From Soil to Society
The winner of the EY Entrepreneur of the Year 2019 is Richard Kennedy, CEO of Belfast-based agri-tech company Devenish, which has grown from £5m turnover and 23 employees in 1997 to over £225m turnover and 500 employees in 2018. It supplies high-quality nutritional products for the agriculture and aquaculture industries in more than 50 countries.
Q: How is life and how is business at present?
RK: Both life and business are good at the moment. There have been several positive developments and achievements within Devenish recently and it is my hope that this trend will continue into 2020.
That’s not to say we aren’t faced with challenges. As an international business, Brexit has been a considerable challenge for us in the past 12 months. The ongoing uncertainty and lack of clarity around Brexit has been an unnecessary distraction.
We also had a fire recently at our distribution centre in Belfast, but I’m extremely proud of the work that our team has done to minimise disruption and continue to deliver for our customers. Our people continue to work as a team to find solutions to every trial that comes our way and maintain excellence throughout.
Q: Would you say you always had a business head on your shoulders?
RK: My interest in business stems back to working in the family livestock mart from an early age. I always loved the engagement and interaction with customers. That early introduction to the business of farming instilled in me a great interest in the agri-food industry.
Q: What would you say has been the secret to the success and impressive global growth of Devenish?
RK: A huge part of Devenish’s success is the ethos that our Founder and Executive Chairman, Owen Brennan, instilled in the business from the early days. As business, we’ve cultivated both a sense of integrity and entrepreneurial spirit within the DNA of Devenish and a culture that encourages our people to seek and grasp opportunity.
Our team are ultimately the key to the success and growth of the business. As CEO, no-one directly reports to me, but they do look to me for leadership. The emphasis is on me and other leaders in the business to be authentic and ensure everyone has the opportunity to fulfil their potential.
We have a clear set of values within the business – integrity; respect; authenticity; clarity; collaboration; empowerment; and excellence. We encourage each and every one of our colleagues to live our values in everything that they do. We tell our people not to see barriers or limits to where we can go. It’s important to not be afraid to try new ideas and potentially fail – provided we apply learnings from that failure.
We encourage each and every one of our colleagues to live our values in everything that they do. We tell our people not to see barriers or limits to where we can go.
Q: How are things progressing with your Global Innovation Centre in Dowth, Co Meath?
RK: Our plans are progressing well. We will use the Global Innovation Centre as the core hub for all Devenish’s research and innovation. From there, our various sector leads from around the world will coordinate our global innovation strategy. The centre is based within an inspirational landscape – the lands at Dowth provide the ideal backdrop for Devenish’s work into sustainable agriculture and promoting human health through nutrition.
Q: What are your mantras in business and how have they kept you going and your business growing?
RK: A phrase I always cite is: “you don’t always get what you pay for, but you always pay for what you get.” This is an important lesson in understanding real value in business. For me within Devenish it has helped me to assess our projects, financial commitment and the markets we operate in.
Maintaining a positive outlook is invaluable, and always looking for the opportunities arising from challenges in any situation. Equally, courage and determination are crucial to ensure resilience. In Devenish we talk about a sense of ‘belligerent determination’ sometimes being required in business – the ability to keep striving for a goal in the face of challenge. Essentially ‘feeling the fear and doing it anyway.’
As CEO, no-one directly reports to me, but they do look to me for leadership. The emphasis is on me and other leaders in the business to be authentic and ensure everyone has the opportunity to fulfil their potential.
Q: What key lessons would you say you have learned as CEO of Devenish?
RK: The key to a successful leadership role is identifying great people and helping them to unlock their potential. I have learned the importance of giving people the trust and time they need to deliver results. Devenish’s success stems from our commitment to teamwork, collaboration and stretching our people, resources and infrastructure. I place my trust and confidence in the people around me and they place their trust in me too.
Q: Can you highlight some recent key achievements/news at Devenish?
RK: I was both humbled and proud to be named Ireland’s EY Entrepreneur of the Year 2019 in November. This was truly an honour and I accepted the accolade on behalf of the talented, skilled people I work alongside. Enriching that team is an ongoing process. We recently welcomed 10 graduates into the business as part of a two-year development programme and launched our first ever apprenticeship programme, which will help employees within our production and distribution operations gain formal qualifications. It is also with great pride that we saw our founder Owen Brennan being recognised with an OBE for services to the Northern Ireland agricultural food industry.
Q: Where would you like to be with Devenish in five years’ time?
RK: As an employer, we are, first and foremost, committed to being a great place to work for our people – who are so very central to our future success. We will continue to build and grow Devenish’s work, particularly developing our global footprint. Our vision is ‘One Health – from Soil to Society’, and ultimately, we will remain focused on developing sustainable solutions that positively and proactively impact upon human health across the world.
In 2018 Devenish secured a €40m investment from the European Investment Bank (EIB) over a three-year period. This, combined with commitments from financial partners Ulster Bank and Danske Bank, makes a total long-term financial package of €118m.
This represents the largest ever support for agri-business in Ireland by EIB, which recognised Devenish’s unique ‘Soil to Society’ research, development and innovation programme. It acknowledged that the company’s “development of new animal nutrition products and research into improving soil, animal, human health and environmental sustainability, are crucial components for the success of agriculture and food production across the world”.
The investment is already delivering results for the business and will continue to do so long-term, according to CEO Richard Kennedy. “One of the key things the funding has enabled us to progress is our investment into the Devenish Global Innovation Centre in Dowth, Co Meath,” he notes.