Updated: Feb 15
What use was an aircraft leasing accountant to Cill Dara Milk and Butter Creamery? No use at all was the considered grapevine view. Billy, with his spotless Italian suits and pocket hankies matching his flamboyant ties, was going to be trouble. We all knew that from early on. A 39-year-old Clongowes-Trinity-Smurfit Business School and KPMG-cloned robot. A golfer with that infuriating hybrid D4 / north Atlantic accent. The Chairman’s appointee to transform the Creamery into a global force. A city boy, without a single farming connection. That was the consensus.
Billy’s weapon of choice was a new computer system that he’d mastered with Air-Lease Global along with a new corporate strategy. SAP he called the IT system. SAP, he said, was “an integrated enterprise-wide software system.” Nobody in the creamery knew what that meant.
Six months later, Billy-boy still hadn’t been on the shop floor of Milk Processing where it all happened. Milk trucks arriving from 7am dispensing their frothy fresh contents into the holding tanks, the pipeline transfer to the pasteurising equipment and the packaging shop. He hadn’t been seen in Cheese Processing or Powdered Milk either. The lads didn’t even know what he looked like.
When I finally got him to come on a plant tour, the only question he asked was, “What’s all this talk about milk quotas? What’s that about?”
Billy had been taken on at Director level and attended the full board meetings – just as the MD did -every month. The rest of us “senior” managers were hauled in front of the Board to account for our areas of responsibility, when required, which usually meant once or twice a quarter. At the Chairman’s insistence, Billy now also sat on all the Board Advisory Committees, and chaired the Finance Committee.
Alarm bells began to ring for me personally at the Board meeting in September. Billy wrong-footed me at the meeting on the sales figures. My report was in the usual standard format, comparing sales figures month by month, last year’s versus this year’s and normally there were few queries from anyone, once the bottom line figures didn’t dip. And they hadn’t dipped for the previous 3 months, at least in the overall.
“What’s going on with sales in the North?” Billy asked.
“Yea they’re down a bit on last month,” I said. “We’re still ahead of target year to date. I’ve a note on that in the report. Mervin, the sales rep for the area left in July and we only got Alan on board from 1st September. He was training for the first two weeks, shadowing a rep in the west. He’s up and running now. We should be back on track in a month or so.”
“Surely you could have made provision to cover the territory? With, what 12 sales reps? The others could have covered it between them.”
“It’s not as simple as that...”
“It is that simple.” He looked around the board room. “This is the kind of thing I’m talking about that we need to change. This lackadaisical attitude to lost business. We need a more professional approach to all aspects of our business. As I suggested last month, now that we have the enterprise software system in place, we need use it to transform our business. And move now! We need to set up the change management implementation team as a matter of urgency.”
He was on a roll preaching to the board members, some of whom were clearly lost. I was about to challenge him when I caught the MD’s almost imperceptible shake of his head, followed by a subtle half-wink. I held my fire.
The Chairman intervened, “That’s on the agenda for later Billy, we’ll come to it in due course.” Looking around the table he asked, “Any further queries for Kevin? ... No. Okay, thanks for your input, Kevin.” With that, I was dismissed.
I didn’t know what to make of the meeting. Board meetings had never been as personally confrontational as what I’d just witnessed and been subjected to. I didn’t sleep well that night or the following few nights, running over and over the events of the day. Was my job on the line? Why was Maurice not intervening as he normally would when someone was out of line at a meeting? Was he in favour of all these changes Billy was spouting about? I wasn’t one for letting work issues affect home life. But Angela noticed and knew something was up. I didn’t want to talk about it.
Angela booked a table for two in the Storehouse at the weekend following the board meeting. The Storehouse had become a regular eating location for special occasions. The atmospheric old-world ambience combined with low key professional service along with tasty food kept us coming back again and again. Cormac, our waiter approached our table with a bottle Saint-Emilion merlot, cork-screw in hand.
“I knew ye were coming so I brought up a couple of bottles up from the store. Just in case. Will I uncork?”
“Fair play Cormac. Just what the doctor ordered,” I said. Cormac poured two generous glasses and presented the menus. I sipped and rolled the luscious ruby liquid several times around my mouth before swallowing the first sip.
“Have things settled anything at work lately?” Angela asked.
