Q How did you come into the baking industry?
A My father was with Kelly’s Bakery in Kilcock as a salesman. When I was a child, I used to go down to the bakery with him and it was a love affair. I started at O’Rourke’s bakery (Mother’s Pride) in the days when you were signed into an indentured apprenticeship with a master.
I still have the list of things we were precluded from doing, such as staying out late at night without permission. My brother, Robert, followed me into bakery and is presently with Johnston Mooney & O’Briens.
After my apprenticeship, I attended Dublin Bakery College, where I was the first Irish citizen to be awarded the London City and Guilds Silver Medallion.
The MD showed me competi-tors’ products and said that if I could produce them to an acceptable standard, packaged and costed, he would consider me to be a suitable candidate. So I did it and got the job as product development manager.
That started my career in management and I later became bread bakery production manager and confectionery production manager; bakery general manager at Mother’s Pride Group (owned by RHM); and bakery general manager at Irish Bakeries.
Q How did you get involved in yeast production?
A I came into Yeast Products as CEO and later became managing director of the company.
For me it was an interesting business, because yeast and its functionality is an issue of breadmaking and fermentation. So while they are two totally diffe-rent businesses, the logic between them has similarities. Because I knew what a baker would look for in yeast, we set out to achieve that as a business.
That is the reason we have been very successful.
Q Tell me about your links with the UK and becoming one of a handful of Irish members of the Worshipful Company of Bakers
A When I was with RHM, at its bakery on North Circular Road, Dublin, Derrick Warburton, father of Jonathan, who now heads up Warburton’s Bakery, was on our board and he invited me to work in ’back o’ th’ bank’ in Bolton to see their bakery operation and get a good grounding. Mother’s Pride had bakeries across the UK and I worked in many of them.
Some years back, I was invited to go along to the Worshipful Company of Bakers and attended events so I was subsequently invited to join and was delighted to do so. More recently, I have become a liveryman of the company. I’ve been asked by the master to bring my chain of office of Irish Association of Master Bakers. That will be the first time that chain of office will have officiallybeen worn, in its 100 years in existence, at the Election Banquet in the Mansion House in London. It is a big honour.
All of these things are forging the links between our two islands.
Q What do you hope to do as president of the Irish Association of Master Bakers (IAMB)?
A At our conference, members spoke about how the industry has been the subject - not only here but across the world - of bad press, and not all of it based on fact. I hope that, over the next two years, the industry can put together a response to these spurious claims and enhance the image of bread and its part in a healthy diet. The industry at large has to decide how to proceed. IAMB is the umbrella body, with a role in pulling all industry groups together where there is a common issue like this.
Q What other issues are facing Irish bakery?
A The industry continues to diversify and rationalise. It has been responding to changing market demand and bakers have been introducing new products. The demand for variety is beginning to grow and that trend will continue. So we will have a wide range of products in Irish bakeries, just as there are in European bakeries.
It has come full circle. In my youth, every baker produced a full range of bakery and confectionery products, which were all sold fresh every day and they had all the skills that went into that. But with the advent of supermarkets, the sale of fresh products as wholesale was centralised.
Now, the industry is embracing new technology - the concept of using frozen product, retarded products and gas flushing, for example - technologies that extend the lifespan of products and open up opportunities for greater variety.
Q How has the issue of training been tackled in Ireland?
A Skillnets is going very well and gives us the opportunity to train bakers in-situ. It is a structured and focused programme. Pat Garvey is responsible for it and he has done an excellent job. He won an award for creating one of the best Skillnets programmes across all industries. The bakery industry was complimented for the quality of its training programme.
Matching training needs with the industry’s needs is vital. As pressure is exerted to comply with different standards or product demand patterns, training is provided. The Bakery School’s interaction with the industry has diminished, but there will always a place for a national bakery college in the bakery industry.
Q What are the difficulties and opportunities in the Irish market?
A It is not right that bread should be selling at low prices. It is taking away from our industry the ability to reinvest and meet the needs of consumers. As a wholesome foodstuff, bread should command a reasonable price.
I hear of the pressure on pricing in supermarkets, where small amounts of money affect decisions to purchase.
If bread is sold on price alone, you would sell only cheap products - but that is not the case; bread is beginning to find a place again as an important quality food item in the shopping basket.
There is a renaissance in the craft bakery sector. You come across French, Polish, and other bakeries in Ireland now and they are bringing their skills with them. That process is finding favour among consumers. Irish bakers, too, have been diversifying and introducing new products and new bakeries are opening.
Q What do you do when you are not at work?
A I follow rugby, and am an avid supporter of the Irish squad, and I read quite a bit. My wife, Angela, and I have also travelled a lot - in Italy, Spain and Portugal, of late.
I like Italy - in particular its culture, social background, art and history - and I am, inevitably, drawn to bakeries wherever I am.
My son, Paul, graduated from University College, Dublin, with a B. Com (Hons) and is running a restaurant in Cabinteely (in Ireland). He is into food big-time. As a child he used to help me to make mince pies at Christmas and, as he got older, graduated to more advanced items. n