Iconic Irish yoghurt brand Glenisk was overwhelmed by the flood of support from consumers, shoppers and retailers after the crisis that hit the family business last year.
In our latest Meet the Makers profile, in conjunction with Love Irish Food, Maev Martin talks to Glenisk managing director Vincent Cleary about getting back in business, the organic journey, achieving carbon neutrality, and supporting Irish brands.
The team at Glenisk was overwhelmed and humbled by the support that it received from all over Ireland – and further afield – following the fire on 27 September 2021 that wiped out its operations.
From President Higgins to the local courier – who was in tears when he arrived at the premises the day after the fire – Vincent says that it was heartening to see that the product that they had been bringing to the market for the past three decades was so well received and appreciated.
To what does he attribute the outpouring of support and love for the Glenisk brand that has been evident over the past few months?
“Glenisk take a stand on many issues impacting Irish society – in particular, regarding Irish food – and we have never shied away from sharing our opinions,” Vincent says, “whether it is how modern agricultural practices are conducted to the detriment of the Irish landscape and the annihilation of our country’s biodiversity, to issues beyond farming, where we have questioned how Ireland has allowed the destruction of the environment in the Midlands – the harvesting of peat – to take place for so long when evidence showing how such activities were destructive to the environment and wildlife habitats was freely available.
“Glenisk has demonstrated its sustainability credentials by championing Irish organic farming practices, paying a living wage to all our employees, paying for the highest quality for all our inputs, seeking out the most sustainable packaging, and attempting to decarbonise all our practices.”
After the fire, Glenisk made a bold statement: that it would be back manufacturing by Christmas 2021.
“We missed our Christmas deadline, but the first yoghurts came off the line at the end of January this year, so we had a four-month absence from the retail shelves,” Vincent says.
However, the shelves did not remain empty during those four months, as retailers turned to other suppliers to fill the 20% market share gap left by Glenisk.
The Return To Shelves
Has it been difficult to get this shelf space back?
“In fairness to all Irish retailers, they simply couldn’t do enough to facilitate our return to their shelves,” says Vincent. “When our beloved factory burned down, we became acutely aware of the interdependency that we shared with our retailers.
“Our absence from the market left gaping holes on their shelves, and that was brought about by years of convincing Irish stores to stock poor-quality non-Irish yoghurts, which, in turn, left them stocking more and more of our products. Then – through no fault of their own – they were left with a mammoth task of having to fill those gaping holes, and it was obvious to me that they struggled to do so. In one respect, it is no wonder that sales fell so dramatically following our sudden departure because Glenisk was irreplaceable, as far as many customers were concerned. Retailers turned to our Irish competitors, so they would have enjoyed a good lift in sales, and to others, as well, from outside Ireland.”
Building Back Business
Vincent is planning to get the business back to where it was before the fire, in terms of sales in stores, within 12 months.
“It is the support of our customers and retailers that is enabling and will enable that to happen,” he says.
“The 12-month timeline is down to our limited capabilities. We are still waiting on filling machines, so we have only regained about 30% of the sales that we had prior to the fire, and – grateful as I am for that – it is still a long way to go. The reality is that it takes time to build and replace bespoke equipment, so we have a rocky road ahead. We are working out of our Plan B factory now, but hopefully, in the coming months, we will be making an announcement around how and where we build our new factory.”
One of the key takeaways from the disaster that befell Glenisk was the importance of having updated insurance.
“I would say that, in hindsight, rather than seeing insurance as a hindrance to doing business in Ireland, business owners should see it as a requirement to get back on their feet in the event of a disaster, such as that which befell our business,” says Vincent.
“I think it is important to sit down with your insurance provider every couple of years and address the cost of replacing the business in the unlikely event that it is needed. Our insurance providers, FBD, were proactive in sitting down with us over the years, and that enabled us to get back up and running as quickly as we did, and despite the challenging road ahead, it is good to know that we have their unwavering support.”
The Organic Journey
Glenisk began its “organic journey” back in 1995, with two SKUs, and it has proven to be a resilient market for the company.
“When we went down the organic route in 1995, it differentiated us from our competitors, but it also demonstrated that we were on a different path, and that organic farming practices are superior to conventional farming,” Vincent says.
“This message is really making an impact now, as it is evident that the path humanity was headed towards was not sustainable. Organic food production is more sustainable – financially and environmentally – and that was always the case, but this message has only entered mainstream media circles in recent years because of where we are heading in terms of climate change.
