Keelings CEO – tech is a growth business in food

12 Dec 2014

Caroline Keeling, CEO of Keelings. Photo by Kieran Harnett

Embracing technology is key to growing business in the food sector, Caroline Keeling tells Claire O’Connell.

Growing fruit can be back-breaking work. But Dublin-based Keelings is finding that smart use of technology can help cut down on the elbow grease and get fresh produce onto supermarket shelves in the right quantity and quality.

For CEO Caroline Keeling, technology is becoming more and more a feature for the business, which employs around 2.000 people and grows a range of produce, including strawberries, apples, peppers, cherries, flowers and pumpkins, at its farm in north Dublin. The fruits of that labour are sold not only in Ireland but are exported to around a dozen countries, and Keelings also buys in produce from 42 countries for distribution.

Around 15 years ago, the company started to develop software in-house to manage the ins and outs of ordering and moving fresh produce around the world, and it has evolved into a sophisticated ERP (enterprise and resource planning) system that itself now offers a business opportunity, explains Keeling.

Keeping track of products

“Our software helps us keep a record of everything we purchase, it tracks the product all the way to the depot and then once it arrives it registers the quality and residency checks,” she says, noting that some of the items have particularly short shelf lives and can’t hang around for long. “We have some product lines where the average residency time in our depot is half a day.”

But while the software system helps with forecasting of needs (which can be affected by factors such as time of year, seasonal holidays and weather patterns), much of the expertise for forecasting still resides within human heads at Keelings, she adds.

“We have a few brilliant individuals who are spectacularly good, better than any computer at forecasting at the moment – we could probably devise some great algorithms but I think they would find it hard to beat a couple of our guys who have 20 years of experience.”

Growing tech in farming

The Irish company has started licensing its software to producers elsewhere in the world – particularly in China – and Keeling sees this as a potential area of growth.

“We would never have described ourselves as a technical software company, but we are seeing more and more interest here, and we are looking at opportunities,” she says.

The software system is not the only aspect of technology that is changing the way farming is managed at Keelings, a family business that started selling farmed produce in the 1930s.

“My Dad would describe how, as children, they all used to get up on a Sunday and open and close all the vents in the glasshouses,” recalls Keeling. “Now the vents are all set by the weather, the system uses sensors and if you press one button they all open, as opposed to us having to go and physically open them all. So it makes life easier.”

World travels for work

That said, she is well versed with the hard graft of farming and picking, having worked on the farm growing up. Then she studied chemistry and food science at University College Dublin, and took up a job at Green Isle foods.

“My career path was not initially moving towards the family business,” she says. “But at the point where Keelings was expanding the business in England, they asked me to implement the quality system there, so I joined them.”

As her role developed within the company, Keeling found herself travelling widely.

“I went around the world looking at fruit and buying fruit, and a huge part was checking the quality on the farms and making sure food safety was right but also the quality of the product and how it was being packed to make sure it arrived with us really well,” she recalls. “My friends jokingly described me as halfway between the ‘Man from Del Monte’ and the woman from Kenco.”

Keeling is now CEO of the family business. Irish Tatler recently named her Businesswoman of the Year and she was Image Businesswoman of the Year 2013. She still travels today and is learning Mandarin to be able to converse better with customers in China: “We are licensing software there, and also there is the opportunity of sales of fruits there.”

Integrating technology into food business

Integrating technology to support business is a key factor for Keeling.

“We are a food business but you need technology to run a food business,” she says. “And because we are running a technology business beside our food business, we believe we are going to be much closer than most to what is happening in the food tech area – whether it’s drones delivering your food or intelligent fridges, we need to connect in with these emerging systems.”

Keeling and software developer Julie Cummins recently spoke about their work to kids and teenagers at CoderDojo DCU in Dublin City University, and Keeling admires Coder Dojo and its mission to encourage young people to learn the skills of coding.  

“We are going to need a lot of people with these abilities in the future,” she says. “And whatever area of work you do, it is so useful to understand technology and how it can drive business forward.”

As for the food sector, she sees no slowdown.

“The one thing you can guarantee is that people will be eating and more than likely there is going to be considerably more of us, so we are going to need more food and technology to increase productivity and reduce waste. So from a long-term point of view you can only see more tech involvement in the food industry.”

Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Accenture Ireland, Intel, the Irish Research Council, ESB, Twitter, CoderDojo and Science Foundation Ireland.

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication