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Innovation by the packet

Launched in 2011, Keogh’s Crisps is one of Ireland’s most successful independent snack brands. Much of its success is down to innovation, which touches every aspect of the business

You may not equate Ireland’s capital, Dublin, with being an agricultural hub, but north of the city is home to some of the country’s largest potato and vegetable farms. 

One such farm, Keogh’s, is a 200-year-old family operation, growing potatoes and, more recently, diversifying to create premium crisp and popcorn products. Tom Keogh, Keogh's Crisps managing director, explains: “We have 400 acres in the farming end of our business in Abbotstown, and we have about 30-40 growers around Ireland who supply to us,” he says.

“After farming, area two of our business is the fresh pack [of potatoes]. We supply around 10% of Irish potatoes into the Irish market, under the Keogh’s brand. 

“Lastly, it’s snacks, and that’s Keogh’s crisps and popcorn. We have about 13% market share in Ireland, supplying to about 20 countries internationally.” 

Innovation – most important ingredient

Generating fresh ideas is essential for continued success, and innovation plays a key role in this: “It is one of the core things that got us here today,” Tom says. “Innovation can start when you’re ploughing a field in spring and can finish months later when you’ve harvested the potato and made the crisps. It touches every point of the supply chain. 

“We control the supply chain, so we have a chance to implement ideas all along the process. Being in a family business, this innovative approach is something we grew up with. It stems from a natural curiosity and a want to do things better,” he says. Innovating and improving are cultural elements that Keogh’s has strived to spread throughout the business, from the top down; it’s amazing what can be achieved, as a result, in all parts of the business, he says.

Ideas require formal implementation, and Keogh’s internal reward system for staff helps nurture lateral thinking. “A pillar here is the Bright Spark award,” says Tom. “Every half year, we gift the award to the team member who came up with the best idea [in the six months previous] and that idea is then implemented. It could be a new product or a design change that saves money, for example. The fact that they’re recognised and [the idea is] followed up on is really important.” One Bright Spark award idea that the company fostered involves using the latest technology in gas combustion to reduce the energy usage in the factory in the cooking process, Tom explains.

Flavours of invention 

The company is also very happy to put many of these ideas on the customer-facing side, in the form of new collaborations and crisp flavours. Its ‘summer flavours’ are becoming an annual tradition and this year sees the company collaborate with Irish whiskey brand, Teeling’s to create a smoked barbecue and Irish whiskey flavour crisp, Tom says. 

“We’re already working on flavours for next summer. And some of those are very exciting. I can’t say too much, but we’ll continue doing what we do, collaborating with local suppliers and using Irish products in our flavours. 

“When people think innovation, they think new products. But the greatest driver to bottom-line growth is process innovation. We’ve been focusing on that recently and it’s led to system improvements, and quality improvements. That’s doing very well for us now. 

“And the last point is our people. We are constantly investing in our people. They enjoy the chance to develop their own skills, so they can keep up with the challenges in the business. It’s growing fast and people need to grow within the business.” 

Keogh’s at home and beyond 

The casual snack market is immensely competitive, but also lucrative. “At a basic level, the Irish market is worth roughly €100m and it grew by about 7% over the last year,” Tom says. "Then, there’s an unmeasured market in crisps, and that market is arguably bigger than measured. I’m talking about crisps in small cafés, petrol stations, at work, in restaurants and so on. There’s a lot that’s not read from a data point of view.” 

Unsurprisingly, there are a few bites being taken from the market share but there are only three major players in the Irish market, according to Tom. This, he says, doesn’t make it any less competitive. “It is very competitive, because there are so few powerful players in the industry,” he explains. “In the Irish crisps market, 75% is owned by one company, Intersnack. And it owns almost every on-the-shelf brand you can buy, apart from ourselves, and Walkers. We have 13% of the market, roughly.

“As a small Irish-owned business that manufactures in the Republic of Ireland, up against multinationals, that has its challenges. It can put a ceiling on things, but it drives the culture of innovation in the business, and it drives the quality of people working here.” 

USPs and partners 

Tom believes that Irish crisp companies, like Keogh’s, have unique offerings. “The cheese and onion flavour, invented in Ireland, has a global recognition. No other market, globally, has one flavour like that.” And, beyond Teeling’s, Keogh’s has ‘lots of plans’ to collaborate with other Irish producers, while several partnerships are already in existence. 

“Dave Llewellyn [Llewellyn Premium Irish Cider Vinegar] produces apple balsamic and cider vinegar for us,” he says. “We work with Irish Atlantic Sea Salt; IPI Teoranta/Living Shamrock, which provides the shamrock for our Shamrock & Sour Cream crisps; Glenilen Farm makes butter for our popcorn; and Taylors of Lusk grows the chillis for our Sweet Chilli crisps. 

“Last year, our summer season flavour was Cashel Blue Cheese. We developed an amazing seasoning. That product is our third-biggest-selling flavour in America.”

International markets 

Keogh’s is, unsurprisingly, performing well around the world. “We export to about 20 countries with about a quarter of volume exported. Of those, America is number one, and we’ve several distributors across the US. It’s growing quickly.

“We do a lot in the Middle East, selling to several countries there and to Emirate Airlines. In the Middle East, Europe, the UK, and beyond, we’ve opened up the airline side. The last six months alone have seen new business with Ryanair, Singapore Airlines, Lufthansa, and Delta. 

“Overseas opportunities are substantial, and we need to invest in overseas markets. That’ll be our growth strategy in the next five years: building an export team and marketing the brand. The US market will be top of the list. Overseas sales can be quite erratic – someone could put in a tariff overnight, or the price of logistics can treble, or there are currency fluctuations. You’re open to more threats in overseas markets, so it’s important not to put all your eggs in one basket.”


Business network

Irish companies rise or fall based on their networks, so Tom is happy to be involved in EY’s Entrepreneur of the Year programme. As part of this, the EY Entrepreneur of the Year awards will take place in November and Keogh’s Crisps is shortlisted. “There are about 24 finalist companies,” Tom says. “We recently went on the CEO retreat to Singapore. It was a fantastic trip that introduced us to a lot of alumni. It’s amazing to be part of such a group of people and see what they’ve achieved. It’s a huge benefit to be part of that network.”

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