Finance & Management
Leadership Insight – Margaret Berry

Leadership Insight
Margaret Berry
Please provide a brief history of your career.
I joined Kepak Group as Head of Sustainability in 2022 and I am responsible for the development and implementation of Kepak Group’s sustainability strategy. Prior to this I have spent almost 20 years now in the Irish food and agribusiness industry. I graduated from Bord Bia Talent Academy’s Fellowship programme with UCD Smurfit Business School programme in 2011 and since then have worked in mostly commercial and strategic business development roles with, for example, Kerry Group and Bord Bia. More recently, I was a member of faculty, at UCD Smurfit Business School, where I designed and delivered core modules for executive and postgraduate education in Global Food Business Strategy and the Leaders Sustainability Acceleration Programme. It was at this point when I became more aware of the critical link between environmental sustainability and creating long term sustainable business value.
2 business men working on a laptop
Earlier this year you were appointed Head of Sustainability at KEPAK Group. What are the biggest challenges currently facing the Irish food industry?
The Irish food and drink sector recorded a strong performance in 2022 which was delivered against a backdrop of unprecedented challenges and uncertainty across the value chain. Despite these challenges, according to Bord Bia, Ireland’s food and drink exports increased by 22%, reaching a record high of €16.7 billion. This performance is an indication of the resilience of one of Ireland’s most important export industries. In 2023 the challenging market environment has persisted with inflationary pressures and difficult macroeconomic conditions continuing. My own opinion is that sustainability is proving to be a necessary catalyst for businesses to consider what their future business model should be in the face of these challenges and changes. At Kepak, like every other business, we are taking the necessary steps to ensure that our business is sustainable and future ready.

As a board member of Gurteen Agricultural College and chair of their sustainability committee, what can you tell us about the evolution of agricultural education to combat climate change?

Despite the many challenges that exist we must acknowledge the unique infrastructure and world class experts in Irelands agriculture industry working together to find fact-based solutions to reducing methane emissions. Gurteen Agricultral College, the largest agricultural college in Ireland, is part of this infrastructure. It is part of Teagasc Signpost farm network which acts as demonstration farm for carbon sequestration measurements. These will point the way forward towards climate smart farming and will inform how sustainable agriculture is taught. Also, in September 2022 the first BSc students started in Gurteen, run in conjunction with Technology University of Shannon (TUS), in the new degree in Agricultural Sustainability course. The aim of the course is to produce graduates with the knowledge and skills in agriculture with a focus on sustainability.

Throughout your work in Sustainability, how have you found people’s attitudes to sustainability change? For example, some people consider it a big cost so how do you become sustainable at a profit?
People’s attitudes to sustainability are evolving all the time and a growing body of evidence indicates that sustainability initiatives can help to create profits and business opportunities while also being better for the planet. However, the value at stake from sustainability-related issues, from rising raw-material prices to new regulations, is substantial. Therefore, many businesses are still understanding what that truly means for their business in practice and assessing the viability of environmentally sustainable practices.
Does becoming more sustainable make good business sense for SMEs?
Small and medium sized enterprises are a force to be reckoned with. According to the World Economic Forum they make up 90% of businesses globally and create two out of three jobs worldwide, support the livelihoods of more than two billion people and are critical to the smooth functioning of global supply chains. Despite their significant impact, many are not yet fully engaged on environmental social and governance (ESG) issues. It is easy to understand why. Owners and managers of SMEs have fewer resources than larger businesses. They may feel they lack the time, knowledge, capacity or funds to tackle problems like the climate crisis. Others simply do not know where to start. Those SMEs that do manage to navigate these obstacles, however, are often better positioned to identify opportunities. Being small and agile means that they can quickly adapt to economic change and grab opportunities as they arise. This is because they have fewer, and more direct, channels of communication between leaders and those on the ground, so they can make decisions fast. But we do need SMEs, larger enterprises and individuals to work for a better world – for their own sake and for everyone.
business men and women at a conference table
What are the main pointers you can give to small businesses starting on their sustainability journey?
Sustainability is new for all of us, and it is a complex subject. In my view it should be viewed as pre-competitive so don’t be afraid to connect with other businesses and individuals in your sector to share knowledge and learnings on how you are approaching sustainability and to ask questions you don’t know the answer to. Recruiting expertise in sustainability is challenging for businesses now so look to train within your organisation. Finally, I would say that to make progress with sustainability we need to start now, it is not about perfection; if we take small steps together, we can make a big impact.
What do you feel are the most important qualities that today’s leaders need to be successful?
In the past the command-and-control approach to leading was very typical. In my view leaders today need to have several different qualities to this, including but not limited to:

  • being supportive of their people
  • operating with a strong results orientation
  • seeking different perspectives
  • solving problems effectively
Who inspires you most in business?
There are many people who I could mention here. The person that springs to mind first is Paul Polman ex CEO of Unilever.

Paul showed that responsible business models can go hand-in-hand with strong performance, raising top and bottom-line growth and increasing shareholder returns by 290% while the company consistently ranked first in the world for sustainability, and one of the best places to work.

I am also an avid follower of Professor Rita McGrath of Columbia Business School. She is consistently ranked among the top ten management thinkers in the world with a particular focus on the intersection of strategy and innovation. She always has so many interesting insights and really joins the dots to help people and business “see around corners.”

Margaret Berry headshot
Margaret Berry
Head of Sustainability, Kepak Group