In the mid-1990s, as Glenisk switched to organic milk for its products, it offered two tubs of plain yogurt to its customers.
This week, four months after a devastating fire destroyed 90% of the organic producer’s facilities in Killeigh, Co. Offaly, Glenisk’s yoghurt company resumed operations with the return of two products. General manager Vincent Cleary said the fire “took us back to the 90s”.
“We lost a few decades; I remember taking over my dad’s business and we basically had two individual pots of yogurt, and that’s where we are again now.
That said, Mr Cleary said it wouldn’t take 30 years for the business to return to peak health – with all staff “busy trying to get the next line of products” back on store shelves.
Until the date of the fire, Glenisk produced 57 different products. The company operates from its “plan B” manufacturing facility, built in just four months on a corner of its original manufacturing site.
Prior to the fire, Glenisk had begun construction of two adjoining buildings at the rear of its site. The first was an additional cold room and the second was going to be a warehouse. The two new buildings under construction were damaged, but not destroyed by the fire. They are now what is called the plan B factory.
In addition to the construction of buildings, the production hall required the installation of new pasteurization and incubation tanks, new pipes, new yoghurt packaging machines and all other additional infrastructure.
According to Glenisk commercial director Emma Walls, material suppliers “pushed us to the front of the queue”, while staff worked evenings, weekends and cut holidays short to get the job done. Mr Cleary added: ‘It wasn’t just a job for them; it was a project that everyone bought into.’
Glenisk said it will now turn its attention to the design of Plan A – a permanent carbon-neutral facility. It should take about a year to complete.
Although he always looks to the future and “always tries to improve ourselves, to improve our product, even when things are going well”, Mr. Cleary said that “nobody expects to build a factory and have a plan B in case the unthinkable happens”.
“When you stand in front of your business as it ignites and you watch it spread, your entire working life, the last 30 years unfold as you watch the flames go from room to room” , he continued. .
“The firefighters are doing their best, but you can see they are fighting a losing battle.”
As a child, Mr Cleary’s mother Mary, “in her wisdom”, never gave him any Lego. He said that over the past 30 years what Glenisk has done “has been compared to assembling a factory on a Lego base”.
“We were adding pieces as we went along and without much thought or planning, everything was done out of necessity.” He said that with the new construction he would “learn valuable lessons” about the layout of the facilities after what happened.
Glenisk is “reinventing” itself, but refuses to leave anyone behind in the process. The company has retained its workforce since the fire, no staff has been made redundant and all have been paid throughout the period since the fire.
Many staff members have been temporarily redeployed into new roles to help run the Plan B facility. “We have found some gems among our staff – good painters and things like that,” Mr Cleary added. . Goat milk and organic milk production also resumed just days after the fire, as this facility survived.
Meanwhile, Plan B for yogurt production has “more basic equipment” and is less automated, Cleary said. “What we lack in production capacity, we need more organizations to handle the product because there is less automation.
“As we grow in the products, I hope to bring in a level of semi-automation. I hope when the new build comes in there will be bigger job announcements.
Glenisk currently has the capacity to produce approximately 200,000 large pots per week. Although this was not significant until a few months after the fire, “it still represents only around 20% of our former activity; we have a lot to push back”.
Great business growth has taken place for Glenisk since Jack Cleary founded it in the late 1980s. With 14 children, one of his goals was to create jobs for them. Not all accepted this offer; but he “felt an obligation to his family, he was a man who did things for him”.
“I would like to think that we kept going and that we tend to do things rather than sink,” Mr. Cleary continued. “We paddle our own canoe. We put our business first.
September 27 was ‘a dark day’, but I hope that in time the Cleary family will see it as a ‘pivotal moment’ in the history of Glenisk. “Looking at the fire, it was hard to see yourself coming back from it.”
However, with all the staff mobilizing to relaunch the business, “we didn’t even have time to cry”.
“The day after the fire I walked into the yard and told everyone except a couple to stay home and they would be paid; but most of our employees came back and said, “What do you want? U.S?'”
Over the past few months, Glenisk has continued to collect milk from its 50 suppliers, paying the organic premium. Mr Cleary said Glenisk is ‘not the cheapest yoghurt’ but has become the number one branded yoghurt in Ireland ‘because we have stood above our product’.
“I could never sell a product I didn’t believe in. I sincerely believe that what our farmers are doing is better,” he said. “Customers are looking for value for money, but value for money doesn’t necessarily mean being the cheapest deal.”
Emma Walls said that until January it felt like the company was “taking two steps forward and three steps back just to get the right product”.
“We really didn’t want to come back with an inferior product, so it was very difficult,” Ms Walls said. “To get there, to have a product that we’re proud of, we’re elated – tired, but elated.
“We couldn’t have gotten back on our feet without a whole community picking us up.”