The figures add up for new boss at the helm of Glanbia

The food giant’s managing director Siobhán Talbot says her background in finance has stood her in good stead in her career

Siobhán Talbot: “Like many working mothers I’ve juggled the camogie match and the meeting and the travel. It’s about planning.” Photograph: Jason Clarke Photography

Siobhán Talbot: “Like many working mothers I’ve juggled the camogie match and the meeting and the travel. It’s about planning.” Photograph: Jason Clarke Photography


Some people become passionate when they talk about music or sport. Siobhán Talbot’s eyes light up when she talks about finance.

Glanbia’s new managing director could rhapsodise about accountancy and figures all day long. She enthuses about the value of studying finance in college and says it is an ideal launching pad for many careers.

So it’s not surprising that the chartered accountant was finance director of the global dairy, ingredients and sports nutrition firm before replacing John Moloney in the top job last November.

She is now in charge of a €3.2 billion business which employs more than 5,000 people in 29 countries. The first set of results under her tenure were released on Wednesday and showed 2013 revenues rising to €3.3 billion with the help of strong volume growth in its global performance nutrition division.

Originally from Kilmoganny in south Kilkenny, Talbot toyed with the idea of being a teacher like her mother before discovering her aptitude for numbers while doing a B Comm in UCD.

After a diploma in professional accounting, she worked with Pricewaterhouse Coopers – “a great training ground”. A stint in Australia followed before she joined Waterford Foods in 1992. The company merged with Avonmore in 1997 and Glanbia was born in 1999.

She has often been asked if she had a master plan to become the boss one day.

“It would sound very impressive if there was a plan. There wasn’t. But I always had an interest from my PwC days in business and finance, and I do think that finance is a great backdrop to business. It has stood me in good stead.”

She is only the second woman to head a listed company in Ireland, the first being Anne Heraty of CPL. But she doesn’t strike you as a woman who was riddled with self-doubt at the prospect of taking the top job.

“I’m very comfortable with it because I’ve been with the organisation so long and John [Moloney] and I worked very closely, particularly over the last 10 years. He was a great mentor and would have absolutely encouraged me,” she says. “I was very fortunate that the time suited from a family perspective as well.”

Her son Thomas (19) is studying bio-medical health and life science while Alice (17) is about to embark on her own grand challenge – the Leaving Cert. Her husband Billy retired as a garda last year, which makes it easier.

“That infrastructure is very important, regardless of gender,” she says. “Like many working mothers I’ve juggled the camogie match and the meeting and the travel. It’s about planning.”

She doesn’t have much time for gender quotas or efforts to find a token woman to improve the optics. “In certain aspects of life I can appreciate that, at times, you need a blunt instrument to get traction at any level, but fundamentally I believe it should be a meritocracy,” she says.

“My 17-year-old daughter feels as entitled as my 19-year-old son – correctly – to have ambition for herself. It’s about giving women choice and I would never be so arrogant as to tell a woman, or man, what they should do with that choice.

“But for many years women did not have that choice. At the end of the day, it’s about having a balance that works for you and your family. The biggest advice I would give to my teenagers and their friends is to find a career that they enjoy.”

A cancer diagnosis four years ago may have increased this resolve to make the most of life. “Sometimes life throws these curve balls at you and you just have to handle them,” she says.

“I was diagnosed early by a very diligent doctor. I’ve often said since, and I’ll say again, that the health service gets an amount of grief, but once I went into the system, I got such good treatment, right through.”

Anyone battling the sickness that chemotherapy brings might be mesmerised to hear that she worked right through the treatment.

“That doesn’t work for everybody, I know, but it worked for me. If my kids saw me at home every day, they would probably have had panic attacks, wondering what was really going on. My husband was fantastic, my siblings, my colleagues here were great.”

She says it has altered her perspective on life. “I’ve become more pragmatic about what’s really important and it encouraged me, when such a great opportunity like the leadership of Glanbia came my way, to just go for it. This isn’t a trial run. It’s important to do things that you enjoy.”

And she certainly seems to be enjoying the new role. The company is now split into four divisions: performance nutrition, ingredients, Dairy Ireland and joint ventures.

Its most valuable division is the global ingredients business which increased revenues by 11.5 per cent to €1.07 billion last year. Sales at the performance nutrition division increased by almost 12 per cent to reach €655.3 million last year, while Dairy Ireland, which includes consumer products and agribusiness, generated €652 million. Its four joint ventures, in the UK, US, Nigeria and Ireland, generated more than €900 million.

