Caroline Keeling The IMAGE Businesswoman of the Year
The Keeling family have been in the fruit business since 1896, when they first worked a farm outside Dublin in Donabate. Their original crop was rhubarb but they are best known today for their strawberries and berries. Caroline Keeling is CEO of the company and part of the 3rd generation of Keelings to run the family business. From punnets of strawberries worth over $30 in Hong Kong, to picking rhubarb when only an infant, she traces her progress as it developed alongside the company’s own success. She spoke to us a few days ago without knowing of her upcoming award…
Tell us about the Keelings brand a little.
We really didn’t brand any of our own product until 2010. In the previous 12 years we’d spent an awful lot of money investing in growing our production and focused on improving the quality of our own product. For example this year we had 70 research projects going on strawberries alone, in order to improve the quality of next year’s strawberries. So the reason for coming up with our own brand in 2010 was that we wanted to start communicating with the consumer – highlighting our product. We wanted to put our name on it because we were proud of it.
Keelings Fruit and Technology have developed an important business relationship with China of late – how did that come about?
We only started a relationship with China in 2012. We explored the options of buying fruit from China for Europe, but we were also looking at the option of supplying China with our own fruit, which we actually did this year. A small example would be that this year for Chinese Mother’s Day in May, we sent our Irish strawberries to a retailer in Hong Kong called ParknShop. So they were selling Irish strawberries in a heart-shaped Keelings punnet. But we also supply them with Italian kiwi, Belgian pears and different tomatoes. We spent the past 40 years travelling around the world building relationships with growers. So it makes sense for us to use that relationship that we have, to supply the Chinese and Hong Kong market. Last year we were buying Egyptian strawberries and half of them were leaving Cairo for Ireland, and the other half were going to Hong Kong.
How has Keelings developed as a family business?
My father is the Chairman, I’m the CEO, my brother David runs all the wholesale and retail and my other brother William runs all the property.
How do you feel about awards of this sort? How do you feel about being short-listed for the Image Businesswoman of the Year Award?
Obviously the award may be around the person, but in reality it’s about the company. Particularly when you’re working in a company of this size, where there are 2,000 people working with us, we have a significant team that contributes to the success. If we get an award it’s for the whole company, and getting the recognition is really nice.
When did you start in the family business?
There’s a photograph of me picking rhubarb at about 20 months. But I didn’t officially join the company until I was 24. I hadn’t planned on joining. I went to UCD and then did a Masters in Food Science, and then joined a company called Green Isle (now part of Northern Foods). It was only after I had been with them for about 18 months that dad asked me to join the company.
What advice do you have for people entering their own family business?
I think it’s a good idea to go out and work outside of it for a while – build up your confidence and make some mistakes. It can be good to learn with another company. In a family business there can be a spotlight on you. You know, when I joined the business I spent the first few years working in England, focusing on building up something new. And that’s important, to be driving the new side of the business if you’ve just joined.
We’ve seen a huge amount of start-ups sprout up since the recession, a lot of them run by women. What advice would you give a young businesswoman starting her own venture?
When I started it was different, I hadn’t ambitions to become CEO. When I joined my main goal was to do the best job I could – I was very driven. If I was told to do 3 tasks, I’d do 5. Women need to have confidence in themselves.? I meet so many women in their 30’s and 40’s driving businesses – the confidence is really tangible and out there. If you want to get ahead, then you need to push and be driven.
Have you ever come across any problems or tensions as a female CEO?
Yes, loads. I travel a lot. I turned up in Brazil once, and the three guys I was meeting were horrified to see that the company had sent a woman. Within an hour of negotiating it was fine, and that tends to be the rule.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
?Things change, get over it.? My older brother said that to me, and whilst it annoys me, it’s also true.
More interviews coming up with the other winners of the IMAGE Businesswoman Awards.
Roisin Agnew @Roxeenna