KEY INTERVIEW: Ornua to Target Key North American Innovation Platforms

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21 Jul 2015 --- Ornua Ingredients North America is part of the Ornua Co-operative Limited, which underwent a huge rebranding program at the beginning of 2015 from what was the Irish Dairy Board. The division has recently completed an investment program totalling US$80m, which culminated in the opening of a $12m innovation center in Wisconsin in 2014. VP of Sales Dan Verhasselt told FoodIngredientsFirst how the innovation center will benefit the company and its customers, as well as how it intends to tackle the growing trend for clean label ingredients.

 “The rebranding is important in that it harmonizes our business here in North America under one name. It allows us the opportunity to present ourselves to the marketplace as a single, premium, full-service manufacturer of processed and imitation cheeses, while at the same time not losing sight of our Irish roots.” 

The North American business, which includes sales in Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean, represents around 8-10% of Ornua total business.                                            

So as the company settles into its new identity, it also has $80m of recent investment to play with, including the recently opened $12m site in Wisconsin, which houses a new innovation center. The center aims to improve communication with customers, as well as improve development methods. Ultimately, says Verhasselt, it will cut lead times and bring new products to the market faster. 

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“A key feature in the new center was innovation,” says Verhasselt. “It is a customer collaboration center so we want to bring customers in so that they can work side by side with developers. Instead of sending a customer a sample, customers can test the cheese we provide in the application in the innovation center.” 

“We are an industrial provider of cheese ingredients and we work with all the major multinationals in the food industry, supplying cheese for pizza, pasta and sandwiches, etc.

The innovation centre not only makes the cheese, but also tests it in practice. With customers coming to us and working with our developers the success rate will be much higher. We anticipate we can bring the final product along in twice the speed.”

In terms of future development, the company is still basking in its investment and the opportunities that it will bring. However, Verhasselt is keen to stress that the division is in a prime position. The ingredients division reported a solid trading performance for 2014, with turnover up over 14% and strong growth in volume and operating surplus. Both Ornua Ingredients Ireland and Ornua Ingredients North America continued to perform strongly. 

“We are in the process of growing into our most recent expansion. We’ve been growing at a very fast rate, so we want to leverage this recent investment in the plant to maintain this momentum in the years to come. As we move to the future, we continue to evaluate our next stages of growth.”

Working with sister companies may hold the key here, as well as tapping into the latest trend for clean label products.

“Clean label is constantly being requested now,” says Verhasselt. “But this can cover many different areas for us, from using more easy to understand ‘pantry’ ingredients, to formulating shorter, more simple ingredient labels.” 

“Sodium reduction is also part of clean label and healthy positioning. We need to work through customer understanding and adapt our own products to the whole clean label movement that’s been growing year on year for the past 5-8 years.” 

“It is imperative that we meet the challenge to keep the growth trajectory that we want. Everybody at the moment would agree that clean label is the future. For the foreseeable future we need to adapt and grow into that,” says Verhasselt. Verhasselt revealed his business is exploring new areas of innovation and growth, including making the most of the skills and resources from within the wider company. “As is typical, changing markets create opportunities for innovation, and I believe we have the people, expertise, and resources to capitalize on this.”

“We have similar operations to us around the world, including Spain, the UK and Saudi Arabia. We work hard as a group to ‘cross pollinate’ ideas within our own organization. Our strength as a global player not only gives us access to resources, but also to ideas. Our ability to work together and share ideas will result in some very unique product innovation for the marketplace.” 

However, Ornua Ingredients North America chooses to move forward, with building relationships clearly the way it sees to move forward and grow, be it with customers who will benefit from the new innovation center or partner divisions who will benefit from shared experience, expertise and resources.

By Robin Wyers & Kelly Worgan

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