The sweet taste of success

Business | Fri 31 May | Author – Business & Finance

From humble beginnings in rural West Cork to a national, award-winning brand, Glenilen Farm has come a long way in a short space of time. Owners Valerie and Alan Kingston talk about creating the Glenilen Farm brand and the secrets to their success.

Valerie and Alan KingstonNestled on the banks of the River Ilen, in the idyllically rural area of Drimoleague in West Cork, is Glenilen Farm – home to the Kingston family – and, until a few short years ago, just another dairy farm struggling to make a living off the land. However, there is much more to Glenilen Farm than meets the eye, and behind the façade of a picture-perfect pastoral existence lies a bustling enterprise that provides employment for over 30 people in the locality.

Glenilen Farm Ltd, has been trading since 2006 when owners Valerie and Alan Kingston saw a gap in the market to produce quality, unadulterated dairy products. Using the milk from their own herd to produce a range of artisan yoghurts, desserts, creams and butter, all the products created on Glenilen Farm are hand-made, additive and preservative-free and have an authentic farmhouse taste.

Entrepreneurial spirit

While Glenilen Farm has been registered as a private limited company since the midnoughties, the Kingstons have been involved in food production for decades. Alan Kingston, a traditional dairy farmer and his wife Valerie, a dairy scientist who also grew up on a farm, started experimenting with their milk in the late 1990s. Valerie – who previously learned how to make soft cheese on a dairy development project in Burkina Faso, West Africa – started making cheesecakes from the milk of their own dairy herd, which she sold at local farmers’ markets. Her cheesecakes, made with fresh, simple ingredients, quickly gained popularity and from there, and with a lot of hard work, the Kingstons established the Glenilen Farm brand.

While Alan and Valerie knew they had a quality product on their hands, as a young family they remained realistic about the viability of a food business in the long run and the quality of life they wanted to maintain.

Valerie says: “At the time, I wasn’t interested in pursuing a career with an existing local food industries, as we both felt we had potential to do ‘something’ with my background and interest in food, and our plentiful supply of raw material, milk. Also I wanted to be a stay-at-home mum and I suppose we just had a longing for the good, simple life and to be able to earn a decent living from the farm.”

She adds: “I began making products and sold them every week at Bantry Country Market and to a café in the area; at the time I was also doing some home baking. We were very encouraged by the reaction from our customers to the dairy products, so I dropped the baking and concentrated solely on those products. Alan became interested when he saw the return from two saucepans of milk transformed into value added dairy products.”

Growing popularity

In 1998, Alan and Valerie invested in two large saucepans and worked in the farmhouse kitchen for five years before they built their first dairy in 2002 which gave them a licence to sell to the retail trade. Alan says: “This progression from saucepan to dairy was made with the assistance of the West Cork Enterprise Board and Bord Bia and was fuelled by the excitement and satisfaction we got from seeing the grass transformed to milk then on to cheese and cream and then to the final packaged product which we had the pleasure of selling to the customer and hearing their feedback.” Valerie adds: “This was the ultimate simple life dream for us, making a living from the farm and not having to rely on subsidies from Brussels.”

As the Kingston’s business grew so too did their brood with the addition of Sally, Grace and Ben – now aged 13, 11 and nine – who further cemented Valerie and Alan’s desire for a simple life for their family.

But no one ever said a simple life was an easy life, and it was hard work for the Kingstons; work which often saw them clocking long days in the dairy or on the road. Valerie says: “We would often leave home at 2am to drive to Dublin to do a few deliveries and then set up at Leopardstown Farmers Market, before packing up and returning home that evening. We knew we wouldn’t stick the pace in the long term and demand was growing, so we planned for a dedicated dairy premises and sweated over taking on our first employee.”

International brand

By 2006 Glenilen Farm products were being directly delivered to a number of stores in Cork and the greater Munster area. At the time the company was still operating out of the small dairy, which they had outgrown due to the increasing demand for their products.

In 2007, the Kingstons decided to invest in a 10,000 sq ft purpose-built production unit. Alan says: “We operated from our first cheesehouse from 2002 to 2008. Then in 2007 we decided to build a larger premises adjacent to the farmyard, as demand continued to grow, which is where production still takes place.”

By the time they moved into the new facility in 2008, Glenilen Farm was catering for independent stores all over the country, SuperValu, Dunnes Stores and a number of high-end hotels and restaurants. Alan notes: “When we started out, we never really intended to start a business out of food processing but as it happened we just kept responding to demand.” The Kingstons also hired their first sales and marketing manager in 2008, who led Glenilen to a nationwide listing with Tesco Ireland.

