Glenisk is a producer of organic and goats dairy products including yogurt, milks, cream and crème fraiche, founded on a mission of nutrition and sustainability.
Vincent Cleary is managing director of Glenisk, Ireland’s largest yogurt maker, and the Cleary family business. Established in 1987, it was in 1995 that Vincent, along with his siblings, transitioned Glenisk to be Ireland’s first and foremost green food brand.
Despite the obvious challenge – the absence of a viable supply of organic milk, and the apparent lack of consumer demand, he believed there was an opportunity for a small company like Glenisk to pioneer the organic sector in Ireland.
19 years on, the company now employs more than 60 people directly and works with 50 family farms across Ireland. Glenisk is experiencing record growth despite the recession with a 20% increase in unit sales year on year and a tripling of market share over the past 5 years.
Gerard Cleary is chief financial officer of Glenisk. Gerard has worked with the family business for the past 20 years.
Glenisk is the Cleary Family business, owned and managed by Vincent Cleary (MD); Brian Cleary, (Director), Gerard Cleary (Financial Director) and Mark Cleary (Operations Director). Located in Killeigh, just outside Tullamore, Co Offaly, the company is an award-winning producer of organic dairy and goats milk products.
Established in 1987 by Jack Cleary, a dairy farmer from Co Offaly, the intention was that yogurt production, along with milk processing via Tullamore Dairies, est. mid 1970s, would provide added value to the farm and help ensure employment for Jack and Mary’s large family. The second generation of Clearys took over the ownership and management of Glenisk following Jack’s death in 1995 and introduced a number of changes.
Organic since 1995, Glenisk pioneered the sector in Ireland establishing a market at a time when there appeared to be little supply or demand for organic products. Glenisk also introduced goats milk in 1996 and this part of the business now accounts for 20% of turnover. Glenisk is now one of Ireland’s fastest growing brands (Checkout Top 100 Brands in Ireland/AC Nielsen Survey, 2013) and is the biggest brand of Irish yogurt. Its market share has tripled over the past five years, while revenues have almost doubled since 2007. Turnover exceeded €17m in 2013. From a single paid employee in 1987, the company now employs 60 people directly and works with 50 small family farms across Ireland to source organic cows’ milk and goats’ milk.
Glenisk procures renewable energy, supplemented by its own on site wind turbine, and champions a number of green initiatives in terms of on-farm support, reycycling, managing waste and greener packaging innovation.
Glenisk is certified by IOFGA (Irish Organic Farmers & Growers Assoc.) and by the British Retail Consortium (BRC). Glenisk is available in RoI and NI from all leading multiples, symbol groups and independents, and in the UK, Portugal, Spain and UAE. In addition to growing its export business, Glenisk is fuelling import substitution – and has tripled its market share in the domestic market, in a category where some 75% of the yogurt is currently imported.
– ENTREPRENEURIAL INSIGHTS –
What vision/lightbulb moment prompted you to start-up in business?
Vincent: When my brothers and I took over Glenisk from my late father, it was a much smaller enterprise – one that was struggling. We realised from the get-go that in order to secure a livelihood for each of us, we needed to grow fast and become profitable as our backs were against the wall. We literally rolled up our sleeves and condensed two days into one. In the ensuing days, months and years, we managed to reform the Glenisk brand, establish a better presence on the supermarket shelf and expand our customer base.
The business was set up originally by my late father in 1987 after much deliberation, i.e. my mother had been making yogurt from a churn in her kitchen since the late ‘70s. He was continuously adding value to the family farm with a view to supporting a growing family of 14. In the 1970s, he had already set up a milk processing plant, Tullamore Dairies. Glenisk was his foray into yogurt production.
My own lightbulb moment came when I was faced with the challenge of taking over the business along with my siblings in 1995 after my father’s death. I had spent a number of years in Germany and had witnessed first-hand a growing appetite for organic food. I felt that organic would give Glenisk (struggling at the time) a distinct point of difference for both the domestic and overseas markets. I truly believed that a small family business like Glenisk was well positioned to produce food in a genuinely natural way and I still do. Making it happen was a whole other challenge!
