Known for some of the juiciest strawberries in Ireland, the Keeling family established its first farm in Dublin in 1926.
Now a fresh fruit empire, Keelings grows more than half of the annual Irish crop of 300 million hand-picked strawberries.
Caroline Keeling has been at the helm of her family’s fruit production and food distribution company since taking over as Group Managing Director in 2006 and as CEO in 2012.
For Caroline and her brothers, nothing is more important than upholding the legacy her grandparents, her father Joe and his siblings have built thus far.
“The business was always professionally run, so I want to make sure that we continue to be a great business partner for our suppliers and customers,” she says.
With a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry and a Master of Science specialising in Food Science from University College Dublin, Caroline started her career with Green Isle Foods before returning to the fold as Keelings’ Technical Manager in 1994.
Opportunities and growth strategies
“From the late 90s, we invested heavily in our own farming and production of fruits including strawberries, apples, cherries and blueberries – a growth strategy driven by my brother David.
“I also saw the opportunity to open up new customer channels and drive more volume through our food service business.
Opening this channel in Ireland was critical; we then focused on driving and expanding the business in the UK and Europe,” she says.
As if her hands weren’t full running a widespread international business, Caroline also finds time to be a board member for Bord Bia, Social Entrepreneurs Ireland, the Ifrah Foundation, and the National Maternity Hospital Foundation.
Accolades and widespread recognition
She is also a member of Ireland’s Export Trade Council, and the Chair of two organisations: the Horticultural Board (Bord Bia) and the Dublin Regional Action Plan for Jobs Implementation Committee.
These efforts earned her the IMAGE Businesswoman of the Year Award in 2013.
Caroline was recognised for her commitment to enriching the family business and her female leadership in a highly male-dominated industry.
Since she took the helm in 2006, the firm’s turnover has increased by more than 50%.”
“It has also expanded to include five divisions – Keelings Retail, Keelings Farm Fresh, Keelings Market, Keelings International, and Keelings Solutions.
With operations around Ireland, and in the UK, Europe and Asia, Keelings has a team of more than 2,000 people and annual sales exceeding €300 million.
Keelings Retail and Market divisions account for more than 60% of total sales.
“We only launched the brand in 2010. It’s already outperforming our expectations, particularly in terms of brand health scores,” explains Caroline.
She adds that extensive consumer research revealed Irish customers wanted a local brand they could trust.
Today, the Keelings brand is synonymous with fresh, quality produce, and it was recently ranked number 17 in Kantar Worldpanel’s Top 100 Fast-Moving Consumer Goods brands in Ireland.
As well as its punnets range, the company has released a variety of innovative products including the family platter, the twin pack and the popular on-the-go Snack Pot range, which earned Keelings a nomination for the 2016 Irish Food Awards.
Caroline soon realised that this desire for fresh, local produce was not limited to Irish customers and that its strawberry quality was recognised as far away as Hong Kong.
As with nearly every other business around the world, the 2008 global financial crisis created a tough operating environment for Keelings.
“Our leadership team worked together to develop a plan that would see us through this difficult period, and I think the key to our success was engaging the entire business in the delivery of this plan.”
Stepping Up Together
“We worked with each person to identify how they could contribute to make the business better.”
“We called this initiative ‘Stepping Up Together’, because if we didn’t do it together, Keelings wasn’t going to survive.”
“This laid the foundation for us to become a much stronger business with wider engagement among our people.”
In line with Keelings’ brand promise, ‘love to grow’, the company prides itself on a strong set of values that encourages staff to develop their full potential and deliver for their customers.
“We are lucky to have a lot of very talented, capable people and because the business is constantly evolving, so must the skills and talents of our team.”
“We have worked hard to implement a culture of continuous improvement, and to give staff the tools and resources they need to do their jobs well.”
“To deliver for our clients, we must empower our own people, and we have systems to ensure that all voices are heard,” she says.
“We never feel we’ve got it completely right: there’s always more we want to do.”
What you measure, you manage
Caroline says Keelings is always focused on better understanding the needs of its stakeholders – suppliers, customers and consumers – to create win–win solutions.
“We value integrity in our dealings and are open to constructive criticism in order to drive continuous improvement.”
“Rather than just defending ourselves, we’re always trying to make ourselves better; I think this kind of open-mindedness is crucial in any business,” she adds.
“We value integrity in our dealings and are open to constructive criticism… We’re always trying to make ourselves better; I think this kind of open-mindedness is crucial in any business.”
Keelings is committed to constantly improving its supply chain to become more efficient and more cost-effective, and to improve the end user’s experience.
“At Keelings, we have a saying, ‘what you measure, you manage’. We have a number of internal and external measures in place to ensure we’re delivering for our customers.”