“Not really. Billy-boy is still creating havoc. For everyone. And he still has the full support of the chairman. Work’s getting more stressful. For everybody. It’s all the uncertainty that Billy creates.”
“What about the MD? You and Maurice always worked well together. You always said he was very fair and wanted to do the right thing. Where is he in all this? You should have a word with him?”
“Ah… I’d say Maurice is in pretty much the same boat as I’m in. All this is outside his control too with the chairman and Billy conniving behind his back. That’s what they’re saying in the office at any rate.”
“But Maurice is the MD. Surely he can put a stop to all this?”
I’d worked with Maurice, for more than fifteen years at the creamery and we got on very well. A fair man, and a company man with the interests of the business always his priority.
“Things aren’t the way they used to be in the creamery. Unfortunately. Too much conniving and politicking going on in there now.”
I topped up our glasses and reached for the menu.
Maurice was good at the company politics thing too, I thought, and generally was able to pour oil on troubled waters wherever it arose – in the Board room or on the shop floor. The rumours circulating definitely had at least some credibility. Maurice was clearly under pressure from both the Chairman and from Billy. And I was now in Billy’s sights too. And maybe the chairman’s as well.
The sea bass and cauliflower were to the usual high Storehouse standard.
“You really need to talk to Maurice, Kevin. Find out exactly where he is in all this. And tell him your concerns,” said Angela.
I arranged to meet Maurice on the Monday. He suggested we meet for coffee off site in the Kilashee House Hotel.
“What’s going on Maurice?” I asked. “Billy is creating havoc across the business. You saw his behaviour at the board meeting last week, showboating in front of the chairman and the board. He’ll close down the creamery if we’re not careful.”
“I know, I know Kevin. You’re not the only one. Between ourselves, I had no input into his appointment, or into making him a director.”
“But you’re the MD, Maurice. He reports to you.”
“Look Kevin. It’s no secret that myself and the chair don’t see eye to eye on everything. The chairman’s been in the job for nearly a year. Billy is his appointee. I’m struggling with the new set-up too. Decisions are being taken without my input. But it’s early days yet. Billy’s a loose cannon and doesn’t know the creamery business. We need to be patient. Now isn’t the time to throw anything out of the pram. We need to keep the head down, keep on doing the business the way we know how, the same way we built the business for the last fifteen years.”
“But there won’t BE any business Maurice, if he keeps going the way he’s going.”
“We’ve had problem children working here before and Billy won’t be the last either. We’ve always managed to work our way out of it. This won’t be any different. Not all the board members are on side with the things he wants to do. Some have been in touch with me. I can’t say more than that.”
“This is even worse than I thought. I thought it was just me he was gunning for,” I said.
“Oh no, our Billy has a lot bigger plans than just shafting little old Kevin Reilly. There’s no need to get too worried Kevin, not just yet anyway. This has a while to play out. There’s a lot riding on this new SAP IT system that Billy persuaded the board to invest in. Its’s one a lot of key players will be watching very closely – the first big test for Billy. And for the Chairman.”
I had a smile on my face leaving Kilashee that I didn’t have going in. Maurice was as shrewd as ever, I thought. I knew from Martin in IT that the SAP implementation team was having all sorts of problems across the board and the system was seen as unnecessarily complicated. Martin could see nothing but problems. Staff would hate having to log everything into the computer. The reports coming off the system made no sense to the line managers. They loved the old reports that gave them everything they needed in a well-understood format. Billy was going full steam ahead with implementing the complete standard SAP production module, without any tailoring to suit the business. From the go-live date. It didn’t matter what the IT manager, or any manager for that matter, advised.
Yea Maurice was right, over the years we did have people that just didn’t fit in and over time we were able to sort them out, bring them around or let them see that the creamery was not the job for them and they left of their own accord. I just needed to ensure I gave Billy no excuses to target me again the way he had at the board meeting. And be better prepared.
Four months later the bombshell hit. The Department of Agriculture’s Controls & Certification Division ordered the removal of the Creamery from the approved list of operators. This effectively closed down the creamery. No product could be sold by dairy producers not on the Department’s list. The changes in procedures brought in by Billy with the new SAP system had failed to provide the necessary milk audit- trail documentation to pass the milk quality inspection for the third week in a row. The old system had been switched off six weeks earlier at Billy’s insistence, despite repeated warnings to run the old and new systems in parallel for at least three months. Billy and the chairman knew better.