How did you secure your first investment?
Vincent: I was only a wee lad when my father set up Glenisk so my recollection on how initial investment was raised is unclear. Over the years, we have financed the business in a variety of ways; by and large, we operate within our means and are creative about managing resources. There are times when you have to make significant jumps and we did so in 2006 with a major investment in rebuilding our plant and increasing our capacity to allow for future growth.
What was your “back-to-the-wall” moment and how did you overcome it?
Vincent: Many! After our father passed away, we were called into our auditors and strongly advised to wind Glenisk down as it was haemorrhaging money and was in danger of bringing down my father’s other, more viable businesses. We changed our accountants and although we’ve had a few scary moments since, in essence we haven’t looked back.
Gerard: We were up to our eyes in debt and the bank was threatening to bounce cheques. We scraped together our personal savings and ploughed them into the business, which gave us a couple of months’ breathing space. We haven’t looked back.
What moment/deal would you cite as the “game changer” or turning point for the company?
Vincent: I go back to 1987 when Quinnsworth (a buyer with a fierce reputation, Veronica Leiderman) gave us our first break by listing us in 11 Dublin stores (and Tullamore of course). Switching to organic in 1995 was very significant; as was the introduction of goats milk in 1996.
Gerard: When my generation took over Glenisk, there were ten siblings with a stake in the business; early on, we realised that it would be impossible to reconcile ten different viewpoints. Restructuring and transferring ownership allowed those who wished to, to exit and successfully pursue other interests, and those who remained, to unite behind a common vision for the business. In 18 months, we halved the number of shareholders, while managing to double the size of the business.
Were there any interesting or unusual circumstances surrounding the inception of the company or its evolution?
Vincent: Yes, we did not have the wherewithal to fill regular yogurt pots; we did however possess an old second-hand milk cartoning machine. I recall my father telling me that the finances couldn’t stretch to a pot filling machine and I remember the look of relief on his face when I shrugged my shoulders and said that we could make cartons work. Packing our yogurt initially in a milk carton format gave us our first point of difference/ USP, and I’d like to think that we’ve been differentiating ourselves from all competitors ever since.
Our goats business was the result of happenstance. I rescued an abandoned donkey at the side of the road in the mid 1990s and took it home. I read that donkeys get along with goats, so I brought a couple of goats to help keep the donkey (aka Juliet) company during its recuperation. One of the goats was pregnant. All of a sudden, the goats were proliferating and milking. I found myself at a meeting with a supermarket buyer some months later. When I apologised that I had to cut the meeting short to go and milk goats, the supermarket buyer got over his surprise and offered me the chance to sell the goats milk in his stores as a lady from Stillorgan was constantly on to him looking for fresh goats milk. I asked him for a year; he offered me six months to get it up and running, and we managed to get it off the ground in that time. Goats now represent 20% of our turnover.
What are the biggest challenges you face now?
Vincent: Convincing Irish farmers to milk more Irish cows organically – this is something that we’ve been dealing with for the past 18 years, i.e. chasing supply to meet our growing demand.
What is your biggest business achievement to date?
Vincent: I take pride in many things that we’ve done. Witnessing our customers in store picking our products off the shelves still excites us.
Gerard: I was in my early 20s when I took over Glenisk – a loss-making business with a turnover of less than €250,000. I’m very proud to have transitioned it, with my siblings, to a profitable €20m enterprise.
What were the best & the worst pieces of advice you received when starting out?
Vincent: Best: Stick with it. We’ve had good days and plenty of not-so good days. It’s easy to keep going during the good days. On the bad days, when the self-doubt starts creeping in, all you need is one AH to tell you, you are all wrong, thereby enabling you to get back up and prove the AH wrong…works every time. Worst: ”Close Glenisk!” – they know who they are.
Gerard: The best advice was my Dad telling me to combine accounting with ideas – otherwise you’ll never achieve anything.
What top tips would you give entrepreneurs starting out today?
