Freshgrass Group is one of the top diversified agri-input businesses in Ireland, producing and distributing a comprehensive range of fertilizer products. The Group also engages in the supply of agri-chemicals, seeds, animal feed and farm/garden hardware to farmers across Ireland
Originally from West Limerick, Liam Woulfe qualified in Dairy Science at UCC in 1981, going on to obtain an MSc in Executive Leadership from University of Coleraine in 1998. He qualified as a Chartered Director in 2009 and started his professional career in Connacht Gold Co-op before joining Golden Vale Co-op in 1986. He was involved in all aspects of the business’ organic growth, acquisitions, integration and development of the different businesses that led to the GV profits of in excess of €20m pa being achieved. Following Kerry Group’s takeover of Golden Vale Plc in 2001 for €250m, Liam was given responsibility for the Dairies Division. During the ’90’s, Liam made various personal investments from hydro electricity to local radio and, in 2002, founded Freshgrass Investments. In 2003, Liam left Kerry Group to become MD of Freshgrass. He is a Non-Executive Director of a number of Companies and has been a Director of the Limerick Co Enterprise Board since its foundation in 1994. Winner of The Cecil King – Ireland Young Manager of the Year in 1994, Liam gives time to coach other businesses and has been involved in school boards for most of the past 20 years. He has also had a very active role in two very successful charity projects in recent years. Now living in Adare, Liam is married to Marguerita and has 4 children.
Freshgrass Group is one of the top diversified agri-input businesses in Ireland, producing and distributing a comprehensive range of fertilizer products from its 3 factories in Cork, Limerick and Slane. The Group also engages in the supply of agri-chemicals, seeds, animal feed and farm/garden hardware to farmers across Ireland. Freshgrass Group recently merged one of its largest subsidiaries, Grassland Fertilizers Limited, with French giant, The Roullier Group, allowing the company to expand on its already leading market share.
Liam and other likeminded investors acquired Grassland Fertilizers from Greencore Plc in 2002 for €28.3m through Freshgrass. In 2003, they acquired Golden Vale Dairies UK Ltd from Kerry Group. After developing this business significantly it was subsequently sold for a premium in 2006.
Grassland Fertilizers sources its raw materials from all over the world, and produces and sells the full range of agricultural fertilisers for use by farmers to support the soil and maximise crop growth. All the products are sold through the merchant and co-op trade structure for onward distribution to farmers. At present, Grassland has a 25% national market share.
In 2009 Freshgrass came together with Liffey Mills to buy Drummonds, a major agri merchanting business in the North East (for €15.5m)after it was announced to the staff and customers that Greencore was closing the business down. Drummonds was and is a leading purchaser of grain, rapeseed and other crops as well as a supplier of seeds, agri chemicals, fertilizers and agronomy services for farmers. As a result of the acquisition, all 43 jobs were saved and annual sales of the business have gone from €27m in 2009 to €57m in 2012 with satisfactory profits each year.
Announced in December 2012, a further key development for Freshgrass was the creation of a joint venture between its Grassland Fertilizers business and the French giant Groupe Roullier. Groupe Roullier are recognised as a world leader in researching and developing optimum products to respond to soil science, plant nutrition and environment care as well as have leading products to optimise animal nutrition and dairy hygiene. All these products and science from the 350 people involved in the R+D area of Groupe Roullier are available to Grassland AGRO as a result of this joint venture. When Freshgrass acquired Grassland it had 58 employees. Since the creation of the joint venture with Roullier, the employee numbers have risen to 100 with further additions coming later this year.
The potential of Irish agricultural output is very positive post milk quotas in 2015 and the Freshgrass businesses are well placed to support and benefit from all this development. In summary, the Freshgrass family of businesses now have an approximate annual turnover of c.€190m. Over €10m of sales are exports mainly to the UK. Total employee numbers within the Freshgrass family of businesses is 150 full time along 60 full time contractors. Freshgrass businesses are funded by Bank of Ireland and Rabobank who have remained completely objective and supportive irrespective of the greater banking environment.
– ENTREPRENEURIAL INSIGHTS –
What vision prompted you to start-up your business?
The vision to start the Freshgrass business was completely guided by the conviction that if a project was likely to deliver at least a 15% return on investment after all costs (including interest) then one’s own money would generate a good return on investment. We had the courage and conviction to make such decisions in conjunction with likeminded fellow investors and, luckily, all our investments performed well.
What were the best & worst pieces of advice you received when starting out?
The best advice that I got was that if you don’t have the time and patience to lead the commercial assessment of the business being targeted then forget about it. I interpreted that to mean that I should understand all the key aspects of the business and create my own strategy and action plan for the business’ future and then make the decision as to whether I should buy into it.
The worst advice was regarding an investment into a particular business. I had been informed that the business in question was “so good it already was being sold with the necessary banking to finalise the deal in place in advance”. Luckily we used our own criteria and after thorough examination we did not invest!
How did you secure your first investment?
The first investment of Freshgrass was to acquire Grassland Fertilizers for €28.3m. This was financed by bank facilities, BES investment, preference shareholders and our own ordinary equity.
What is your greatest business achievement to date?
Negotiating, financing and managing a total of over €100m in acquisitions, during and post the “Celtic Tiger”.
What moment or deal would you identify as the “game changer” for the company?
The greatest “game changer” moment came in 2012 when we negotiated a joint venture with Groupe Roullier in our Grassland Fertilizers business at the same time as their Irish business was being taken over by Grassland. The importance of this deal enabled us complete and total access to their world-renowned R+D personnel and all their soil, plant, animal nutrition and dairy hygiene scientific research and development for our market.
What are the biggest challenges you face now?
The biggest challenges facing us on a continuous basis is to ensure that our services and product strategies match the ever-changing needs of our customers and to optimise the use of all the scientific research and knowledge available to us.
What was your “back-to-the-wall” moment and how did you overcome it?
My “back to the wall” moment was probably the reversing of the potential negative that could have destroyed us. One of our key suppliers informed us in late 2007 that they were receiving better returns elsewhere and that they had committed to, instead, supply much of our usual supplies to Brazil in Spring 2008. Despite our attempts to convince them otherwise, they proceeded. My Commercial Director and I travelled to meet a few alternatives and eventually we convinced a major European fertilizer company to fill the “gap” despite the fact that they had never supplied any products to Ireland in the past.
What top tips would you give entrepreneurs starting out today?
Be imaginative and clear on your vision for the project but always be very conservative in the financial projections and cash flow requirements of any project.
Never move to the next stage unless somebody who potentially was putting up most of the collateral for the project specifically indicates that they would put up the money based on rational economic criteria.
Don’t borrow from family or friends or give personal guarantees.
My view is if a project is “right”, entrepreneurs will have little difficulty in getting funded with a very positive portion of the equity left to them, probably for free, justified by the fact that they will be critical to the success of such a project.
Were there any early signs that you would eventually follow an entrepreneurial path?
I can’t remember any early signs of entrepreneurship but I was always interested in getting good returns on investment. The fact that my 15 year period in Golden Vale was dominated by a massive variety of business assessments, refocusing, launching new products, investing, supporting and getting optimum returns probably made this thought process permanently embedded in my mind.
Has your “Irish-ness” contributed to your success?
I don’t know if my “Irish-ness” contributed but I suppose the “no barriers, explorative and curious nature” of how my mind works could well be an “Irish thing”.
When making a new hire, what key characteristics do you look for?
Relevance and suitability of their qualifications, a candidate’s empathy with the business as well as their character and personality.