Rising from the Flames

It was nearly destroyed by a fire at its production plant in 2020, but organic yogurt producer, Glenisk, is making an impressive comeback

It has survived a number of hurdles since it was founded in the 1980s, the latest being a fire which almost destroyed its production plant, but Glenisk has made an impressive comeback and looks set to be the biggest producer of yogurt here soon again.

The company was started in the 1980s when Jack Cleary, who ran a small dairy farm outside Tullamore, began to produce yogurt. Jack was married to Mary and had 14 children. His farm and yoghurt business did well for a number of years, but Jack died in 1995 and it fell to his children to take over.

“When the accountants reviewed the books following Jack’s death, they found that the yogurt business was in difficulty,” says Emma Walls, the current commercial director with Glenisk. “The family were advised to shut the business down and hold onto just the milk processing side of it along with the farm.”

It was around this time that one of Jack’s children, Vincent Cleary, returned from living in Germany. He’d been there since the 1980s and had witnessed first-hand a growing interest in organic food amongst consumers. He knew that Ireland could supply organic food to other European countries. And he could also see the environmental appeal of a farm that did not use nitrogen fertilisers or synthetic pesticides.

“On his advice, the family decided to continue the business, but to take it a new direction, producing organic milk only,” says Emma. “Vincent, who is now the managing director, found some like-minded farmers and a supportive retailer and little by little, as people became more aware of organic farming, the business began to grow.”

Glenisk was one of the first companies in Ireland to join Bord Bia’s (The Irish Food Board’s) Origin Green, which is the world’s only national food and drink sustainability programme. “We work closely with Bord Bia, and it has been a great source of support for Glenisk over the years,” says Emma.

The company prides itself on the fact that all its products use organic cows’ or goats’ milk. Glenisk produces milk, cream, and crème fraiche, but its core business is yogurt, and organic big pots and multi-packs of yogurt. It also produces a Greek style yogurt, yogurt with no added sugar, kids and baby yogurts, and a bio yogurt range for adults.

Maintaining an adequate supply of organic milk is a constant challenge for the company, however. “Currently, only a small percentage of Irish dairy farmers are producing organic milk,” says Emma. “We see huge potential in this sector, so we’re always encouraging them to convert to organic farming.”

In 2019, Glenisk became the top selling yogurt brand in Ireland. That same year it reported a turnover of €24.1m and made a profit of €1.2m. Business increased by up to 50% during the Covid restrictions of 2020 as consumers spent more money on food to eat at home.

But then tragedy struck when a fire happened at the Glenisk yoghurt production plant in Co. Offaly on September 28, 2021. The fire was discovered at 11am when a fire bell was raised, and smoke began to billow from the plant. Luckily the 50 staff on site at the time were evacuated. The interior however went up in flames and was completely destroyed.

Production came to a halt in the aftermath of the fire. The fire did however provide an opportunity to rebuild the factory to a climate neutral specification. The company was greatly helped by the local community, its partners and its employees, many of whom helped to build the new plant, using re-purposed wood.

“Glenisk employees were diverted into working on the rebuild,” explains Emma. “And local contractors and suppliers worked with us to fast track the building process. “While the fire was a shock, we consider ourselves to be very fortunate. Nobody was hurt and we were able to retain all our staff with no layoffs.”

After four months, Glenisk had one machine up and running. “On February 2, we began producing organic big pots of yogurt. Another manufacturing line was added in May and we’re continuing to reintroduce ranges now,” says Emma.

While traditionally, its sales have been through Irish retail stores, Glenisk also has a strong presence in the Middle East and the Far East. The company had also just launched in Germany before the fire and is now planning to relaunch there later this year. “We do not have the extensive marketing budgets of some of our competitors, so we focus on distinguishing our brand through organic sourcing, certified climate neutral packaging and innovative recipes, like authentically strained high protein and no added sugar products,” explains Emma.

It also aims to be competitive in price. “We never take our customers for granted. Every time a pot of our yogurt is placed in a trolley, it’s a pledge of faith. It’s our job to reward that faith with an excellent product.” 

Glenisk is grateful for the support it has received from the local community and likes to give back by supporting the local Offaly GAA, Camogie and Ladies Football teams, as well as global initiatives like Self Help Africa. “It’s important for us to give back,” says Emma. “We’re aware of the amazing support we have had got from the local community which has helped us to recover. We’re hoping to be back to our pre-fire levels by the end of the year,” she adds. “The future is promising.”