He’s a CEO of a global dairy business, but Ornua boss John Jordan has still found time to take up an advisory role with DCU Business School. He spoke to DCU Voices about his student days, leadership, and connecting the university with industry. Interview: Elaine Keogh
“I said ‘yes’ in a heartbeat,” recalls John Jordan, Ornua CEO, about his response to an invitation from DCU in 2019 to sit on the Business School’s Industry Advisory Council.
As head of a company that is Ireland’s largest dairy products exporter – Ornua’s turnover last year was €3.6 billion – and owner of the Kerrygold brand, Jordan has much to share about business and leadership. Another factor that influenced his decision to join the Industry Advisory Council was his own experience as a student at DCU and the lifelong friendships forged during his undergrad days.
He was one of approximately 1,000 students who started their third level education at what was then known as the NIHE (National Institute of Higher Education) before it was renamed DCU in 1990. He graduated in 1992 and says his class have remained close. He says, “we had a catch-up before Christmas and I think that is what has stuck with me – the great friendships I made and the great people I met.”
In secondary school, John loved maths, biology and physics and decided on a BSc in Biotechnology after going to an open day at NIHE; it also helped that his sister Carmel - now the chief executive of Mercer Global Investment Management Ireland - was already studying there.
“I thoroughly enjoyed my time in DCU. I embraced the atmosphere, the culture, and the engagement with the teaching staff. I also enjoyed the work ethic and came out of it having had a really fulfilling experience,” he recalls. “It set me up in many ways for the career that lay ahead.”
He says being asked by Anne Sinnott, Deputy President of DCU, to sit on the Business School Industry Advisory Council was a special moment. “I said ‘yes’ in a heartbeat,” John says. “The fact that I’d be involved with DCU and it became possible to be able to give something back is wonderful.”
Jordan did an INTRA placement as part of his own degree. INTRA is an accredited and highly valued part of student learning at DCU and is a compulsory part of many degree programmes. “The INTRA programme, connecting students to the workforce, was there in my time and it’s still a key part of DCU’s philosophy today. Students come out ‘work ready’ and understand what it is to spend time in a work environment. It is extremely valuable for them and the company.”
DCU brought INTRA with it from the NIHE era and it was a sign of a third level college adopting a progressive approach to what education should provide.
“It was an up-and-coming university stepping out into the world in 1990. It was great vision at the time from a new university, not hindered by past and tradition. It was very progressive, young and dynamic and a very engaging place to be educated.”
Today Ornua provides INTRA opportunities to DCU students and Jordan shares some words of advice for them. “Make sure the basics are done right,” he says. “They will have tasks to do at the beginning of their career. Simple things like applying for holidays or doing your expenses or reports you have to submit – they should be done on time and never have someone come looking for you.”
“Another piece of advice and one that I feel is very powerful for someone starting their career is - never be afraid to ask your boss if you can take something off their table. Everybody is busy in the world of work so it is great when somebody comes to you and says, ‘can I help’.”
On leadership roles, Jordan stresses “the absolute importance of having the right person in the right job.” He says, “you can have good people in the wrong role, where they are not effective, but if you have the right people in the right job and you help and support them, they will thrive, and so too will the business.”
He uses a sporting analogy when describing the qualities needed to develop as a manager. “If you are the manager of a team, your job is not to save the goals or score the goals or pass the ball in midfield – your job is to stand on the side-line, to put people in positions, give them clear responsibilities and then you get off the pitch and allow them space to do the job.”
His final point is about being prepared which he says is “very relevant in today’s world. It is about being able to jump the next hurdle or challenge that comes at you.”
“When Brexit was looming, we set up cross-functional working groups to talk about Brexit and scenario plans. To have had the time to consider and to reflect on the impact on your business now feels like a luxury when you consider the impact Covid-19 had on our business. Overnight our teams across the globe were packing up their laptops to begin working from home. It was unprecedented. You really wondered if you could keep the business running effectively.”
“We also had the Boeing Airbus dispute that went to World Trade Organisation level resulting in former US president Donald Trump imposing tariffs on certain European products going to the US. One of those products was butter and he imposed a 25% tariff overnight on EU butter entering the US. 90% of all butter from the EU going to the US is Kerrygold butter.”
“Then there was the blocking of the Suez Canal that effectively brought the global flow of container ships to a halt. There are lots of those issues that we did not see coming nor did we have time to plan for. They are the challenges for which, as a leadership team, you have to ‘ jump the hurdle’ and get on and grow the business.
“I often say if we have the same lead-in time to every problem as we did to Brexit, it would be a very easy world! It is the ones you don’t see that you have to worry about.”
Ornua is the No. 2 butter brand in the US so the Trump tariff felt targeted, but Jordan says it has not dented business. “We still have phenomenal growth in the US, it was a double-digit response.”
Last December, Ornua was named Company of the Year for 2022 at the Business & Finance Awards in association with KPMG. The award was presented to Jordan by KPMG Managing Partner, Seamus Hand, another DCU alumnus.
“That award was an incredible honour for Ornua as a business,” he says. “It took us out of the food and agri/ dairy space and recognised us in a much broader context. “But it was also recognition for those we represent. In terms of our structure, we have eight major shareholders - the majority of Ireland’s dairy coops. Our members own and operate incredibly well invested facilities that could stand shoulder to shoulder with anyone in the world. They in turn are owned by 14,000 farming families across Ireland who produce the best quality milk in the world. To be recognised by such a prestigious and heavyweight judging panel filled us with pride.”
Pride is a word John also uses about his association with DCU. He values his role with the Business School Industry Advisory Board saying, “the ambition is to have people in industry help shape the strategy, the curriculum and the student experience for their business school.” He adds, “to me, that demonstrates the level of connectivity, awareness and ambition they have to make sure their graduates are adding value to businesses straight off the mark - which I think it is fantastic.”
“This is a university that is connected to its stakeholders in a very tangible way. The council is not just a nice talking shop for alumni, there are plenty of non-DCU graduates on it. It is innovative, engaging and represents a progressive way to manage the business school.”
This proposition, he says, reflects the dynamic ethos of DCU. “My view of the university is that there is a core of best practice, of building out the education of students while keeping it relevant and updating the curriculum. You just have to look at the campus and the investment. It looks leading-edge, and is an incredible place to walk around.”
“It is a well invested university and that does not happen by accident. It needs leadership and DCU has that. Under former President Brian MacCraith and now Dáire Keogh, it has gone from strength to strength.“
“DCU is full of fantastic people with great strategy, great vision and great execution. Add to that its wonderful culture. I am very proud to be in any way associated with them,” he adds.
Elaine Keogh is a journalist, broadcaster and copywriter.
Ornua at a Glance
− Ornua is a dairy co-operative which sells dairy products on behalf of its member co-operatives; Ireland’s dairy processors and, in turn, Irish dairy farmers.
− Ireland’s largest exporter of Irish dairy products and proud owner of the Kerrygold brand
– Ireland’s first and only billion-euro food brand.
− Headquartered in Dublin, it has annualised sales of over €3.6bn and a global team of 3,000 employees.
− Ornua operates from 10 business units worldwide, including 16 production facilities, and has sales and marketing teams working in market across all four corners of the globe.