Hard learned lessons in leading a business through a crisis

Top 1000: Winners of the Irish Times Business Person of the Month award tell us how they navigate choppy waters and how they expect to fare in the future

Roisin Hennerty Managing Director, Ornua Foods

While we suddenly had to figure out working from home, as everyone did, thankfully we have good technology platforms to support that. Our biggest challenge has been around keeping our 13 factories open.

For example, we have a Kerrygold factory here in Ireland and a butter packing facility in Germany. If one were to close, this would have a detrimental impact on Irish dairy supply chains – effectively we would have nowhere to either process cream to butter or bulk butter to packet butter. That is a huge challenge for us and our teams are working around the clock to manage that in the midst of this crisis.

We have done our best to keep our production sites open because we are food suppliers and we have seen a huge spike in demand for our branded products — our Kerrygold portfolio.


We are also a big private label supplier in cheese as well, particularly in the UK. So it is a huge challenge for our teams to meet demand with lots of orders being modified and teams having to reallocate resources.

We had a very strong Brexit mitigation plan and had been doubling down on US trade tariffs, which has supported us through a lot of what has been going on.

We have a trading and risk part of the business, which is helping us manage that volatility. Our portfolio is mixed and balanced, which is a good thing in this environment, so some of it is going well and some of it is not going quite so well.

Our Chinese team and manufacturing site is back in operation, and they have been able to share valuable insight with us. We have had a few regions go through this, with each having a different level of exposure to the crisis.

By this stage, we are definitely seeing some return to a crisis-based business as usual. The massive spike in demand on the retail side is starting to level off.

If we look at the European side of the business, food service orders have fallen in the order of 70 per cent, with many of our key customers having to close. Ornua, like many of our colleagues in the Irish dairy industry, provides a significant number of products to the food service industry, which has been shut down almost entirely in the EU and the US. So our question is how quickly will that return to normal and what will the impact be on those businesses?

It is possible that the impact may be a decrease in the consumption of dairy products worldwide, but we are relatively confident in the short and medium term that we have a strong sustainable business that can weather this period that we are going through.

We are having conversations about what is next and what it looks like, but we all know that this is not going to be something where we just turn the lights back on overnight. It’s going to be a phased approach and our business will work within the jurisdictions and the government oversights in all of the many markets that we operate in.

We expect the rest of this year and perhaps beyond to be challenging, unknown territory. But on the back of a couple of good years of financial results, we feel we have come into 2020 in a strong position to help the business and our industry weather this crisis.

As a business, going into this was going into the great unknown. We have been incredibly impressed by our teams.

We would never have predicted the agility of thinking that people have come up with and the compassion that has percolated through the business in this time. People are working as well or better than they ever had, but it is hard work. Video calls are way more intense than a regular day in the office and that has been challenging for people.

We are export-facing and our markets are primarily outside Ireland. We are used to some degree of virtual working, but we don’t know what impact airline travel will suffer or how long it will be before we can go back to those markets.

Our teams are definitely looking forward to getting back to their offices locally, but whether or not we can do that collectively on an international basis in the short term is questionable, but we definitely feel we have found a good way of working meanwhile.

Our business in particular and the dairy industry in Ireland has had considerable experience in recent years recovering from the last recession and dealing with global trade issues and extreme volatility.

We had a very strong Brexit mitigation plan and had been doubling down on US trade tariffs, which has supported us through a lot of what has been going on.

We Irish always pride ourselves on being fairly tenacious by nature. We are an island nation so Irish businesses are often looking outside and that puts us in a good position for managing through this. Most of us are agile. We are resilient in a way that is unique to our location on the edge of Europe and typically we support each other.

Brian O’Sullivan

CEO, Fulfil Nutrition

We have worked a lot on our culture over the past 18 months. High trust and open communications are core pieces of our culture, so that fitted pretty well when we had to disperse the team. When you have high trust, everyone gets on and does their job, and trusts others to do theirs. And while working from home suits some and doesn’t suit others, we are finding our people are generally in good spirits.

During the crisis, we have made sure to talk to everyone in team briefings and individual one-to-ones about any changes we needed to make and the impact on the business.

When you are in a vacuum in your own house, you can think, ‘Oh, all this stuff is going on and I don’t know about it’. But we have the policy that if everyone knows everything and feels they do, then they don’t have to worry about the big bad wolf.

Around the back end of March and into April, we started to see the impact on revenue. Strong retailers of ours like Spar, Circle K, Sainsbury Local and WH Smith were seeing a huge drop in footfall of between 60 per cent and 80 per cent.

Then in the short term, the big grocery retailers came under huge supply chain pressure during the stockpiling phase. They needed to focus on essential categories and those like ours would have fallen away.

With money being spent but not earned earlier in the crisis, that will have to be balanced and many people will continue to be out of work.

All of that was a perfect storm, along with a general level of destocking. While the grocery retailers supply chains have normalised and the destocking is working its way through, the footfall issue at some retailers will be an issue for as long as lockdown is in place.

The period to the end of June will be the most difficult for everyone, but we have taken measures to get through and we have a plan based on certain assumptions.

After that, we’ll look to get everything kickstarted again and we are reasonably confident, as much as you can be at times like this.

Everyone has to start working their businesses back up and building up relationships again.

