Keelings: key lessons from a home-grown Irish business

Caroline Keeling joined the family business for two years. Some 20 years later she is now the CEO of Keelings and she, along with her brother David, outlined to the Nuffield conference the ups and downs of managing a family business.

Like farming, the Keeling fruit and vegetable business was a family one and handing it down to a new generation was, David said, is very difficult.

However, according to Caroline, when young young people are brought into a business they should be encouraged to work on something different and make mistakes.

Caroline Keeling
Caroline Keeling

“Try and get them working on something different and let them make mistakes. So they’re not just following everything the previous generation did. When the next generation is coming in it’s important they don’t just get handed something, they get to change it and develop it.”

Each generation has different skillsets and if you bring the skils from each generation you can create soething special.

Both siblings referred to their use of coaches throughout their own careers with the family business.

According to David, coaches provided a confidant and helped get the best out of him. “I know very little anything but a little about everything, so it’s critical that I have experts in the business.”

While David is now the MD of the retail and market divisions of the business, he admitted that he was not ready to join the family business when he did join.

‘Have a Clear Vision’

Caroline’s key piece of advice for anyone with a business is to “have a clear vision for the business”.

The biggest learnings Caroline had in her career, she said, were when she had just taken over in 2008 and issues with sterling, on-farm investments and customer issues all raised their heads.

“It was a precarious time for the business. The first thing was ‘was I going to be able to lead the company through that and how do we stabilise our core business and make sure that it stays strong’.”

To do this, she said, she had to make herself a better leader. So, as well as business courses, she also set out to improve her own physical intelligence.

“That’s often neglected when running a business and you have to know what is it that helps you manage your stress.”

Caroline Keeling – What have I learnt?

  1. Learn to manage and support yourself.
  2. Develop the interpersonal skills to achieve what you want to.
  3. If you want to be a leader you need to have a vision for the business and be able to inspire people to want to achieve it.
  4. Develop a continuous improvement culture in your business.
  5. Market changes – ensure your business and offerings evolve with them.
  6. Surround yourself with the right people and support them.
Key Business Learnings

How do you get back up after a serious knock?

Caroline: It’s a great thing when you don’t have a choice. No one else is going to pick you pack up. So you need to ensure you look after yourself and you don’t deplete yourself and that the support around you is strong.

Industry Measurements

Caroline: We have huge measurements. Industry standards. Benchmark on the farm side. We do set ourselves tragets and measures. We don’t always meet them, but that’s when we sit down and look at what we can do better.

Setting up a brand…key learnings

David: You have to really believe in it, because customers will say no, others will kick you out. don’t pretend you know something about it. We had to bring in expertise in to design and market it.

Motivating staff

David: With 2,000 workers you have  to keep them incentivised and motivated you must push very hard to get clear objectives for everyone in the business. “We try and have clear roles and responsibilites. Provide inspiration and say thank you.”

The Keelings fruit and vegetable business dates back to the late 1800s, but the modern-day business was established in the 1950s when their grandfather went to Holland to look at vegetable prodcution and came home and built glass houses.

From the 1970s the company turned to trading but when the supermarkets didn’t want to deal with middlemen, Keelings was forced to re-think its strategy and in the late 1990s it went back into berry production.

In recent years it installed a high tech glasshouse (in 2004) to develop Irish peppers. While David says this venture has ‘washed its face’ it has not been as successful as the berry side of the business.

Another glass house helps extened the strawberry season by six weeks and in 2007 Keelings doubled the berry farm size.

In 2009 it started to grow flowers including tulips and lilies, while its venture into aubergine production lasted just one year. In 2013 cherries were trialled and this year the company is trialing pears.

As well as the physical production of fruit and vegetables, the company has invested in the brand ‘Keelings’ which as helped grow the business in consumers’ minds.

According to David a brand should allow us to around for the next 88 years as it communicates with customers and, if customer wants something, the supermarkets will stock it.

Please be considerate of others when commenting. All comments posted are subject to our commenting policy. Comments violating this policy will be removed without notice.