Vincent: Point of difference/ USP is important. Recognising not only the gap but also the need – there may be a good and logical explanation as to why there is a gap. Once you’ve started, stick with it, you might be soon forgotten (failure) or the success that you always knew you would be.
Gerard: Listen to the right people and not to the people who like listening to themselves.
Were there any early signs that you would eventually follow an entrepreneurial path?
Vincent: I remember when we (myself & my twin brother) where about 6 years of age. My father was helping in raising funds for the new church in Killeigh by holding “Pony Racing” on his farm. He turned to his Kids Consumer Panel (myself & my twin) and asked us what we thought kids would like. I remember he was (almost) blown away when we ‘sketched’ (writing was most likely beyond us at that age) approx. 20 suggestions. I can’t remember however, if he enacted any of our suggestions…most likely not.
Has anyone acted as a mentor to you?
Vincent: Difficult to lay the blame at any one individual’s door but suffice to say, I’ve taken inspiration from some of the most unlikeliest of sources.
Gerard: My Dad.
Has your “Irish-ness” contributed to your success?
Vincent: Yes, and even when ‘Irish’ wasn’t fashionable, I always reminded, as I still do, the supermarket retailers that not only were we Irish but we support Irish primary producers.
Gerard: It counts for something – all things being equal, customers prefer to buy locally produced goods, but only if those goods are the best quality and best value. Nobody owes us their custom just because we’re Irish.
How do you generate new ideas to stay ahead of the curve?
Vincent: Innovation has been key to our modest success to date. Be that in product innovation or innovatively marketing/communicating our products’ superior attributes. We are blessed with some very smart and dedicated people here at Glenisk, who ‘get’ what it is that we are attempting to do.
Gerard: Perpetual innovation even when those innovations aren’t game changers; you can make real progress through evolution, small steps at a time. You also have to be philosophical about failure. Glenisk has a cabinet full of products that didn’t succeed; you can’t become risk averse as a consequence. You don’t want to lose your nerve when the next big idea comes along.
When making a new hire, what key characteristics do you look for?
Vincent: The individual’s personality must fit our small company and mission; everything thereafter is almost secondary.
Gerard: That they will work for the business and not for themselves – I hate the line “that’s not my problem.” I’d want to hear “I have a solution” whether or not the solution ultimately works.
Have you started to feel the effects of the economic upturn within your sector/industry?
Vincent: Not quite yet but the increased buoyancy is giving us reason to be that bit more cheerful.
What do you believe it takes to be a successful entrepreneur?
Vincent: Not quite sure I’m well placed to answer that, as I never see myself as an entrepreneur, just a guy on a mission. I’m blessed that I can contribute in bringing our company along with us on that journey. Am I on a crusade? I genuinely believe that we are making a difference if only by demonstrating to others that we give a damn and that they should too.
Gerard: A hard neck, cop-on, ambition and a willingness to work hard.
If you were to invest in a sector, what would you consider the next “big thing”?
Vincent: I have a ‘vision’ of harnessing the power of the Gulf Stream with (wildlife friendly) turbines fixed to the Irish Continental Shelf to supply Ireland and Europe with all of its energy needs.
Gerard: Education – the school system is way behind; we need to find a better way to teach our kids.
What do you believe is your company’s competitive advantage?
Vincent: Just like organics, it starts with the soil….we build our business on solid foundations.
Gerard: People very often focus on the challenges and limitations that go hand in hand with being a family-run SME, particularly during a recession. Our size, independence and history makes us very flexible – we feel like we can do anything, because we have done so much, even with limited resources.
What sacrifices have you had to make to get your business where it is today?
Vincent: Many! My wife will complain that when a large section of Irish society was enjoying its Celtic Tiger, we lived 8 years in a draughty, damp & cold mobile home trying to farm 200 goats on 7 acres with no electricity – Dickens couldn’t have penned the misery but you know what, they were some of my happiest days.
Gerard: I was focused on growing the business and making it succeed from an early age – I would have loved to take 6 months or a year out & travelled the world as a back packer. This never happened – yet!
How do you recharge your batteries?
Vincent: I have the long lasting ones