Success story that impressed China

Keenan is an Irish company employing 250 people with a turnover of €48m. It is seen as an Irish version of German SME, or Mittelstand, with much to tell us about success and recovery, writes Ray Ryan.

IT IS a long way from Borris to Beijing but feed technology developed by a company based in the Co Carlow town is now being adopted by the Chinese agricultural sector.

It is a remarkable achievement by Richard A Keenan which now has 31,000 customers in 51 countries worldwide and is hailed as a global leader in its sector.

Keenan is an Irish-owned company, employs 250 people, 160 here and 90 outside, exports 90% of its sales and showed a turnover of €48m in its last published audited accounts (December 2011).

It has a global reputation for manufacturing mixer-wagons, or diet feeders — specialist agricultural machines used for accurately weighing, mixing and distributing total mixed rations for farm animals, particularly cows.

According to the company, the award-winning technology it has developed will allow farmers to produce 20% more milk from the same amount of feed.

But the company is also now being hailed as the type of innovation-driven small and medium type enterprise that can boost the recovery of the national economy.

That’s primarily due to the success it has achieved since being founded in 1978 by Richard A Keenan, at the age of 60.

He sold his interests in Keenans of Bagenalstown, an engineering company, and committed the entire proceeds to a new business.

It was based on products yet to be designed, manufactured and marketed, but his courage and vision was later justified with the company’s phenomenal success.

Keenan is now seen as an Irish version of the Mittelstand — small and medium size companies that play a crucial role in Germany’s economy.

Most of the 3.7 million companies in Germany in 2010 were of the Mittelstand type — family-owned, employing over 15 million people and recording turnover of €186bn.

Mittelstand companies are often based in small rural communities, are lean in structure, are innovative and export orientated and work closely with universities and researchers.

Economic and business historians are increasingly giving these type companies the credit for Germany’seconomic growth.

It was against this background that Keenan executive chairman Gerard Keenan was recently invited by the Royal Dublin Society (RDS) to give a lecture in a series on Irish economic recovery.

Mr Keenan said there is a huge opportunity for Ireland’s economy and people in the development of Irish versions of the German Mittelstand.

“This is perfectly possible but will challenge our business ecosystem and our businesses, require long-term commitment and courage,” he said.

“If it takes hold, it offers a new strategy for sustained competitiveness, jobs and prosperity. And it can apply in all sectors,” he said.

In relation to his own company, he said the introduction of the Keenan mixer wagon, the Easi Feeder, in 1983, was a breakthrough product. Sales grew six times and profits by twenty times in the four years up to 1989.

This allowed Keenan take the unusual step for a wagon-feed manufacturer to invest in nutrition as an added support to its customers and a defence barrier against competition. It now has 30 nutritionists working full time to advise customers on the most effective rations.

It also documents feed efficiency with the largest data bank of its kind in the world — covering 11,000 farms and 1.1 million cows in 25 countries.

The development in 2009 of a management control system, PACE, a web-based technology that provides consistent preparation of ration each day, was another milestone.

In January this year, the company was presented with the ‘Practice with Science Award’ by the prestigious Oxford Farming Conference for the Keenan Mech-fiber System.

Mr Keenan said a hugely important alliance, which began in 2013 with Dairygold, directly relates to the ambitious targets to grow Irish milk production by 50% in the next seven years.

Dairygold and Keenan have created a feed system under the brand name SleepEasi.

“More milk from the same land, feed and water resources is good for farmers, processors, agri-business and the wider economy,” he said.

Professor Jiaqi Wang, Chinese Academy of Science, has monitored Keenan’s feed efficiency technology since the company introduced it at a major Beijing Dairy Symposium in 2009.

Earlier this year, Keenan signed a deal worth up to €15m with a Chinese partner, Shanghai Yanhua Biotech, for the supply of feeder wagons with cloud-based technology and back-up from nutritionists in Ireland.

Chinese vice minister of agriculture, Dr Zhang Taolin, recently visited the Keenan headquarters in Borris and also met with Environment Minister Phil Hogan. Dr Zhang’s visit was seen as a powerful statement of China’s interest in Keenan feed efficiency technology and showed that in one respect Borris and Beijing are not that far apart after all.


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