Tony O’Reilly, already a household name because of his rugby exploits with Ireland and the Lions, was on his way to meet PJ Power, the visionary leader of the Irish dairy industry whose exports at the time were worth a mere £7m.
That hush-hush meeting would lead to the dairy sector being changed forever and would give it a legacy as relevant today as it was 53 years ago
As general manager since 1928, Power, a towering man with a head of bushy white hair, had guided Ballyclough Co-op into a diversified range of products other than butter.
He applied that same vision at a national level when he became the first chairman of An Bord Bainne, a post he held for a decade, but in the beginning, he needed someone with energy and flair to drive it.
The man he recruited to take on that challenge was O’Reilly, who was at the time was looking for a job after the death of Jack Sutton, the businessman he worked for in Cork City.
PJ Power, according to Ivan Fallon in his biography of O’Reilly, took a stubby pencil from his pocket that night in Mallow and began to draw out on a dinner table napkin his plans for An Bord Bainne, now the Irish Dairy Board.
“The whole thing is to get milk out of butter and get it into other things — chocolate crumb and cheese and powder, where the support levels are less, and therefore the cost to the country is less,” he explained to an incredulous O’Reilly.
Tony O’Reilly spent four years as general manager of An Bord Bainne before moving to the Irish Sugar Company, the Heinz group, and a career as a global businessman.
The Irish Dairy Board now has sales of around €2bn, employs 3,100 people internationally and is responsible for exporting 60% of Ireland’s dairy products to over 100 countries.
Dairygold, a farmer-owned co-op, formed through the merger of Ballyclough and Mitchelstown Societies, is an important contributor to that success. It has 8,800 shareholders, 3,000 milk suppliers, 1,150 staff, and a turnover of €850m.
The co-op processed over 960 million litres of milk in 2013, and exported dairy products to more than 50 countries.
Dairygold went through a painful period with job losses, plant closures and structural changes. But a new era of expansion has now started.
It is set to create 115 full-time jobs by 2020 following a €117m investment in its dairy processing facilities at Mallow and Mitchelstown.
The expansion, supported by Enterprise Ireland, is also expected to create 400 temporary construction jobs.
Enda Kenny recently laid the foundation stone for the co-op’s €83.5m investment in the dairy processing complex in Mallow and officially opened the €33.5m upgraded facilities in Mitchelstown.
He said the investment represents a strong vote of confidence by Dairygold in the capability of its milk suppliers and creates a world-class dairy manufacturing capability in the Munster region.
The spirit of PJ Power was recalled by Dairygold chief executive Jim Woulfe, when he said the site now being regenerated in Mallow has a history of dairying dating back to 1928.
It was at one stage home to three separate food businesses all of them adding value to the dairy product being produced on-site by Ballyclough Co-op.
These included the Rowntree Mackintosh’s chocolate crumb factory, which later became Nestle, the Borden powder operation, and Cow and Gate’s baby powder facility.
“In many ways the Mallow site was then ahead of its time in that it was a very early example of a modern-day food campus, long before the term was ever used,” he said. “A lot of the credit for that success was due to one of Ballyclough’s most famous managers, PJ Power.”
Mr Woulfe said the investment marks the beginning of a new dawn for Mallow that will in a few years see it not only return to the heights of its activity in the 1970s, but exceed it. “And in the same way that Mallow once attracted higher value dairy ingredient operations, our vision for this redeveloped site is one where higher value product will be manufactured.”
Meanwhile, the Irish Dairy Board has announced details of a €30m investment that will create 50 jobs in a centre of excellence, next to the Dairygold complex in Mitchelstown.
The 50,000-tonne capacity, fully integrated, packing and butter production facility, now going through the planning process, will also serve as an innovation centre.
Irish Dairy Board chief executive Kevin Lane said the Mitchelstown plant will become the global home of the iconic Kerrygold brand.
PJ Power, the man who launched Kerrygold and later deemed it the greatest success of his life, would be surely pleased.