About 1,700 of her staff are in Ireland, and the US, where Glanbia is the leading maker of American-style cheddar cheese, accounts for 3,500 more.

“I often say to folk, if you are having a McDonald’s in the US, the chances are it’s Glanbia cheese,” she says. It also supplies cheese to companies such as Pizza Hut, Dominos and Papa John’s, and it has a joint venture in mozzarella with Leprino Foods, which makes it Europe’s largest player in mozzarella.

Glanbia’s ingredients business harvests nutrients such as whey protein, casein protein, minerals and calcium for addition to bars, cereals and drinks. If you see whey listed on an ingredients panel of a food, the chances are it has come from Glanbia.

She says the four divisions are complementary as they have their roots in dairy. It was through the ingredients business that Glanbia got into sports nutrition. One of its customers for whey was Optimum Nutrition and Glanbia acquired the company in 2008.

“It has been a great business for Glanbia,” she says. “We believe we have the best brands in the space. The brand’s heritage is in the US and in the sports nutrition space US brands travel very well. We are probably reasonably unique by seeking to bring those brands across different geographies.”

The sports nutrition business now has a direct presence in 19 countries and she says Glanbia is outpacing the market growth. “If you take the US, the market is growing somewhere between 6 and 8 per cent and that’s a good growth rate in the context of general food.”

So where does this leave its dairy business in Ireland? Is Glanbia looking to off- load this less-profitable part of the portfolio? It disposed of 60 per cent of Glanbia Ingredients Ireland (GII) to Glanbia Co-op at the end of 2012, so was this a step on that road?

Encouraging ambition
“No, it’s comfortably part of the portfolio. We are very happy with the structure that we have today,” she says. “There is no doubt that the margin profile is different to some of our other businesses and our core platforms for growth are our international ones. But we are doing some really interesting things in our Irish businesses as well.”

Glanbia is building a €15 million UHT (Ultra-Heat-Treated) facility to produce long-life liquid milk and cream for export to markets such as China and the Middle East.

“There is an emerging consumer class in the Asian region where dairy will become an increasing part of their diet as they start to follow western trends,” she says.

“So I think there is an opportunity there. We’ll start it at a scale that is relatively modest but we’ll be more than willing to invest more behind the opportunity as it develops.”

It is also building a €150 million dairy processing plant in Belview on the Kilkenny/Waterford border, the first dairy processing plant to be built here in more than 40 years. The plant is due to open in time for the 2015 milk year, just as quotas are abolished.

Does she fear that some farmers will get carried away with expansion and spend money in the hope of a bonanza?

“No, I think in general people are very sensible about it. I see a lot of young guys and girls who are ambitious about the opportunity. In GII, we are very actively encouraging that ambition because we’ll have a large scale facility to market.

“But we would also encourage our suppliers to be sensible about their expansion plans. What’s good for our suppliers is ultimately good for Glanbia.”

While the market is expected to be volatile in the early post-quota years, she says the fundamental dynamics are positive in the long term because of the growing global population.

The fly in the ointment is the retail scene which has changed dramatically in recent years with the growing dominance of own label brands putting pressure on Glanbia’s brands. Avonmore is the State’s leading milk brand and people often ask how supermarkets can sell their own-label milk for much less than these branded milks.

“We don’t set the retail price for milk and the pricing of branded versus private- label milk is a decision that’s ultimately made by the retailers,” she says. “As consumers want high quality, nutritious, sustainable food, they have to recognise that there’s a cost of production in doing that.

“What we have to do is match a price for our suppliers that is sustainable for them in the longer term with a price that consumers are willing to pay. Our suppliers have to be sustainable for the longer term.”

She sees opportunities in providing consumers with innovations such as fortified milks, but it doesn’t take long for retailers to follow with cheaper versions of added- value products. “That’s part of the competitive dynamic and at the end of the day, consumers have choice,” she says.

And what of the criticism that the National Dairy Council is using its packaging mark for milk farmed in this State to keep out cheaper milk from Northern Ireland? She says consumers like marks of origin “and that’s what the NDC is doing, responding to that demand from consumers.”

So what’s next? Glanbia recently acquired Nutramino, a Danish supplier of energy drinks and protein shakes, and has been linked with the US company that owns the Muscle Milk protein drink brand.

She declines to comment on the latter rumour but does say that “the internationalisation story will continue as we look forward”.

And now that she has her first set of results under her belt, she is embarking on a mammoth road trip to meet as many of her 5,000 employees as possible. That will take her up to late summer.

“Luckily I’m a good traveller,” she says.