The view from the top floor of the Gibson Hotel is Dublin’s docklands, a glittering array of cranes and construction sites. Banks and technology companies surround us as Edmond Harty slips into his seat in the lobby.
Unassuming but quietly passionate, Harty is the chief executive of one of Ireland’s business treasures: Dairymaster in Kerry.
He is a homegrown success story who has created a business that is comparable – or better – than many of the overseas tech companies below us. Unlike some of the banks in the IFSC, Dairymaster has proved more than resilient in the downturn and is thriving in the recovery.
Harty, the overall Irish winner of the EY Entrepreneur of the Year awards 2012, is just 41, but he has taken his business to the world stage.
Founded by his father Ned in 1968, Dairymaster is an agritech powerhouse that employs over 300 people in Causeway, Co. Kerry. It has dozens more staff in sales and support teams around the world.
Dairymaster makes ground-breaking technology dairy equipment that does everything from milk cows better to cool milk more efficiently. It is a business making it from the United States to China and everything in between.
Ireland, Harty believes, has the reputation for its food overseas to become an even greater success. Creating better agri-tech companies was one way to do this. “I think we have some of the best companies in the world in this area,” he says.
He says the country knows how to combine its green reputation with delivering for the customer. “You can have all the great ideas in the world but you need a customer fundamentally to write a cheque.”
He says it is not always about reinventing the wheel, but rather constantly improving. “I really believe if we talk about technology, particularly in agriculture, it needs to be focused around icing on the cake, adding new technologies to existing products the customer already knows that they need.”
“We’re a very technical company,” he says. Forty-two people in his team work in research and development. “I describe the place now as a bit of an engineer’s playground,” he adds.
Harty turns on a short promotional video showing his facility in Kerry on his iPad. It is an extraordinary place packed with electronics, robotics and so on. About 30,000 parts are used to make its products.
Because of these high-tech roles, Harty says Dairymaster is able to lure people to Kerry who want to live in the county they grew up in, as well as those who prefer a rural way of life.
“We can live in a place where there’s no traffic. I’ll probably never understand the whole Dublin thing really because you know it just take so long to get from A to B.” Harty says his own five mile commute takes eight minutes. Working in food or agritech, he says, can be a way to escape the city.
Innovation, Harty believes, is a mindset. “It’s like a journey, the first thing is, ‘Well where is it you want to go?’, and then ‘Where is it you want to end up?’” Like any journey he acknowledges there are diversions and roadworks.
“So you have to figure out, ‘How can I be different?’ ‘How can I do something better?’ ‘How can I do something that the customer likes more than anything else? and ‘How do we make their business more profitable?’”
Harty however is modest about the achievements of his privately owned business. “We don’t make a big deal about our numbers,” he admits.
“I studied engineering in college and then I did a PhD (in milk performance) and then I came back and started working in my father’s business,” he recalls.
Gradually he started using his skills to develop a range of products for Dairymaster, starting with milking equipment and then expanding to automatic scrapers, automatic feeders, milk cooling tanks and heat detection systems.
“We use science and technology to make dairy farming either more profitable, more enjoyable or more sustainable,” he says.
“If a customer chooses to do business with us, we want to make him more money and we want to put a smile on his face,” he adds.
“Milking is by the largest thing we do. Our smallest installation is at Dublin Zoo while the largest works with farmers producing enough milk to feed about a half a million people.”
“Our core customer would be 50 to probably 1,000 cows,” he adds. Dairymaster he says has dozens of distributors that sell its product internationally.
About 75% of its goods are exported. “The main overseas markets are obviously the U.K., Germany, Holland, the U.S., Australia, New Zealand and Russia.”
Harty, when we meet, is just back from attending Dairymaster’s stand at the Ploughing Championship. Every day he says enough sandwiches for 1,200 people were served at their stand.
“If I looked at say our competitors, customers are not going to meet the chief executive. We are always listening to what people are saying, and trying to improve.” He says sometimes just a small idea from a customer, can plant a seed.
One of the things, is about trying to connect the dots.
Harty, scrolls through slides on his iPad until he comes to one showing the price of milk over the last 40 years.
It is a volatile graph. Dairymaster he says can improve milk output for farmers and makes what they do more efficient, delivering savings. Technology, he believes, can be used to tackle these big issues for Irish food producers. The Irish food sector should embrace this to stay ahead of its competitors, says Harty.
Brexit he says is hurting the Irish food sector. “From a farming and food perspective, it’s hard to know where it will go or where it will end up,” he says.
“From a farming point of view it could be risk or it could be opportunity.” Ireland he says needs to stay lean so it can thrive in uncertain times. “We should aim to be the best. If you look at Germany you think of automotives. Switzerland, you think of clocks and precision engineering.”
“If you think of Ireland, the question is – what do you think of? I think a big core part of it should be about food and the technology to produce that food, because if you think about it every man or woman on the planet is a potential customer,” he says.
It’s a product that’s needed by everybody and you know we’re not going to be the biggest so we should be the best, that would be my view of where we should be going with food.
“China has a huge need for food. That’s a challenge for them. We’ve been supplying food into China. There is a lot of opportunity there,” he says. In Ireland he says we measure our food by quality, while in other countries it is by quality and safety. “Safety is a given in Ireland. Our food is good and it’s safe,” he says – a key advantage for Irish food.
Harty built the business from what his father created. Would he like to see the company pass to a third generation? “Obviously we’re always thinking what’s the right thing to do. I have two children, a boy and a girl, and they are both interested in the whole thing thankfully.”
“Like any family business they’re exposed to it, which I think is good because it generates an interest. I was fortunate enough to be exposed to it myself and that’s what generated my interest. Time will tell,” he replies. Harty finishes his tea, time for the drive home to Kerry.