“We know what’s important to them, and we set certain criteria for ourselves so that these needs are met. For example, we taste our soft fruits daily to make sure the product we’re delivering is something we can be proud of.”
A different angle
Innovation is paramount in every aspect of produce production, distribution and marketing at Keelings.
“Like most businesses, we struggle with the challenge of day-to-day delivery. The job is nearly all-consuming, so it’s a matter of integrating innovation wherever we can.”
“In the words of Einstein, ‘The same thinking that caused the problem won’t fix it’ – you always need to come at it from a different angle,” says Caroline.
“This is most important in our farms, where we have more than 70 trials on the go at any one time to determine how to grow higher yields and better-tasting produce with an improved shelf life.”
Keelings’ strawberries are grown in glasshouses and tunnels, and are always in a state of development, so staff can try out new methods and test new varieties.
By doing this, the company has been able to extend the Irish growing season from March to December.
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“We’re pushing the industry, not following it”
In addition to fresh produce, Caroline also spearheaded the development of produce-specific enterprise resource planning software solutions, consultancy and management services.
“Technology is going to play a massive part in our future by delivering more detailed and integrated data.”
“Developing a software business was one of the key opportunities that I felt would diversify our business and leverage the skills that we already had,” she says.
Keelings Solutions supplies a host of software that provides solutions in procurement, stock management, warehouse and production planning, sales and quality assurance.
It has been adopted by a Chinese flower company as well as leading Dutch international fresh produce company Jaguar.
“We believe our software is the best for running a fresh produce company, and we want to keep developing it in the future. By having our own technology company, we’re pushing the industry, not following it.”
“By having our own technology company, we’re pushing the industry, not following it.”
Keelings recognises that produce quality is highly dependent on the quality of the Irish environment and resources.
Therefore, the company shares a close partnership with nature, and aims to be cleaner and greener than ever.
Sustainability program, ethical trade and other social initiatives
Keelings is a proud member of Origin Green, an environmental sustainability program run by Bord Bia to provide the Irish food and beverage industry with an international platform to promote the sustainability of its products.
“We’ve found that it’s an excellent way to commit to a sustainability program, because it helps us set timely goals and agendas to ensure smooth delivery,” Caroline says.
As well as reducing energy consumption, resource use and its overall carbon footprint, Keelings has now successfully converted from 100% peat to 100% sustainable coconut coir as its growing medium of choice for strawberries.
“In terms of our pineapple brand sourcing, we only use companies that are Ethical Trade Initiative-registered and supported by the Rainforest Alliance,” says Caroline.
“We always have a handful of social initiatives going on, whether it is working with a particular grower to support a nearby school, or running an internal program to bring local people into the workplace.”
“We’re constantly looking at how we can contribute to the communities we operate in.”
“We’re constantly looking at how we can contribute to the communities we operate in.”
Collaboration is everywhere
Over the next 12–18 months, Caroline’s focus will be on driving the Keelings Solutions software business.
“We’re only at the start of that journey. Now, it’s all about implementing our software in a range of produce companies worldwide. In this aspect, success for us is seeing how our software has enabled customers to achieve their goals.”
Caroline believes that strong produce supply partnerships will play a vital role in the future of Keelings.
“Collaboration is everywhere. The key is to develop a high level of trust and transparency with our partners. Once you have that, you nearly always find opportunities for improvement.”
“The right partner allows for the open sharing of information, the generation of new ideas and savings to be made across the business: it’s mutually beneficial,” she says.
“We have an amazing group of supply partners. We have invested in production in Costa Rica, and we’ll be looking for other areas to expand and develop closer partnerships with over the next five years.”
In her spare time – yes, she has some – Caroline Keeling coaches a group of women in Enterprise Ireland’s ‘Going for Growth’ entrepreneurship program, now in its tenth year.
“Many of these women have started their own businesses and are now looking to scale up. As I sit at that table hearing the challenges they face, it’s inspirational to see how they tackle them without the kind of support that I have in a larger business,” she remarks.
“I come out of those meetings feeling very inspired to go and achieve more with what I have.”
Believe, inspire and support
The CEO sums up her leadership style in three words: believe, inspire, and support.
“It’s my job to motivate and inspire others to deliver our shared vision, whatever it may be. I’m fully committed to our people and our long-term goals – we made them as a team and we’ll achieve them as a team.”
“Very early on in my career, I was given a piece of advice that has stuck with me. I didn’t take it well at the time but it was: things change, get over it,” she laughs.
“Because our industry is so fast-moving, things change all the time and you don’t have time to get annoyed or frustrated by it. You just need to make a plan and move on.”