The company started its export challenge to the UK market in 2009. The UK is the obvious choice for Glenilen Farm as, being dairy producers, their products have a short shelf life so minimal distribution time is essential.

In the initial UK push, the company targeted high-end retailers such as Selfridges, Harvey Nichols and Whole Foods and luckily it paid off, with Glenilen products stocked in all of the above, and in over 200 independent stores in the UK. The company has also worked on building relationships with the UK multiples and has been rewarded with retailer listings in Booths, Ocado and Waitrose. Valerie says: “The success of Glenilen Farm’s UK exporting campaign is highlighted by the fact that in 2011, UK sales represented 11% of the company’s sales compared to 17% in 2012.”

Glenilen Farm moved to central distribution with the Musgrave Group in April 2011, which Valerie says has greatly increased sales and availability of the Glenilen Farm range throughout Ireland. The company has worked closely with all the Irish retailers to increase their listings and shelf space in store. “We supply all the major retailers here in ROI and independents such as Avoca handweavers, Morton’s of Ranelagh, Donnybrook Fair and Fallon & Byrne.”

Bucking the trend Glenilen pot

Few companies, owned and operated in Ireland, particularly in the retail sector, can boast increased staff number and sales over the last number of year, however, Glenilen Farm has found a way to be innovative in an economically tough climate. In 2006, before the economic bubble burst, Glenilen Farm had to total of eight employees, including Alan and Valerie. Now Glenilen is one of Drimoleague’s largest employers. Valarie says: “We now employ 31 people, including a production manager, sales and marketing managers for ROI and the UK who both have assistants, and most recently we hired a NPD manager.”

Valerie puts Glenilen Farm’s success down to its steadfast commitment to quality and sustainability. She says: “If nothing else the recession has made consumers much more aware of getting quality and value for their money. Luckily for us, we have seen our business grow since the economic slump. This is due to the unwavering commitment of the business to producing premium products of the highest quality.

The business has avoided the trap of falling into the ‘squeezed middle’ by focusing on the premium sectors and consumers have responded positively.” She adds: “Sustainable and ethical production has also been very important to us and we are involved in Bord Bia’s ‘Origin Green’ campaign.” Glenilen Farm currently sources some of its energy through solar paneling and is in the process of conducting a feasibility study on generating hydro-power from the River Ilen.

It is this commitment that has seen Glenilen scoop many coveted awards over the past number of years, including Bord Bia – The Real Thing Award in 2007; the Gold medal prize at the British Cheese Awards in 2008; the Ulster Bank Business Achievers Award in the Agriculture, Food & Drink Category for Munster in 2011; a Great Taste Awards in 2012, a finalist place in the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 2012; the Georgina Campbell ‘Natural Food Award’ 2013; and the 2012 Business & Finance Enterprise of the Year Award. Valerie says: “We were extremely pleased to win the Business & Finance Enterprise of the Year Award for 2012. It’s great for our team at the farm, and also for artisan food producers in Ireland and encourages us to aim even higher and better for 2013.”

A bright future

So what’s next for Glenilen Farm and the industry as a whole? For Valerie Kingston the key to future success is to remain positive and take it one step at a time. She says: “A major challenge for us as dairy food producers is the limited market size here, and hence the logistics of exporting a fresh refrigerated short shelf life product to the UK and further afield. In the longer term, we dream about access within 12 hours to the mainland markets, the implications would be enormous, to be able to serve top quality fresh Irish food to city centres around Europe.” However, Valerie remains adamant Glenilen will never compromise on quality just to increase its international market share.

From a day-to-day point of view, Valerie and Alan now oversee the business but check in on a daily basis to ensure that the company ethos is being upheld. The team at Glenilen Farm are also working on a new kids yoghurt range, which they hope to launch this summer and regularly conduct tours of the farm for school groups. Valerie says:  “We are looking at constructing a building to develop this idea further, and make the tours a more educational experience, focusing on the food heritage of West Cork.”

From an industry point of view, Valerie thinks the future looks bright. “Ireland has always had a good reputation when it comes to food production, and that’s something which must be upheld and defended through truth and integrity at all levels. The damage done by the recent horsemeat scandal will be repaired and we’ll come out stronger at the other end. Honesty is the best policy and is the only way we will come through,” she says.

From the local shop in Drimoleague to the exclusive surroundings of Selfridges in the UK, the Glenilen brand has certainly come a long way and will continue to do so with Alan and Valerie at the helm. To this end Valerie has just one piece of advice for aspiring entrepreneurs: “Don’t despise small humble beginnings, with hard work and passion you’d be surprised where it can end you up, we’re still pinching ourselves.”