“Organic products was a €30 billion opportunity in Europe last year, and that figure is growing every two to three years. I think Ireland, and our industry as a whole, is missing a trick by not embracing that. Looking over the fence at another category, I am surprised that I haven’t seen an Irish organic butter take over the world yet. However, Glenisk will continue to innovate, and once we find our feet, we will be developing a range of new and exciting products.”
Vincent sees organics “going to the next level” over the coming years – “In other words, when you invest in organics, you will need to be wholly invested in it, and not see it as a box-ticking exercise,” he says.
“Some of the larger global players in yoghurts were experiencing declining sales, and they saw dipping their toes in organics as a way of reviving sales, but it needs a firmer commitment than that. What started out as a farming movement has definitely educated me and shown me that there is an alternative way, and that applies to all aspects of our business.”
Achieving Carbon Neutrality
Vincent says that Glenisk’s sudden departure from the market last year gave the team an opportunity to do things better and look at all aspects of the business.
“What started with manufacturing organic yoghurts is now impacting all aspects of our business,” he says.
“For example, we are hoping to outlaw plastic and all fossil fuel inputs in the business, which is a big ask, but, as we progress with this, all our pots will be cardboard based and certified as carbon neutral. We are also trialling removing plastic trays. They will be produced in recycled cardboard. Our new factory, which we are hoping to build soon, will be a certified carbon-neutral factory, run without the use of fossil fuels. Also, all our electricity comes from renewable sources, and we will extend that to other aspects of our business.”
Achieving carbon neutrality in its logistics supply chain is the biggest challenge on the road to achieving 100% carbon neutrality for Glenisk.
“We are dependent on other players to provide us with carbon-neutral logistics solutions,” Vincent says, however, Glenisk is coming up with innovative ways to reduce that dependence.
“For example, we are currently taking Chéreau refrigerated trailers – one of the biggest fridge brand trailers in Europe – and putting solar panels on the roof of the trailers because it couldn’t be done in the factory, so we will get that component running without the use of fossil fuels. We hope that this will be operational within the next three to six months.”
Supporting Irish Brands
Even though Ireland has a high level of expertise and product quality when it comes to dairy production and is globally renowned for its dairy output, why is approximately 70% of the yoghurt sold here imported, and how can we reduce our reliance on imports?
“I would say that history has a strong bearing on this,” Vincent says.
“Glenisk was founded in 1987, but up until then, Yoplait was manufactured in Ireland, and that accounted for in excess of 50% of the market. When Yoplait brought their manufacturing back to France, it left a big hole in Irish-produced yoghurts, so we have been playing catch-up ever since. Also, the Irish yoghurt market was a microcosm of globalisation. As we have discovered since Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine and the fallout from Brexit, globalisation can be a double-edged sword, i.e. it is good in times of harmony, but maybe we should be measuring how we leave ourselves exposed to sudden global shocks.
“We recognise the value of a free market, especially as we seek to develop our export business, but it is hard to rationalise the import of 70% of yoghurt in the category when there is such a breadth of quality products on offer in this country, providing more sustainable options and supporting our local economy,” he says.
“We have been upping our game, as have other local competitors, in addressing the situation, but changing purchasing patterns is a slow process.”
Reinventing Irish Dairy
Ensuring that the massive cost inflation being experienced throughout the retail supply chain isn’t passed on to consumers is a big challenge for suppliers and retailers. As its product ranges grow, Vincent says that Glenisk will continue to work with its retailers to deliver best-pricing activities for customers through off-shelf price promotions.
“Having said that – and, again, because of the organic ethos that we like to embrace – over the last couple of years, we have been working with a small number of Irish organic farmers to take their dependency on imported feedstuffs out of the cows’ diets, to give us a 100% grass-fed milk,” he says.
“We don’t see this as import substitution, but rather as a reinvention of Irish dairy, whereby the cows’ diet isn’t production driven, but more in harmony with what nature intended. Although we accept that yields will be impacted, we believe that the cow will live a longer, more productive, and more contented life,” he adds.
“We have teamed up with an Irish university to see how these initiatives can be measured in terms of the carbon life cycle of the milk and the well-being of the cow. We are also trying to help farmers manage their input costs, and thereby protect our consumers, ultimately, from a lot of the agri-food inflation that is currently happening.”