Caroline Keeling:
“Much is uncertain about Brexit and a weak pound sterling isn’t positive”

With Brexit coming, much may change for Irish trade. Trade routes from Europe go via the British mainland, but for now, much is still uncertain. Caroline Keeling, CEO of Keelings, talks about the Irish market and considers the consequences of Brexit.

In 1926, Caroline’s grandparents started growing vegetables. Her father and uncle took over the company from their parents, and started focusing more on trade. Nowadays, Caroline is in charge of daily management of the company. “My brother David is leading the way on further developing our own production,” Caroline says. Their own production and the relationship with growers are very important to the Irish company. “Absolutely,” she confirms. “Growers are the company’s  life blood. Having a partnership with growers is important to us.” With some growers, the company has a relationship that started decades ago. “We have growers who have been supplying to us since the early 70’s,” Caroline exemplifies.

Software with a predictive function
The company’s own production can be found in Ireland. Additionally, there are joint ventures with growers in, for instance, Pura Vida in Costa Rica  who produce melons for the European market. Besides, the company has  offices in Ireland, the UK and France. “Ireland is our  largest market. We also supply to various other countries in Europe, and even small quantities in Hong Kong,” Caroline says. “The Chinese market grows every year and having sales in Hong Kong is a good way to follow developments in the market over there.”

“Few people know we have our own software that we’re licensing,” Caroline continues. The software is marketed under Keelings Solutions. The system was initially developed to meet all of Keelings' needs. It has now been further developed to meet the needs of the diverse produce industry. “We started developing our own software in 1988. It took a long time before we entered the market with the software package.We understand the sector’s challenges, that’s what we built the system on. You have to invest to be able to supply what the market will demand next year. The system gives a business the information to be the best they can be in trade and operational efficiency. It also enables the focus of the conversation to be on the future and not the past.”

Soft fruit consumption increasing due to branding
Caroline characterises the domestic market in Ireland as “challenging.” The Keelings Group supplies to supermarkets, wholesalers and food service. The supermarkets buy the largest share of the products. “We want to be close to the consumer, that’s why we’re active on social media, for example, and why we use other new means to make contact with consumers. That’s part of the business.” The Irish want to pay for good products, but it’s important to communicate about differences.

Keelings was one of the first fresh produce companies to introduce a  brand, Love to Grow, in Ireland, in addition to the own brands of the supermarkets. “Soft fruit consumption has increased thanks to the constantly improving quality and branding,” Caroline says. “With a brand, we can communicate directly with consumers, and call them to action.”

Brexit an uncertain factor
The major uncertain factors for the Irish market nowadays are the consequences of Brexit. “Multiple results are possible for the negotiations, and we don’t know what it’ll be. We have to be prepared for every solution,” Caroline explains. “There’s much uncertainty, and the weaker pound sterling isn’t very positive either. We’d prefer it if the British currency was stronger.” Logistically, there are also challenges regarding the British leaving the EU. One of the questions is how the ports will handle returning customs formalities. Besides, the UK is used as a ‘land bridge’ for the import from Europe’s mainland. “We import directly from these European countries, but it will be challenging.”

What is the largest challenge for the sector?
“Making sure margins are big enough to continue investing,” Caroline answers. “It’s the supermarkets’ job to make a good deal, but it’s ours to make sure we can keep investing in continuous improvements.” 

A second challenge seen by her is the consumer. “Helping consumers to eat more fruit and vegetables is a critical challenge. We have to make contact with consumers and learn their demands. Our supply has to be adjusted to that.”

For more information:
Caroline Keeling
T: +353 1 813 5669

Publication date: 3/6/2018
Author: Rudolf Mulderij

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