at weekends.
Something that might surprise: Now a seasoned traveller, Kennedy first found being away from home a struggle. “I failed my first year [in NUIG] because I was immensely homesick,” he said.