Setting up a firm in the throes of the recession was a gamble, but one that has paid off for seafood firm veteran, Mike Keohane, who tells Pádraig Hoare how he had a good gut feeling and was prepared to follow it
German discount supermarket giant Lidl was one of the first to recognise that a family-run firm in Bantry was doing something no other seafood outfit was doing.
Along with his sons Colman and Brian, Mike Keohane spotted a gap in the market for a new way to present fish to consumers.
Using the pre-pack skin film method, which gives fish a better visual experience and improves shelf life, Keohane Seafoods was opened in January 2011.
Seven years later, the firm has 160 employees across two facilities in Cork city and Bantry, and recently signed a €6m contract to supply packaged salmon darnes to 120 Lidl stores across the UK.
Mr Keohane said: “I was involved in a frozen seafood company for about 30 years in Bantry. Colman had his own fish shop in Bantry for seven years, and Brian grew into it with Keohane’s Seafood.
“We opened in January 2011. I had a vision of the way fish should be displayed in the supermarkets. I did a lot of travelling and I’d know machinery pretty well from my past. We were the first company in Europe to do skin film with fish products, so the customer can see exactly what they are buying. It gives a good visual and I had a good gut feeling. But it was still a risk, obviously,” he said.
Lidl took notice of the new method and wanted it for its own customers.
Even though the company had a staff of only 20 at the time, including Mike and his two sons, the relationship started with Lidl in January 2012 with a small range of products.
“In 2011, we had a visit from Lidl’s fish purchaser and he had a gut feel for what we were doing. In 2012, we got the Irish business.
“Since then, we got the whole of Ireland, including the North. We got the new business in Britain also. We appreciate the business we are getting from Lidl and there is a very good relationship between the companies,” Mr Keohane said.
The increased volumes it was supplying to Lidl gave the company scope to invest further and expand beyond the original facility in Cork city.
A couple of years on, they were adding a second plant in Bantry.
Late last year, Keohane Seafoods signed the €6m contract with Lidl, which will help grow business not just in the UK, but further afield in continental Europe, Mr Keohane said.
“The €6m is good for volume, for production costs and running a factory.
“To run a factory, you need that good volume. We are moving to get the best equipment — we have an excellent factory in Cork and in Bantry.
“We have a fine team and we were well able to take on that kind of business.
“I believe that if you are going to do something, you do it properly.
“You get it back in production, so buying the best equipment is worth it,” he said.
Europe is vital with Brexit looming, according to Mr Keohane.
It is even more vital that SMEs spend time seeking out opportunities abroad and make efforts to network, he added.
“All you can do to prepare for Brexit is to hedge your bets and your risk as best you can.
“The politicians don’t know, so how could business? You just have to keep going. It’s hard to live in the unknown. A company needs a certain amount of volume.
“WTO [World Trade Organisation] tariffs would be a disaster. Every company needs to know where it is going — that goes for all business and not just us,” he said.
“The uncertainty is out there but you never know, it may even turn out to be in our favour.
“We buy our fish from all over the world.
“We buy as much fish as we can from Ireland, including the organic salmon, which is all Irish.
“Most of the other salmon comes from Scotland and Norway. Our mackerel, haddock, and larger species would be Irish. We have to buy everywhere.
“For definite, we can see ourselves expanding into the continent. We are already selling in mainland Europe and we want to do more and more.
“We go to all the shows and expos. They are really valuable. Sometimes you go to a show and six months later, you connect with someone you have met along the way —you always get something out of a show,” he said.
Growing business means more employment for Cork, which is a source of huge personal satisfaction, according to Mr Keohane.
“Our workforce will grow in the future. The factory in Bantry is a large one and we have further capacity there, so I would like to think we are going to do more business that will increase employment in Bantry and the surrounding areas. It’s great to be able to do so.
“A lot of people with whom I have worked in the past are with us now, so that is a good feeling.
“Fish is talked about in everything these days. The only thing missing was to make it attractive for people. We’re doing that and we are seeing the rewards because of it, and business is growing,” he added.