How does an industry prepared for risk handle a pandemic? And what do they see for the future?
Tara McCarthy, Chief Executive Officer of Bord Bia, describes the pivots they made in the early days of the pandemic, how they planned for recovery from the start, and how they’re keeping the safety and wellbeing of their colleagues and community front of mind for the future.
How does an industry prepared for risk handle a pandemic? And what do they see for the future? Tara McCarthy, Chief Executive Officer of Bord Bia, sat down with Aon to tell us about the pivots they made in the early days of the pandemic, and how they planned for
recovery from the start.
TARA MCCARTHY: Our purpose is to bring Ireland’s outstanding food, drink, and horticulture projects to the world to enable the growth and sustainability of our producers. We work with around between 1400 and 1500 food and drink companies, and we work with Ireland’s farming network. And that represents around €13 billion in exports to 180 different markets around the world.
As a leader in the high-risk food industry, Bord Bia is practiced at crisis management. But prior to the pandemic, their risk preparation had accelerated due to Brexit.
TARA MCCARTHY: We viewed that as a disaster obviously because 44% of our exports of the €13 billion, that goes to the UK. It’s our highest paying, closest market, and we believe that’s the right place for our food to go.
We’ve been mapping our supply chains. We’ve been looking at where are the risks and the unknowns in the supply chain. So then when COVID pops along, guess what we’d already done? We’d mapped all our supply chains. We knew what Plan B, Plan C, Plan D were if somebody on the sy stem had let you down because they had a disruption because of COVID.
So supply chain we managed. Probably our biggest challenge was route to market and the outlet of our products. Food service got closed down on us overnight, and that was probably the biggest hit the industry took and where the biggest pivot had to take place as well. And I guess many sectors then, high-value sectors were hit by this. So bringing that to life for you, where does one eat oysters most? In a restaurant. Where do you have your good steak? In a restaurant. Where do you have that beautiful glass of whiskey that’s aged single barrel? In a restaurant. So that world got taken away from us very, very quickly, very sharply, and suddenly. And whilst you can age
your whiskey for a little while longer, aging your oysters isn’t quite as effective, so that give us a problem immediately.
What we tried to do for those guys was pivot them into supermarkets quickly, get their route to market quickly. Some were able to move quickly than others. We’ve been running promotions on certain products, areas that we never have promoted before: steaks, we were promoting steaks on the Irish market, and in supermarkets we were telling consumers: have a steak, have it at home, etc. We had chefs on TV, chefs on social media helping you to cook a good steak, or where would you buy a nice oyster. How would you open an oyster? All of
these types of things to get those vulnerable companies.
From the start, Bord Bia knew this crisis would end in the future. Their planning for recovery, then, started early.
TARA MCCARTHY: What we looked at in that recovery was going out to speak to consumers on what behavior was going to be sticky and what wasn’t? So clearly, we were not all going to spend the rest of our lives stockpiling toilet paper and making banana cake, but what we were going to do was change our lives in other ways. And those other ways, we’re becoming much more comfortable with digital. We’re expecting to be able to work from home for much more frequently. We are engaging very differently with life. We’re having a different relationship with food in that, OK, I’ll shield myself and I will wear a mask when I go outside, I’ll wash my hands, I’ll elbow bump, all of these things, but I also want to make sure that my body is as safe as possible, so I’m going to eat better food. I’m going to eat more functional foods.
As part of recovery, Bord Bia is planning on different approaches to food.
TARA MCCARTHY: We are preparing for a huge movement on sustainability. We fundamentally believe sustainability is the future. And if we weren’t talking about all the other stuff, we should only be talking about sustainability in food.
We fundamentally believe that innovation is core to the business, that we need to keep driving that excitement of our industry, and we fundamentally believe that we have a huge job of work to do—I think everybody does, but we look at our own space on talent and making sure that we have a workstream that attracts the most exciting people, the best brains in the world.
And as Bord Bia plans for the future, they’re keeping the safety and wellbeing of their colleagues and community front of mind.
TARA MCCARTHY: So I think that people piece of our business is probably the part that’s going to need the most support because there’s a resilience required in this new world that I don’t think any of us expected to have to do this for so long.
How do you keep re-energizing? How do you keep motivating? How do you keep in touch?
And I think that resilience, that support, that kindness in what’s often a very angry world, that kindness that we have to keep building into our businesses I think would be a huge piece that we have to navigate and make sure that we don’t lose touch with.
Thanks to Tara McCarthy of Bord Bia for sharing their story. This interview was originally part of Aon’s global special report, Helping Organizations Chart a Course to the New Better which highlighted how leading global businesses and innovative thinkers such as Tara tackled a once-in-a-lifetime set of challenges posed by COVID-19.