”What the feck is going on with you Brits?” asks the grizzled old taxi driver as he ferries me from Dublin Airport to Ornua’s HQ in the Irish capital. “You must be mad.”
He isn’t referring to the stag party dancing around the airport on this sunny Friday morning in July. He’s talking about Britain’s vote to leave the EU. And if one thing is clear from my visit to Dublin to interview John Jordan, the boss of dairy giant Ornua’s European business, it’s that our Irish neighbours are still reeling from that momentous vote.
Brexit is certainly an “agenda topic” for everyone at Ornua the moment, says Jordan, rather more politely than the taxi driver. After all, Ornua is a business embedded in exports.
Taking its name from the Irish words for ‘new’ and ‘gold’, Ornua is a €2.5bn behemoth responsible for 60% of Ireland’s dairy exports and operating in 110 countries worldwide.
That global focus is plain to see all around the company. The wood-panelled boardroom at Ornua’s unassuming HQ in the heart of Georgian Dublin is dominated by a huge image of a globe with arrows striking out from Ireland in various directions. It’s a representation of Ornua’s reach across the planet and its ambitions to find even more new markets for Irish dairy, says Jordan.
But he knows the post-vote fall in the value of the pound has made the business less competitive than UK rivals, in the short term at least. “The challenge for exporters to the UK is the fact a weak pound makes everything more expensive,” he says. And the UK is an important market for both Ornua and Ireland. “Anything that would get in the way of that level of trade, be it borders, tariffs or additional administration, would only add to the burden of exports.”
That said, Jordan is resigned to the fact that “things will settle where they settle, we’ll have to put mechanisms in place to deal with that”. And if anyone is qualified to deal with the export challenges Brexit could bring, it’s Jordan.
The 46-year-old father of three first joined Ornua, formerly the Irish Dairy Board, as a graduate trainee in 1993 and has since worked in roles ranging from processing export orders for Kerrygold through to stints outside the business at companies such as Dawn Meats and on to senior roles including running Ornua’s US distribution firm DPI Speciality Foods.
His time working abroad in the US was a particularly “unforgettable” period in terms of his career and family development. His youngest son, Séimí, was born near Chicago during his first spell across the pond, and the experience of looking after the Ornua consumer business in America, and helping to grow Kerrygold from an imported interloper to the third biggest butter brand in the entire US, gave him valuable insight into breaking new export markets.
That’s a big part of his new role as CEO of Ornua’s European and Latin American operations. He took up the post last May, shortly after the Irish Dairy Board rebranded ahead of the abolition of EU dairy quotas, in order to give the business a global identity as “the home of Irish dairy”.
In addition to the rebrand - which was extended to its UK businesses Adams Foods and Adams Food Ingredients in March - Ornua has undergone a major refocusing during the past few years, offloading non-core businesses such as DPI Speciality Foods to concentrate on its primary role of exporting Irish dairy.
“We’ve moved from a Dublin-based business servicing our core markets such as the UK, Germany and US (and with a distributor model for other markets), to one that is much more about building in-market infrastructure, with millions of euros invested in facilities across the world,” Jordan says.
But despite its global ambitions and the challenges around Brexit, Ornua remains steadfastly committed to the UK, he stresses. “We still see the UK as a huge and strategically important market and we’re still keen to acquire and invest in businesses.”
Ornua already has boots on the ground in Britain having acquired Adams Foods - now Ornua Foods - in the 1970s. Plans for the year ahead include a major push for its Kerrygold butter brand in the UK, with the launch of two new spreadable variants in October, supported by a big marketing budget.
The company will also continue to “drive brand growth” for its Pilgrims Choice Cheddar, which is outperforming the wider category in terms of value and volume growth, Jordan claims. Pilgrims Choice was up 5.5% in value terms at £73m and 14.6% in volume terms according to IRI [52 w/e 16 July].
The fact Pilgrims Choice is sourced using cheese from multiple countries has made the brand a target for criticism in the UK in the past, and Ornua decided to stop sourcing Cheddar from Australia and New Zealand for much of the brand last year. But Jordan is defiant over its decision to keep using Irish Cheddar alongside British for the brand, insisting Ornua has a “very balanced cheese portfolio” and “does not hide” the origins of Pilgrims Choice.
“We’re the largest buyer of British cheese in the world, and this means we can satisfy the needs of UK retailers for British own-label cheese while still using British or Irish cheese for Pilgrims Choice.”
Consumers like Pilgrims Choice because it offers a “genuine point of difference” around taste, Jordan says. “That is all about having the option to supply from different sources to get consistency.”
“Consumers see Irish dairy products as part of the broader UK family”
He also remains relaxed about the prospect of stricter country of origin labelling post-Brexit, insisting the ‘buy British’ message is a political rather than a consumer issue. “Consumers see Irish dairy products as part of the broader UK family.”
And no matter how much talk there is around reducing the UK’s dairy deficit, he believes imports will always have their place. “The UK is a deficit market, there will always be imports.”
The biggest Brexit worry right now for Ornua - and the UK dairy industry - is the looming trade negotiations with Europe, he warns.
“There could be advantages to Brexit in the way the UK can negotiate bilateral deals, but it will need a lot of work on the UK’s part and it will take a huge amount of time,” he says. “We hope the UK will have a very strong team in place for these negotiations with the EU.”
Job: CEO, Ornua Foods Europe and Latin America
Home town: Dublin
Family: Married to Barbara, with three sons: Evan, 15, Adam 13, Séimí, 10; lives in central Dublin within walking distance of the Ornua offices
Education: Dublin City University, BSc in biotechnology; MSc from Trinity College in business administration; and MSc from University College, Dublin in resource management
Interests outside work: I’m a huge Gaelic football fan. I support Dublin. I also love playing golf, and travelling (most recent holiday desination was Puglia, Italy), and spending time with my family
How would your staff describe you? (laughs nervously) Motivated, fair and a bit of a craic!
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