| 19.7°C Belfast

'Travelling the world gave me perspective,' says Huhtamaki chief Ciaran Doherty

Ciaran Doherty, head of Huhtamaki, tells Margaret Canning about repurposing production to make visors for NHS staff


Ciaran Doherty

Ciaran Doherty

With his wife Karen and children (from left) Carla, Ella, Ben and Jack

With his wife Karen and children (from left) Carla, Ella, Ben and Jack

Ciaran Doherty

Few businesses saw a more abrupt start to the lockdown than those in the restaurant and food service trades.

Huhtamaki in west Belfast, a supplier of packaging to McDonald's, other fast food giants and food companies, has now been able to repurpose its production lines helping Magherafelt firm Bloc Blinds make shields, a crucial element of the personal protection equipment needed by NHS workers to treat those suffering from Covid-19.

But beforehand, company boss Ciaran Doherty, general manager of Huhtamaki Foodservice UK, had watched business for its west Belfast site vanish almost overnight.

He is responsible for the running of the Finnish firm's six sites in the UK in Belfast, Waringstown, Antrim, Blackburn and another two in Gosport.

During 2018 the Northern Ireland-registered Huhtamaki Foodservice Delta had turnover of just under £55m, pre-tax profits of £4m and a workforce of 354.

But events of March 22 proved that even blue-chip clients like McDonald's were in unprecedented times.

"It was one piece of incredible news after the other. I was sitting at home on the Sunday night that McDonald's said they were closing. I looked at my wife Karen and said, I don't believe it. All the big guys followed McDonald's after that, and we felt the business was falling in around us. That was after double-digit growth year-on-year, incredible investment in new factories, and being named 2019 UK and Ireland supplier of the year by McDonald's, which was an incredible achievement.

"We had to close our factory in Antrim within a week after building up a safety stock. Belfast didn't close down but we're at about 25% of 30% of usual output. We still have a retail business making things like firelighter boxes, meat-type packaging and Kellogg's cereal boxes."

A return to business after lockdown will depend on customers. Ciaran says: "We will be totally aligned to how customers come back in, so we're keeping in very close contact. We've made sure we have some safety stock as they start to warm up. It was almost a sudden complete switch-off but I don't think coming back will be just about a switch back on again. It will be more gradual than that.

"The Belfast site was very badly hit by our customers' business stopping. Our biggest customers are McDonald's, KFC and Nando's.

"We were laying off staff, and all this was happening very quickly at the end of March/first week of April."

Simultaenously, businesses across the province were looking to how they could repurpose themselves.

"At that time, there was a big buzz about what Cormac Diamond and and the guys at Bloc Blinds were doing with face visors. I know him reasonably well as we were both at St Mary's Grammar School in Magherafelt. We got talking and he told me what he was doing and I got to thinking about using our high-speed packaging machinery to speed it all up. I was asking him: 'What's your story, what are your contracts'."

Ciaran and his team made some modifications to the design to enable automation. "No more than four or five days later we're standing shoulder to shoulder with Finance Minister Conor Murphy and Health Minister Robin Swann making an announcement that we'd committed to making 4 million shields a week.

"Our limiting factor has been sourcing the clear plastic known as PET. It's very high grade making it crystal clear for visibility. We have been sourcing incredible amounts in a short space of time to get a major operation up and running". The operation is on course to supply 13 million to the NHS through the HSCNI Business Services Organisation. Large numbers of Huhtamaki's 350 staff had been put on furlough. But now some will be returning to work for the "labour intensive" process of final assembly of the visors in Antrim. He said the company is working through details with the trade unions.

Ciaran said he felt "massively drawn" to helping with the work, partly because wife Karen, a GP in Moneymore, has also been working in a Covid centre.

"She was able to come home and tell me she was wearing a visor from Cormac's place. But it's not about Cormac and I, it's about the two teams. We have put the technical and production side together, and an incredible and genuine work ethic has resulted. Our guys are having to learn and adapt as paper guys dealing with the challenges of plastics. I've been proud as punch of how my team has rowed in behind this and are making it work. It's not lost on us, the importance of taking on a big NHS contract."

He says he has adapted quickly in business before, coming up with a plan for Huhtamaki to carry out the manufacture of paper straws for McDonald's after it decided to stop using plastic straws.

Huhtamaki acted quickly. By October 2018 it had design rights for a manufacturing process and by November a contract for a long lease of new premises at Kilbegs Road in Antrim so that the straws could be manufactured in time for McDonald's target of March 2019.

That Antrim factory was closed after the lockdown but will be now be reused for making the shields.

Ciaran's career in manufacturing is far removed from his childhood on a farm in Newbridge in Co Derry. He studied economics at Queen's, following it up with an MBA and then joined Allied Bakeries' graduate trainee programme.

He moved to England with his wife and they returned when their second child was on the way.

He became general manager of Moy Park in Craigavon, then later operations director at Irwins Bakery.

Then came a complete switch as he joined Translink, ultimately becoming general manager of buses and trains and overseeeing the development of the Glider programme, although he left before its launch. "For five full years I engulfed myself into the world of the public sector. It was all very political, and a great insight into public governance."

It's been a fascinating career. "Your working life is a big part of who you are... I've had a good ride." He and Karen have four children. Like all working parents, he's having a busy time combining home life with working from home.

But along with Cormac Diamond of Bloc Blinds and many other businesspeople who have joined the fight to produce personal production equipment, he's making good use of his time working from home.

'Travelling the world gave me perspective'

Q. What's the best piece of business advice you've ever been given?

A. Read to open your mind and grow as a person.

Q. What has been your best business decision?

A. At 27 I was convinced by Karen my wife to take a career break and travel the world with her. Being already very committed at work it was a difficult choice. Taking the time away and seeing new things give me the perspective to make better career decisions.

Q. If you weren't doing this job, what would be your other career?

A. I have always admired and respected people who have the courage to go on their own. If I wasn't doing what I do I'd like to create something new and go on my own.

Q. What was your last holiday and where are you going next?

A. The six of us went camping in Italy last August. We had planned to go to the Greek islands this year but that is looking unlikely, we'll wait and see. Nothing I'd love more than a weekend in Marble Hill (near Dunfanaghy in Co Donegal) right now.

Q. What are your hobbies/interests?

A. Gaelic football has been a passion of mine all my life. I am a Newbridge club man and coming from this small community is an important part of who I am. Since retiring I get my sporting kicks from endurance challenges like triathlon and adventure racing. I love the open air and the freedom a long run or bike ride gives, and no better place than our breathtaking Sperrins.

Q. How do you sum up working in the manufacturing sector?

A. For me it is all about the people. Every day I work with people who inspire me. Navigating through the turmoil that coronavirus has brought, it has been humbling to see how the manufacturing community have stood up and dealt with the challenge so far.

Belfast Telegraph