Brexit Proof Q&A: ‘There’s too much dependence on the UK’

Mag Kirwan, Goatsbridge Trout Farm, Kilkenny

Mag Kirwan, along with her husband Ger, runs the Goatsbridge Trout Farm Thomastown, Co Kilkenny. The company supplies supermarkets, restaurants, delicatessens, specialist fishmongers and, in the past few months, it has made its biggest move in the export market in a deal with British retailer Sainsbury's. Its products include smoked rainbow trout, pâté and caviar.

What was your reaction when you heard the UK had voted to leave the EU?
I wasn't shocked when they voted to leave.

At that time we were trying to maximise the Irish market and were doing a small amount of export. We’ve done a lot of work over the last 2½ years and decided to test the UK market to see if we could succeed.

Since then we’ve set up a partnership with a distribution company in the UK which is working as with us and we’ve been 10 weeks listed in Sainsbury’s.


How is Brexit likely to be affect your business?
In the last 12-18 months, we've invested quite heavily in personnel and our food standards. The risk is that we might have to leave the UK because of the issues around Brexit and then that investment will have been for nothing.

But the investments we’ve made in our company will hold for other markets and obviously the fact we’ve established ourselves somewhat in the UK will help to establish with other retailers.

There are markets for high quality, niche Irish products and you have to investigate those

When did you begin preparing for Brexit and what contingency plans have you put in place so far?
We started to prepare for Brexit about three years ago and we've been working with Bord Bia who've been excellent. The biggest issue, I feel, in terms of preparing has to be logistics, especially when you're a company of our size and you'll more than likely have to consolidate with another company for things like shipments.

As a contingency, what we’ve done now with our first retailer is to temper the product. That’s been done specifically for the UK market.

Are you examining new markets/suppliers and, if so, how practical is that?
If you're serious about growing your business and being the most recognised trout brand in the world, you have to think about growth. There are markets for high quality, niche Irish products and you have to investigate those.

Does Brexit present any opportunities for your business?
Maybe if we were purchasing in the UK but we're not at the moment. I honestly don't think there are a huge amount of opportunities. They may be a possibility of a shortage of fish other than trout because of the ownership of the waters but other than that, I don't think so.

When do you expect to be 'Brexit-ready'?
Nobody can be Brexit-ready. We're prepared as far as we can be prepared. We're as Brexit-ready as anybody because we're a serious professional company looking to grow build our brand. We've thrown anything we could at it.

What's your best/worst case scenario?
The best case is that Brexit doesn't happen and the worst case is that they leave without a deal.

How might the Government help ease the pain of Brexit for your company or sector?
Profitability is going to be a big issue, especially with currency fluctuations. If the State could provide capital for companies with cash flow that would be helpful. To be honest, I think the Irish Government are on the ball in relation to Brexit and are supporting companies to make them Brexit-ready.

How do you think the Irish Government has handled the Brexit negotiations?
I would have gotten to know Simon Coveney as a politician in terms of dealing with the food and the fish sector over the years. I have to say, when he took over this portfolio, I've been hugely impressed by him because I think he's genuinely on the case. I have huge confidence in him.

Looking out over the next five years, how do you think your business or industry will have changed as a result of Brexit?
It depends on the outcome of Brexit. I think businesses will be stronger as a result of it. There's too much dependence on the UK and there are opportunities all over the world for Irish food and people are becoming more proactive in pursuing those markets.

I honestly believe there’s a reason for everything. Companies will look back and learn more from the bad times. You have to view everything as being a lesson and you learn from the lesson. I do think, when we look back at this, we’ll certainly be a better company as a result of this.

– In conversation with Peter Hamilton