CEO of Bord Bia and Clonakilty native, Tara McCarthy, says that you can’t help but be immersed in a food culture when you come from a place like West Cork. “Whether it’s from a fishing perspective, farming, entrepreneurship, the co-ops, the meat companies, the eco-system, Clonakilty itself – from Irish Yoghurts to Clonakilty Blackpudding; these are the staples of everyday living.”
Tara’s career in the food industry began straight after graduating from college with a Masters in Marketing. She started with CBF (Córas Beostoic agus Feola – the Irish Meat and Livestock Board), which amalgamated with the food promotion activities of the Irish Trade Board, now part of Enterprise Ireland, to become Bord Bia in 1994. She then worked overseas in Germany and Paris with Bord Bia for 10 years, before coming home to the Dublin office, spending another 10 years in the role of director.
Tara was CEO of Bord Iascaigh Mhara (BIM) before being appointed CEO of Bord Bia.
She is facing the biggest challenge of her career with Brexit.
“With 36 per cent of our food exports going to the UK, over four billion euro, Brexit is a huge challenge to the Irish food industry,” she says.
“As to what kind of a Brexit we’re facing into, there are so many unknowns, but we’ve been working for well over a year on trying to help companies prepare for what lies ahead. It’s involved a lot of scenario planning, as it’s impossible to make definitive plans when there is no clarity on what the end game is.”
From a risk management perspective, Tara says that agri food companies that are 100 per cent dependent on the UK need to be as competitive as possible.
‘We’re advising companies to spread the risk and to make sure that they look at other options. Not to move away from the UK but, as they’re looking to generate new business opportunities, to also open themselves up to finding new markets as well.
“We’re helping companies through market prioritisation and through looking at the route to market skills needed. For farmers it’s about listening to what the markets are and being very, very close to their co-op or meat factory or processor to make sure they’re hearing the market signals accurately.”
Unfortunately at present the signals are changing continuously. “What Ireland is asking of the negotiations is that we remain as close to what we have as possible but what Theresa May is asking for is still unclear,” says Tara.
“Currently, while we’re hoping for the best, it’s very much about preparing for a worst case scenario, a scenario that could involve tariffs and complex logistics that would involve delays at borders – all of those have to be worked through by asking questions such as: ‘Do we have the skills and understanding of calculations of tariffs?’ ‘Do we understand the form filling that goes into third country markets?’ ‘Do we understand the delays that may happen and what would happen to our shelf life?’ Which brings me back to scenario planning. If you’re a short shelf life product and you’re delayed by five hours what would that do your commitments on the other side and what can you do to protect yourself against that.”
Bord Bia has worked with the mushroom industry at bringing lean principles into their farms and is now doing the same with the pig meat industry.
“Lean manufacturing started with the Japanese and car manufacturing,” says Tara. “You do every job only once rather than having to walk back and forward three times to get the job done. It’s all about being efficient”
Initially that was only associated with manufacturing but Bord Bia and Enterprise Ireland have worked closely together to bring this into farming. “It’s about making farming more competitive and efficient and possibly reducing requirements for labour as well.”
Bord Bia has a big trade event coming up at the RDS in April. Marketplace International will be hosting over 600 International buyers, 50 per cent of whom will be visiting from non-European countries. “They’ll be visiting farms and factories, having meetings with companies and looking at new business opportunities. It’s about building confidence at every stage in the professionalism of the Irish food industry,” explains Tara.
Bord Bia operates a series of quality assurance schemes for the food industry. The schemes are built on best practice in farming and processing, current legislation, relevant industry guidelines and international standards.
The primary work of the quality assurance division is to develop new standards, improve existing standards and ensure the timely and efficient auditing and certification of members to each of the schemes. Safeguarding the integrity of the schemes requires continual review and systems improvement particularly given the increased utilisation and recognition of the Bord Bia Quality Assurance logo.
“A huge proportion of Irish farmers are part of our quality assurance schemes, which involve a rigourous audit every 18 months. That audit stands under the Q mark that markets Irish food both at home and overseas. It’s a real testament that Irish farmers are confident of what they’re doing and all the time looking to improve and get better, as in principle this a voluntary scheme, which farmers have signed up to.
“As a country, we’re exporting 90 per cent of what we produce, so we have to position ourselves as best in class.
“Back in 2008/2009, when Ireland went into that huge economic meltdown, things were also very challenging for the food industry. The UK was our number one market then too and sterling was being talked of as going to parity, dairy prices went globally to an all-time low having come off an all time high. Beef prices crashed. Our whole market was in freefall with nobody spending and everything on discount and imports were on the rise because the UK sterling product was much cheaper than Irish product.
“At the time, we took an opportunity to work with Prof David Bell and Mary Shelman of Harvard School of Business who created a document with us called ‘Pathways for Growth’. We worked and talked with the CEOs of Irish companies and created a road map that Ireland’s food industry needed to focus on that was looking at the Brand Ireland. What did Irish food actually stand for? We looked at entrepreneurship in the food industry, innovation in the food industry, the talent programmes we needed to have, the working together we needed to undertake.
“Working on that programme was a fantastic opportunity, as we were working with the best in the Irish food industry and the best in academia around the world.
“Today, Brexit is a game-changer in our industry and we’re working to make sure we leave no stone unturned in looking where there are opportunities and potential risks. It has been a huge focus for us for the last year.”
Last year Bord Bia got involved with the 30 percent Club, which has a goal to achieve better gender balance at all levels in leading Irish businesses. The 30 percent Club believes that gender balance on boards and executive leadership not only encourages better leadership and governance, but further contributes to better all-round board performance, and ultimately increased corporate performance for both companies and their shareholders.
‘We’re still in the early stages but we are working on finding out what the agri-food industry can do to attract more women,” says Tara.
On a more personal note, Tara says her biggest inspiration and grounding are her parents. “Dad is a fundamental believer in education. There was no question that he wanted us to go to college and he would have done everything to get us there. My mum was the entrepreneurial one behind him wanting us to take every opportunity and never to be afraid to take a chance or try something new.”
When it comes to work-life balance, Tara, who has three children, says that if she’s honest, like so many people she probably doesn’t have a balance. “You do the best that you can; you get it right sometimes and don’t other times.
“One of the key things is that I love my job and when you love your job it’s not about sheer hard work – you don’t even notice the time you spend doing it.
“The food industry is one of the most exciting sectors in the world to work in, from working with farmers to entrepreneurs to big processors, to the team here at Bord Bia.”