How does a schoolboy soccer player reach the top of the global food business?

The former chief executive and chairman of food group Bunge, with head offices in New York, was having dinner one evening with a customer whose business had been taken over by a Brazilian firm.
How does a schoolboy soccer player reach the top of the global food business?

Alberto Weisser, who had guided Bunge from a regional operation to a global player, with some 400 facilities in over 40 countries, asked his friend how he was getting on with the Brazilian workers.

The customer said the Brazilian were like the Irish, always smiling, great fun to be with but one should never get on their wrong side.

About two weeks later, Weisser, a Brazilian German, who had not met many Irish people, was examining executive profiles that had crossed his desk.

One of them belonged to Gordon Hardie from Wilton in Cork, who had made a name for himself in the international food and beverage business in Europe, the Americas, Asia and Southern Africa, “I want to meet the Irishman,” said Weisser, remembering his dinner conversation, and the impression it had left with him that the Irish can connect with people, forge relationships and not be taken for fools, key elements in any successful business person.

It led to Gordon Hardie being appointed managing director of Bunge’s food and ingredients business with current annual sales of US$15 billion.

He is also an executive of Bunge Ltd with revenues of US$64 billion and 35,000 employees.

But how does a one-time schoolboy soccer player with Glasheen reach the top of the global food business with a company that was founded in Amsterdam nearly 200 years ago?

He modestly puts much of it down to luck, the people he met and the opportunities they afforded him.

But those who know him well say that is only part of the story. They describe him as personable, a breath of fresh air and a leader with a positive attitude who never stops learning.

He is said to regard challenges as opportunities, adopts a hands-on approach but is a team builder who brings people with him and is prepared to think outside the box.

Yet, there is no food industry tradition in his family, some of whom were merchant seamen, whose stories of travel gave him a global view at an early age.

As a teenager, he often travelled with his father, Billy Hardie, a salesman, on his calls to pharmacy shops in towns across Munster during rainy summer days.

His father, who died in 1994, loved his customers and achieving his targets. “I think I grew up with the language of sales and selling,” said Gordon, who has just turned 52 and whose mother Phil resides in Cork city.

After attending Presentation Primary School, and Coláiste an Spioraid Naoimh (secondary school), he went to UCC, where he graduated with a BA (Hons) in Languages and Psychology, as well as attaining a Higher Diploma in Education.

He taught languages for a while but admits he probably didn’t have the patience for it and went to the Michael Smurfit Business School at UCD, graduating with an MBA in 1994 and being honoured earlier this year as “Alumnus of the Year”.

Kieran Tobin, Irish Distillers, recalls in a tribute video made for that ceremony how Gordon strode with purpose and in a long well-tailored black coat into his office one day brandishing a job application in one hand and his freshly minted MBA in the other.

He was appointed regional director for the Americas and Asia Pacific Regions at Pernod Ricard Irish Distillers, where he successfully led the development of Jameson Irish Whiskey in those markets.

It was the springboard to a career that took him to Australia where he became chief executive of the giant Goodman Fielder Bakery Group, the leading producer of bakery brands in Australia and New Zealand.

He also served on the board of Foodbank New South Wales, which he helped to develop more effective distribution systems to better service under-privileged communities across Australia.

Gordon, who has attended Harvard Business School, told the recent Agricultural Science Association conference in Killkenny that Ireland, despite being a small country, has the smartness, courage and energy to compete on the global agribusiness stage.

He pointed to the high regard Kerry Group is held by customers he meets, noted how people are looking at the developing Glanbia story with awe, described Aryzta as a phenomenal success and stressed the importance of leadership, scale and productivity.

While the global good industry is huge, he referred to it during an onstage discussion with ASA president Eoin Lowry as a penny business, explaining that a penny extra in revenue or a penny out in costs is transformational.

Gordon, who speaks four languages, works out of Geneva and New York but he and his wife Rachel Murray from Glanmire, another UCC graduate, have recently returned to live in Ireland. They have three children, Kate, Skeon and Jinlee.

A life-long Glasgow Celtic fan, as was his father, he is proud that Cork is a vibrant place. That, he says, is due to the resilience of the people. His is also a supporter of the Gaelic Players Association.

Kieran McLoughlin, chief executive, American Ireland Fund, describes him as a natural born philanthropist who, along with his wife, Rachel, have been generous to many causes.

He also tells a story about how he once telephoned Gordon, who was in some exotic place. The high achieving executive answered the phone.

“How are you, boy” was his opening greeting. The Cork lilt might have challenged the locals, but it shows Gordon Hardie has never forgotten his roots.

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