The creamery had never been closed before in its 91-year history.
I got telephone calls from the Leinster Leader, from the Kildare Nationalist and from CKR Radio enquiring what was going on. I couldn’t comment as the chairman had instructed that all dealings with the press were now being handled by his office.
The farmers were up in arms. An Emergency General Meeting - was called by the share-holders for the following Sunday morning. And a protest was planned by the farmers to coincide with the meeting. An EGM had never been convened at the request of the shareholders before in the creamery’s history. And it was the first time ever a meeting had been arranged for a Sunday afternoon.
Three weeks later I sat in front of a 2-man interview panel that was chaired by Roddy Connolly, the vice-chairman and Maurice was there too. Maurice had given me the heads up that the vice-chairman wanted to have an informal chat with me. He hadn’t told me it was an interview. Maybe just as well, the way things panned out.
Roddy spoke first.
“You’re probably wondering what all this is about, Kevin?” I said nothing. “Just to put you in the picture, what we are about to discuss is strictly confidential. And we need your assurance that what is said here remains in this room. You know how things can get around here…before we’re ready”
“I’ve no problem with that, Roddy, “ I said.
“OK, thanks Kevin. As you know, the EGM instructed the Board to conduct a review into all circumstances leading to the creamery being closed down. I led a sub-committee of the board to do just that. We started our work last week and finalised our conclusions yesterday. On Tuesday last all Board members received a letter of resignation from our Chairman, effective forthwith. So, I’m now acting in the role of Chairman until the board makes a new appointment. I have no interest in the job, I’ve enough on my plate as it is. Maurice here has been co-opted on to the board following the chairman’s resignation, effective from the first of next month.”
“I see,” was all I could manage. Maurice smiled and there was that half-wink again.
“So, this brings us to the “what if” stage. And just to let you know, I have spoken off the record to 8 of the 12 board members about what we are about to discuss with you. And they will all fully support what we’re suggesting. OK?”
My hands were sweating. I rubbed them together and wiped the back of my neck with a tissue.
“Relax Kevin,” said Maurice. “We’re not going to ask you to do anything here that you’re not comfortable with. Hear Roddy out. And just to let you know, I got Billy’s resignation in the post on Wednesday.”
“Really? That’s incredible.”
“We just can’t afford another Chairman and Finance Director like we’ve just had,” said Roddy. “The creamery needs to take a deep breath, get back to doing the things we do well, get back to basics. We need an extended period of stability, for everyone’s sake.”
“You’ll get no arguments from me on that score, Roddy,” I said.
Roddy continued, “So here’s the proposal. Maurice steps up to take the Chairman’s role. There’s no one on the board with the skillset and level of commitment that Maurice has. And you step up from your present role as Sales Manager to replace Maurice as Managing Director.”
I was stuck for words and just gaped.
Angela was over the moon when I told her that evening.
“Oh, I can’t believe it Kevin. This is the best news ever.”
“You mean you think I should take it?”
A puzzled look on her face. “You mean you’re thinking of not taking it?”
“Well, I’m not sure. You know we used to talk about early retirement and doing things together…travelling and that.”
“Yea, yea, but this is an unbelievable opportunity for you Kevin. You know how much you have put into that creamery, and Maurice too. And with the Chairman gone and Billy gone you and Maurice can do things that you could only dream about before. And it won’t be for that long. How long is the chairman’s term anyway?”
“Well they’re elected every year by the board, but it’s generally a four-year term”
“There you are. Four years is nothing. You’re only 56. Four years to do all the things you have wanted to do in the creamery for the last 15 years. For God’s sake Kevin, you’ll be the MD, you can pretty much steer this any way you want. It’s the dream job for you. You’ll be really good at it too. And with Maurice in the chair, it’s a no brainer. Isn’t it? And we will still have plenty of time to do the things we’ve planned when you retire just 4 years from now.”
And that’s exactly the way it panned out, I reflected as I lay by the pool sipping a glass of Merlot at our newly purchased 2-bed apartment in Madeira 4 years later.