A profile of Robert Roberts MD I did in 2002 for Business Ireland

A measured success
Ken Peare of DCC Foods

There was never any chance that Ken Peare, Chief Operations Officer of DCC Foods and Managing Director of Robert Roberts and Woodford Bourne, would go up in the dotcom bubble. In a world gone virtual-mad he is a rock of old-fashioned, realistic sense. His business vocabulary is jargon-free, and his commercial concepts are solid ones, borrowed more from engineering than from the ethereal world of management theory. Measuring and building are the foundations of his business success.

Neatly dressed in unpretentious attire, Ken Peare is a soft-spoken, modest man. He uses ‘we’ almost totally to the exclusion of ‘I’. He speaks with a slight twang and uses a smattering of Americanisms. He is a private man, with an unusually low profile for one so successful in Irish business. He plays golf and tennis, and enjoys his holidays. He has an interest in art, being married to a successful artist – two large paintings of hers hang in his office.

His winning of the Checkout Person of Year Award he plays down: given “maybe for the things I’ve done over the years in the business.” Among particular achievements mentioned by Checkout were his leading Irish Tea Merchants to its initial public offering, rebranding it as Wardell Roberts, and his astute acquisitions of such strong companies as Kelkin Naturproducts and Woodford Bourne in growth sectors.

Ken started out, after his Business Degree in Trinity, working for six years in the UK for General Foods, as Marketing Manager for Maxwell House Coffee. This stint with one of the primary marketing companies in the world undoubtedly laid down some of the sound business foundations that he would later build on so effectively in the Irish context, as well as that American-leaning in his speech, and of course his love for coffee.

But any idea that he might have seen the competitive-edge benefit of bringing important new skills picked up in the UK with a US company to the Irish market is deemed “a pretty grand way of looking at it”. The way it actually happened was he saw an ad in the Sunday Times for Irish Biscuits and asked his wife how she would like to go back to Ireland.

In 1974 he joined Irish Tea Merchants, “a really small tea and coffee company, which over the years we built into a manufacturing and distribution business through the acquisition of agencies such as KP Snacks and Peanuts.”

He brought it public in 1986, and ITM became Wardell Roberts. The acquisitions continued with more successful companies such as Kelkin Naturproducts, Woodford Bourne, Healthlife. Ken has simply “built the businesses from there.”

Did he have a vision or plan of some sort for all this expansion?

“The whole thing evolves, really. You look at it and you see how your business is going, see where your strengths and weaknesses are. For example, we had a tea and coffee company with a relatively flat level of sales, but I recognised we have a strong sales force, which was an under utilized resource. So we said, what else can we do with this sales force? And we went out and we expanded the KP business. That was how we built into a distribution business.”

His moves are strategic, leveraging maximum return from existing resources, before expanding and only then after careful analysis and consideration. It is evolution rather than revolution. “Anyone who suggests you sit down and write big long plan five-, eight-year plans in advance … I just don’t believe that that’s the way life is.”

Acquisition is a cornerstone of his success, a logical outcome of his strategic analysis approach to management. Kelkin was “a superb acquisition and is growing at circa 15% per annum. It is a very strong company, operating in a tremendous growth market that will continue to grow.” Then came Woodford Bourne in late 80s. “At the time it had very good agencies for the likes of Bollinger and Torres, and we have developed that business. Again it’s a growth market, probably double digit growth per annum in the market, and we have brands that have real potential.”

Does he have a crystal ball revealing growth markets to him?

“The idea all the time is trying to find out what is going to grow, by trying all the time to relate things in markets: something happens there, will it happen here? If not, why not? Looking at totally different markets in totally different countries. Having all that information streaming in, and trying to work out where we fit in, where we want to be and how we’re going to get there.” He quotes Michael Smurfit, saying buying the Woodford Bourne acquisition was just “logical opportunism”.

“The opportunity came up and we said yeah that looks interesting, that would fit in with what we do. You see we had our food service business, coffee and tea, supplying into restaurants and hotels and to the retail trade. This business came up and it was supplying wine to restaurants and hotels and we could see the synergies, similar customer base, similar requirements of the customer.”

Has he had to be a personally ambitious man?

“No. I enjoy what I’m doing, and I have always enjoyed the food industry. It is stable, and yet it is internally dynamic. There’s lots of things happening inside it. And I enjoy working in it. But I suppose I’d be very objective driven: concentrating on where do we want to get to, and then how are we going to get there. Then you go through the process of doing it.”

“I’m really interested in the business, and that means you’re walking by the store, or watching the TV, and you’re all the time saying, it’s just automatic: how does that relate to what we do? Is there something we can learn from that? It’s a very everyday business, you can’t pick up a magazine without …”

So, is he incapable of switching off?

“I don’t think of switching off as a necessity for coping, I actually enjoy the work so it’s not a huge pressure to do a lot of these things.”

And his team?

“Our attitude to people is that we look for diversity, and we have a number of people who have crossed from the factory floor to working in the office, so we encourage people to apply across the business. We need diversity. We don’t need a business that is full of MBA graduates.

“We have been objective based, and measurement based. In other words, having agreed the specific goals, you don’t then forget them. You go back and see that we said we’d do that – how did we do? And what are going to do about it? And to do that we have very good information systems, which are timely – we have the figures when we need them. Our accounts are available the Friday after every month, and on a weekly basis we have a very good fix on exactly how our business is doing.

“What we try to do in the business is that if people can answer a question with a number that’s the first answer they give, and then they qualify. In other words, if I say how are we doing, I want to know, look I’m 10% up on last year or 5% down versus my budget. That’s the style of the business. And my view is people actually enjoy it that way, a rep wants you to ask him that question as it shows him you actually want to see how he’s doing. And I think that’s true for most of the people who work in this business.”

Ken is on his second cup of coffee heading for the Robert Roberts Tasting Room conveniently situated a few doors down from his office. Surrounded by tins of tealeaves and bowls of coffee beans, he is clearly as excited by the product as he is by the management.

“I’ve been all my life in coffee. It’s very interesting, and very fashionable. With more people travelling, there’s more cappuccino, espresso being drunk. And there’s a lot of coffee shops.”

As comfortable in his Robert Roberts white coat handling the beans as he is at his desk, Ken talks effortlessly about coffee and the parallels with wine.

“We produce some great product, a range of varietals from Java to Kenyan and you will find as big a difference between a Java coffee, which is strong and chocolaty, and a Kenyan coffee, which is light, golden in colour with high notes, as you will between a sauvignon blanc and a chardonnay. It’s a very interesting industry and there’s a lot of similarities between the two products.”

His ambitious growth targets for all the companies under the DCC Foods umbrella suggest that he has no plans to rest of laurels?

“You gotta always move it on up. People are motivated by having objectives, and then achieving those, and creating new objectives, and sometimes failing, and then going on with other objectives. People like to come in and have something to achieve.”

“We have the brands, a couple of very good managers, and we’re also in the process of strengthening our sales team, cause then it’s about more customers and a good service to those customers.

Pushed for a philosophical simile, Ken reluctantly suggests that “business is like managing a football team. If I have six centre forwards around this table, you know, I might as well forget it. We might score lots of goals but we’ll lose every match. You need somebody out on the right wing, and you need a centre back.”

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