With money being spent but not earned earlier in the crisis, that will have to be balanced and many people will continue to be out of work. So we are thinking of this as a building back up that will continue into 2021.

But we know the new normal is not the same as the old normal. We’ll never get back to where we were, but we can get rid of some things and take responsibility to design our future in a new set of circumstances.

We are lucky in that we have established a consumer following for the brand over the past four years.

Our team is committed and we have really strong shareholders, and they all believe in the business.

We completely revamped our business in recent years and we are used to adapting quickly so we have that dynamic strength in the business. When the brand first came into being in 2016, we were really focused on male gym-goers, but we completely repositioned the brand to be life’s wonder fuel. It is about an active busy lifestyle, whether that is nurses and doctors on their feet all day or busy parents running after children who need that boost.

The Covid-19 crisis will accelerate trends that were already there, such as internet retailing, which has seen a step-change now that won’t be reversed. There will also be a leadership challenge around flexibility and getting the balance right, still holding team dynamics together and making sure productivity and business performance are still there.

We’ll also need to balance the use of technology for virtual meetings and face-to-face interaction. Right now, I would love to be able to get everyone in the room. As the weeks go on, you miss that in-person contact with the team.

Joanna Murphy CEO, Taxback. com

Every business is going to have really significant challenges they didn’t have before Covid-19. It’s hard to know the consequences of the crisis. None of us are in the business of stargazing.

We can only deal with the challenge as it presents itself. We can try to strategise and make long-term plans, but at this point, it’s quite difficult.

It is challenging, but we are lucky in that our business is a tech-based fintech solution. It means all our people have been able to relocate, work remotely and work efficiently remotely. It has been a great learning for us.

What would make life easier now? A single global time zone!

Also the reclamation of overpaid tax is very important for people now as they may have found cash vanishing into the ether, so Taxback has been very busy.

What would make life easier now? A single global time zone! I would always have been on calls from early to late, but if anything, working from home means no break and no work-life balance.

We are all in disparate locations, so we feel that extra need to connect to people one-to-one, to make sure everyone feels motivated and not in despair. Everyone has concerns around their loved ones, their livelihoods, their spouses’ livelihoods and their children’s access to education.

It really is a lot for humankind to manage across the globe.

We are focusing on having really strong communications and making sure we defend the business, defend livelihoods, and keep everyone safe, well, happy and financially secure.

This crisis is going to fundamentally change everything about how we work. You can’t get the cat back into the bag.

When it comes to anyone responsible for the care of children or an older person who might have found it problematic historically to work and care, we can see now that yes it can be done and done efficiently.

Women now have a real opportunity to go back into the workforce that they haven’t necessarily had before and businesses will be stronger for it. We fully support and always have supported people who can work from home.

This has been the ultimate experiment and something that has really struck me is how little we need to survive. We need our health, our family, food and a roof over our heads, and once we meet those basic needs, we’re ok.

The world will need a little time to heal and there will be a reset. Humankind will have learned something from it. Maybe we’ll all be a bit kinder and people will become a lot more connected with their communities.

Something I’d really like to see is more FDI into rural areas. It’s vitally important the government continues to have supports in place for business, jobs and the economy -- that is the tide that will raise all ships.

We have to be optimistic and we have to look to the future. Like everything this will pass. But we do need to buy Irish and buy locally, which is better from an environmental perspective too. There are simple decisions everyone can make to protect our economy and people’s livelihoods.

Valerie Moran

Co-founder Prepaid Financial Services and eCOMM Merchant Solutions

Our eCOMM Merchant Solutions business provides terminals to retail locations. As most retail outlets are now closed in Europe, this has had a negative effect on the business. We hope, of course, that this is only in the short term until we overcome the virus.

On the Prepaid Financial Services side of things, we were well placed with governments throughout Europe, so we have been helping them with emergency payments during the crisis.

Will the pandemic will have long-lasting consequences for our business and our industry? Yes – it will be the catalyst for many countries to eliminate cash and move to electronic and contactless forms of payment.

But the crisis won’t change the way we work overall. While working from home will get us through this crisis, it is not as productive as an office environment and it also means senior management are constantly on phone calls as opposed to running the business.

It is fair to say that coronavirus will change how everyone perceives social gatherings and the risks that could now be associated with them. This may last for a long time as there is no vaccination at the moment.

Irish business has always been strong and resilient. We have been through downturns before and I have no doubt we will bounce back stronger than ever.

While working from home will get us through this crisis, it is not as productive as an office environment and it also means senior management are constantly on phone calls as opposed to running the business.

Irish businesses can support each other through the next year by buying locally. Buy Irish. Look for an Irish supplier first. Basically, put everything Irish first to give each other a helping hand. If we all do that, we will uplift each other. It will save our jobs, livelihoods and our economy.

Kevin Lagan

Founder, Lagan Investments

The impact of coronavirus on a human level is enormous. For the economy, there are undoubtedly stress points ahead.

Government must inspire public confidence to help facilitate the recovery. We need it to provide strong leadership while acknowledging that flexibility is required to support the evolving needs of businesses.

This leadership will help local, national and international economies rebuild.

Following the sale of the Lagan Group to Breedon Plc, Lagan Investment is well positioned for the challenges ahead, and we are committed to investing in and supporting employment within the Irish economy."