More than three decades ago, Largo Foods founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Raymond Coyle was supplying Tayto and Sam Spudz with potatoes that he grew on the family farm in Ashbourne. His father, Charlie, a publican, owned the fine agricultural land that grew the potatoes and essentially cultivated the business.
This week while Charlie, who is now 87, skis abroad, his son Raymond runs a business that has greatly grown and changed over the years. The Meath man, who often stays in Bun an Inver, Gaoth Dobhair, was in Letterkenny to meet with business people.
Questioned on his background, Raymond opened his two hands and answered that it was his PhD from Cambridge University that helped him work the multi-million industry he now runs. He poured a cup of strong coffee in the Mount Errigal Hotel in Letterkenny as he explained that he came from many generations that made their living from the land.
“I am from Meath, my family have been from Meath for generations. My father Charlie Coyle owned a pub and a farm as I grew up. He is very well, he was actually skiing this week,” he said, smiling.
When Tayto decided to source the potatoes from outside Ireland in 1981, Raymond Coyle, along with many others, lost his potato supplier contract. Seeing this as an opportunity rather than adversity, Coyle decided to investigate potential earnings in this area.
“At the time, I said to myself that, with Tayto holding 90 per cent of the market, there had to be some money in it,” he said.
Raymond Coyle established Largo Foods in Ashbourne in 1983. The first branded product was Cottage Crisps. Then, in 1984 when the Capaldi family agreed to sell the Perri brand, Largo Foods had its breakthrough, firmly establishing the company in the snackfoods industry.
Largo Foods followed this with the purchase of the Gaoth Dobhair-based company Sam Spudz brand in 1995. The Gaoth Dobhair plant dedicated its expertise to extruded and fried snack manufacturing while the Ashbourne plant focused on potato crisp manufacturing. The launch of the Hunky Dorys crisps range the same year saw Largo Foods further cement itself as a significant entity in the Irish snackfood market.
In the early 2000s, Largo Foods began producing some of the crisps and snacks for the then-owned C&C brands, Tayto and King. Company growth was also aided from winning private label business with large multiple retailers in the UK market.
In 2005, Tayto closed their crisp factory and Largo Foods won the contract for the entire business. The story continued in August 2006, when Largo Foods were successful in their bid to purchase the Tayto and King brands from Cantrell and Cochrane for €62 million. The Tayto and King acquisitions turned Largo Foods into the number one snackfood company in Ireland, with a 49 per cent market share, a staff of 550 people and an annual turnover in the region of €100 million.
“I wanted to buy it in 2000 but I couldn’t get the money. When it came on the market later, I could borrow money for it. The next two years were spent integrating the two cultures,” he said.
Though 30 people are to be made redundant at the Gaoth Dobhair plant on the Gweedore Business Park, for Raymond this was a choice that had to be made, and he is confident that his decision will lead to a growth in his company in the future.
“I think that at the moment, we are fortunate that we are in the food business -- exports are going well. We have to cut costs to adjust to the new way of doing things, business is harder than it was. However, there are still opportunities but we have a long way to go before we see the other side,” he said. The company also has a small business in Gaoth Dobhair that is making cones and wafers, and did Easter eggs. It is doing well, he said.
He added that business in the last few years has been on the whole successful, and that almost every year the company has celebrated a milestone.
Following the Gaoth Dobhair acquisition, the ambitious businessman bought a factory in the Czech Republic in 1997. Two years later, he bought a factory in Peilstein, Moldova, which sells into the Ukraine. But like many other businessmen he has witnessed failures along the way. The main one which came to his mind was the Libyan factory, which was a great place to start a business but was closed on foot of the civil war.
At the moment his business employs around 630 people in Ireland and they also own a plant in England. His latest creation is the Tayto theme park, which took five years to build.
“It is probably the biggest risk I ever took,” he said. “Last year, 340,000 people visited it; this year we are expecting half a million. It cost €12 million to build and I couldn’t borrow money but I am hoping that it will become a ‘must see’ attraction for people coming to Ireland.
“Successes and failures and disappointments ... everything doesn’t work,” he said.