Caroline Keeling


Business Purpose

Keelings is a 100% Irish-owned family business, focused on growing, sourcing, marketing, sales and distribution of fresh produce. This competence has led them to develop ERP software solutions, consultancy and management services specific to the produce industry.


Personal Bio

Caroline Keeling is the CEO of Keelings. She has a BSc (Chem) & MSc in Food Science which she obtained from University College Dublin (UCD).  Caroline started her career with Green Isle Foods in 1992, going on to join Keelings as Technical Manager from 1994 – 1998 and then Technical Director from 1998 – 2002.  In 2002, she became the Managing Director of Keelings Multiples and in 2005 took over as Group Managing Director for Keelings. She became CEO in 2013. Caroline is an Ambassador for The Women’s Fund for Ireland and also sits on the Bord Bia Horticulture Board.


Company Profile

Keelings is a 100% Irish-owned family business, focused on growing, sourcing, marketing, sales and distribution of fresh produce. This competence has led them to develop ERP software solutions, consultancy and management services specific to the produce industry.

Keelings started producing fruits and salads on their farm in the 1930’s supplying produce to local Dublin markets.  The company has expanded to include 5 divisions – Keelings Retail, Keelings Farm Fresh, Keelings Market, Keelings International and Keelings Solutions. Keelings is headquartered in FoodCentral, Co. Dublin, Ireland but has operations around Ireland, in the UK, Europe and Asia. Keelings employs approximately 2,000 people and has sales of approximately €300m.  The Keeling family is still very involved in running the business with Joe Keeling as the Chairman, Caroline Keeling as the CEO, William Keeling as the Property Director and David Keeling as the Managing Director of the Retail & Market Divisions.


Keelings Retail Division

Keelings Retail Division uses state-of-the-art facilities to produce and source the fresh produce needs of the Irish retail sector on a daily basis.. Keelings Retail launched the Keelings brand in 2010, which has grown rapidly, recently reaching 36 in the Top 100 FMCG brands in Ireland according to Kantar World Panel’s most recent report.


Market Division

Keelings Market Division – sources and distributes home grown and imported fresh fruit, salad and vegetables for the wholesale business. Operating from a modern 35,000ft chilled distribution facility in the centre of Dublin, they stock a vast range of produce lines from asparagus to yams and everything in between. The seed potato company distributes a full range of Irish and imported potatoes and vegetables from established growing bases across Europe.


Farm Fresh Division – are specialists in the supply of fresh and prepared fruit and vegetables, freshly-squeezed juices, salads, bread, fresh dairy and cooking oil to Ireland’s catering market. In October 2012, the Farm Fresh division was acquired by Sysco, but still operates under Keelings.


International Division

Keelings International (UK) – has bases in Harlow in the UK where the best-quality produce and the shortest supply chain is available to retail, food service and wholesale customers. As well as the core range of melons and pineapples, they sell a wide range of produce, including citrus, grapes and exotics.


IVG White Ltd. – based in the UK, provides complete fresh produce solutions to Keelings’ customers and suppliers alike with a range of comprehensive services. Core fruit categories include: top fruit, stone fruit, tropical fruit and salads.


Keelings International (Europe) –  based in in Maasdijk in the Netherlands and supplies a range of salads and fruit to 13 European markets.


Keelings Asia – started in 2012 and has developed fresh produce solutions for Keelings’ customers for the Asian market. The Keelings team are working on the ground in Asia, enabling them to gain invaluable market and category management insights for this market.


Solutions Division

Keelings Logistics Solutions – manages a state-of-the-art temperature-controlled global retailer distribution centre where they deliver over a million cases of product every week to more than 130 stores in the Irish market.


Keelings Solutions –  supply a suite of software and services that provides industry-focused solutions in procurement, stock management, warehouse and production planning, as well as sales and quality assurance. Their systems, which are tailored for small and medium-sized businesses through a light turnkey product and tailored for larger corporations through an enterprise solution, drive improved profitability & efficiency.



What vision prompted you to start-up your business?

