Owen Brennan: 'The positive impact of food on human health is an area we're very focused on as a business'
This Week: Owen Brennan
A fusion of agriculture, science, innovation and vision, Owen Brennan in many ways embodies the company he took over 22 years ago.
With just 23 employees, Devenish was a relatively small player in Northern Ireland's agri-feed sector when the Carlow man bought the company with a group of colleagues in November 1997.
Sensing that the feeds sector was losing a lot of expertise and innovation, Owen spotted a niche opportunity for a specialised innovation-focused nutrition business. Two decades on and Devenish has grown into a global agri-technology company specialising in animal nutrition.
Its workforce now tops 500 people across the world, with operations in the USA, Turkey and Uganda.
The company is building a new factory in north west Mexico, which will add another three dozen staff over the coming months.
Key to the success of Devenish has been its ability to innovate. The company spends up to 20% of its considerable annual turnover of £94m on research and development. In 1997, Owen's focus was on establishing a specialised nutrition firm. These days his mind is on the ever-expanding demand for quality food.
"A lot of health is treatment-based and I think in general it is underestimated how much quality food promotes good health and prevents ill health," he says. "We see there being a big shift in thinking in that direction over time. "We call it 'one health', which is plant, animal, human and environmental health taken together."
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It's easy to see where Owen's agri-business acumen comes from. From a farming background in Leighlinbridge, Co Carlow, his parents Michael and Mary bought a merchant business in the village early in their marriage.
"It's more important than it gets credit for," he says. "The business of buying and selling was an intrinsic part of life and something I enjoyed being part of.
"The basics of business I think are very much in common from the smallest to the largest concern."
The business remains in the family, now run by Owen's brother Richard and his wife Geraldine.
Owen admits he spent precious little time thinking about his future career during his younger years.
As the eldest in a family of 10, there was always plenty to keep him occupied.
"There was a big crowd of us," he says. "I never really gave it a thought. We all assume what we have and what we do is normal at that stage in life. But you wouldn't dare be late for meal times."
He stuck with what he knew and enjoyed and won a scholarship to study at agricultural college in Warrenstown, Co Meath and later UCD.
Faced with the choice of taking up a scholarship with Kellogg's to further his studies in the US, Owen instead embarked down the business path, starting his career with Kilkenny-based agri-feeds firm Red Mills. In 1986 he moved into the specialised field of nutrition with New Tech.
But by the late '90s he was ready for a new challenge.
In November 1997, along with a number of colleagues, he bought a little-known Belfast-based animal feeds firm called Devenish.
With a strong background in agri-science and buoyed by an MBA from the Smurfit Business School five years earlier, Owen set about expanding the company's sphere, immediately changing the name from Devenish Feeds to Devenish Nutrition.
"We made an initial small investment in the US in February 1998. I was very keen to step into the international arena. Ireland is a small place, but even at that time, the world was becoming a very connected place. It was essential that we took that step."
Just over 20 years on, Devenish is a truly global business.
"Over 95% of Devenish's business was in Northern Ireland in 1997. That's less than 10% today, even though we do five times more business in Northern Ireland now," he reveals.
"The business is very well dispersed now, with sales to over 30 countries."
The firm's trade is split evenly between inside the EU, as it exists today and the rest of the world.
A significant proportion of its EU sales are within the UK.
The executive chairman disclosed that his firm has already felt the impact of Brexit.
"The loss of value of sterling has cost our business quite significantly. It's difficult to put an absolute figure on it, but I would describe it as a significant negative, and the effect was almost immediate."
Like most major companies, Devenish is hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst.
"We've done all the scenario planning that we think we can to leave ourselves, reasonably well placed, we hope, irrespective of the outcome that arises.
"We're better covered than many, but we still anticipate a degree of disruption and cost.
"We were opposed to Brexit when the issue arose. We tried to be clear why that was, and we've been very supportive of the positions represented by organisations like the NI Chamber and CBI, but you don't get the impression that those voices are being very well heard in all of this," he said.
Devenish's global footprint continues to grow, with the firm expanding its presence in Africa, the Middle East and Central America.
"All these locations are in a very significant growth pattern. The world in general is becoming a better off place and one of the first place that impacts is on food supply, in the quality and range of products."
Growth in the United States has been particularly strong.
"We have four manufacturing locations in the United States and they continue to grow.
"I think of states in the US as equivalent to large European countries. So I can foresee more locations there over time."
Devenish is also looking to Australia as a future growth region, where it can sell into places like Hong Kong and Singapore.
"We tend to supply into locations before we make a capital investment and we've been very pleased with that region.
"Africa more generally will be part of our developing investment."
While Devenish is often described as a nutrition company, for Owen, it's fundamentally a technology business. That's down to the value the company places on innovation.
These days the science and business sides of Owen's brain are occupied with issues like sustainability and the link between quality food and health.
"We are particularly focused on sustainable farming and food production," he said.
At 58, the innovation-end of the business is what inspires the executive chairman most.
Living in the Boyne Valley, near Slane, Owen spends a lot of his time now in the global innovation centre which Devenish built in Co Meath five years ago. "I really enjoy what I do. There has been an evolution of my role. As I'm supported by a bigger team, I've been able to concentrate more on the innovation side of the business, which is a particular interest of mine."
Science has been a theme at home as well. His wife Alice is a professor of clinical pharmacology at the College of Surgeon in Dublin. Margaret, his eldest daughter, is a junior doctor in St James' Hospital, Dublin, while his middle daughter Alice is a chemical engineer with Glanbia in Drogheda.
Molly, his youngest, went down a different path, studying law at Trinity.
There is no plan to slow down or step back from the company. If anything, Owen is thinking bigger.
He's thinking about the planet.
"The potential of farming and the food industry generally to contribute to positive environmental outcomes is very much underestimated.
"In a sustainability context we're very focused on that. Particularly the potential of practical food production systems to sequester carbon and greenhouse gases more generally.
"I think the potential is quite enormous. Those are the more specialised areas where we are concentrating our innovation expenditure.
"The impact of food and the potential for a positive impact of food on human health, is a really interesting and rapidly growing area and one that we're very focused on as a business," he continued.
"If you take it that we have a population of 7.5 billion on the planet right now and that's projected to be perhaps 9.5 billion by 2050. That sounds like a long time away, but it's not really. That growth is rapid and occurring every day and every year.
"I think there's a great deal of scope for innovative thinking and development in the sector. I think Ireland and Northern Ireland are very well placed to play a really good role."