My grandparents started the business growing a range of fresh produce and built the business from nothing into a substantial business in the 1960s with a turnover of €100k per annum.   Continuing the family business legacy, my brothers and I joined the business, working with our father to expand the company.  William developed our UK business to become 34% of our group and David re-focused on our farming so we now grow €20m worth of our own production on 500 acres.  Keelings Farms are now the largest growers of Irish produce in Ireland, producing 60% of all Irish strawberries and 90% of Irish peppers.

My vision for the company now, is to work together to continually improve what we do and to try to get full value for our team’s world class strengths and skills, developed and acquired over the last 75 years.  The three key strands for this will be, firstly, expansion into global markets to supply fruit where we can add value and to buy better for our Irish business. Secondly, is to leverage our core skills in managing a produce business in the software industry and, finally, focusing on innovation to further develop the Keelings brand, whether this is in packaging, varieties, usage occasions or sustainability programs. The brand vision is to build a number of consumer brands in horticultural categories that appeal to consumers, drive category sales, win the support of our customers and build a more sustainable and profitable business for Keelings.


What were the best & worst pieces of advice you received when starting out?

Although finding it very frustrating at the time when I first started in the business, one of the best pieces of advice I received was “things change, get over it”. I’m thankful I did develop that mind-set as it has stood me in good stead for the last 6 years of challenges.


What was your “back-to-the-wall” moment and how did you overcome it?

I have probably had a number but the solution has generally been the same.  Don’t get emotional as it can cloud your judgment, get your head around possible solutions and deal with the issue quickly. Most challenges are at the worst when you are thinking about them and get better as you work through them.


What moment or deal would you identify as the “game changer” for the company?

Launching our Keelings brand in 2010. We developed the brand in response to consumer research that indicated that Irish consumers wanted a locally produced brand they could trust. The Keelings name has now become synonymous with fresh, quality produce. The range is growing rapidly year on year and, this year, we’re launching our new snacking range –  our first venture into on-the-go convenience foods. The brand also allows us to communicate directly to our consumers through our on pack messages and in store promotions such as our Book of Fruit in 2010, the water bottle giveaway in 2011, and, earlier this year, our Januberry diary that proved hugely popular.


What are the biggest challenges you face now?

The key difficult-to-manage challenges are the Irish weather for our crops which, as we all know, has not worked with us farmers over the last number of “summers” and rising costs with consumers having increasingly limited spending power.


What is your greatest business achievement to date?

Working with all of our people, to develop a much stronger and more diverse business, out of the extremely challenging environment of the last 6 years.


What top tips would you give entrepreneurs starting out today?

Make sure you have a very clear vision of the business plan you want to deliver and that you believe in it. Make sure you can flex it for when thing go better or worse than planned. Get as much help as you can from the government agencies particularly in training which we have found very useful. Ask for advice from every person you think can help you, I have been amazed at how helpful people have been to me.


Were there any early signs that you would eventually follow an entrepreneurial path?

Other than I was never very good at being told what to do, I didn’t plan on an entrepreneurial path.  However, as soon as I started in the business, in each role I took, I loved to develop the vision of how I could identify the best possible result for that role and then deliver it. So when I had the opportunity to develop the vision for the whole business with the leadership team I realised had been working that way for years.


Has your “Irish-ness” contributed to your success?

In Ireland, consumers want to be able to buy fresh, local produce when possible. We highlight our Irish growing credentials on our packs and try to inform the public on Irish seasonality through our website, media campaign and communications. However, it’s not limited to Irish consumers – we’ve discovered that Irish strawberry quality is recognised as far away as Hong Kong where we supplied some Keelings Irish strawberries for their Mother’s Day this year.  The other key advantage to being an Irish company, in general, is that we have a great natural skill in communication and building trust with our global partners.


When making a new hire, what key characteristics do you look for?

Our core values are people, teamwork, integrity and passion for achievement and we look for people who demonstrate these. We want people who are as enthusiastic about growing and sourcing the best quality produce as we are. We continually strive to improve our business and look for individuals who work hard, can work as a team and push themselves to be their best.

Year: 2013
Category: Industry
Sector: Agri-food