Glanbia Plc Group managing director, Siobhán Talbot, steps down from her role on 31 December this year.

She sat down with the Irish Farmers Journal this month to look back over a career that started in the heart of the Irish dairy industry and ended at the peak of international business.

“My background is finance. I was born and bred PWC, and I had been an audit manager. My husband and I moved to the southeast and I joined what was then Waterford to set up an audit function, and the rest is history.”

When she joined Waterford, it was a listed company, as was Avonmore Foods. The idea of the two companies merging was already on the table, but there was significant stakeholder involvement with both companies, which meant a deal would involve careful negotiations.

“One of the really big strengths about organisations like Waterford at the time was that, frankly, you got to do so many things. I quickly moved from audit into mainstream finance, and from the early days, I was heavily involved in the finance and strategy side of the co-op.

“This meant I was at farmer meetings very early in my career and I was out with Matt Walsh (then group managing director of Waterford), selling the merger to farmers in 1997.

“You very quickly got a sense of that stakeholder base, who were a very strong owner of Waterford, and also a sense of what worked for them,” she said.

Early years

Talbot clearly enjoyed her early years at the Waterford, and through the merger, with Avonmore to form Glanbia.

“You’d be in London one day talking to investors, and down in Castlelyons the next, talking about the price of milk and where it is going to go. And sure, that was great.”

The experience she gained in that early merger proved very valuable when it comes to the recent changes which have seen Glanbia Plc and Glanbia Diary Ireland (now Tirlán) successfully transition to independent entities.

“The decision and the process was really grounded in strategy. Finding what is the right thing for the organisation and what is the right thing for our stakeholders.

At the time, we were looking at Glanbia Plc, increasingly focused on global nutrition, while at the same time, Irish farmers were looking at the end of quotas and getting their first chance in decades to grow their businesses.

“We invested very well in our Irish businesses. We built facilities, we developed the agri-business portfolio, we developed the consumer products portfolio, so that when the time came for Glanbia Plc as it is now to truly drive on in that global nutrition focus, and Tirlán to drive on in that member-focused but equally ambitious organisation, both organisations were ready.”

Talbot emphasises the importance of that readiness, saying the fact that both the leadership teams were ready, as were the component parts of each organisation, then making the transition, which made strategic sense for both sides, could be successfully completed.

“From that one organisation that had it all, we have created two immensely powerful businesses, and I think both sets of stakeholders’ needs have been met and will continue to be.”

The split

In the wake of the split, and following the recent sale of the Irish mozzarella joint-venture, Glanbia has no manufacturing facility in Ireland.

This year, the company also started reporting its earnings in US dollars. However, Talbot insists Glanbia retains its Irish roots.

“We are a global company based in Ireland. Our whole IT structure, our services, our leadership and a significant employee base is here in Ireland.”

The performance of Glanbia Plc’s share price since the pandemic and the divestment of the Irish dairy business does point to shareholders in the company being happy with the performance (see Figure 1 below).

The steady increase in dividend payments is also probably welcome, and as Tirlán remains a very significant shareholder of Glanbia Plc – with an almost 30% stake – that provides another income source for the co-op.

Talbot says the main thing for her, rather than the share price, is the strategic performance of the business. She points to earnings being two and a half times what they were in 2012.

“I am very pleased with where the group is now strategically. Share price will follow the delivery and execution of strategy.”

On retirement

It is clear from talking to Talbot that she has lots of enthusiasm and energy for the job, so why she has chosen now to retire is an obvious question.

“You know, there just comes a time. I have no doubt I will miss it, because it’s the most fantastic organisation with the most fantastic people, but the time just felt right for me and for my family. I like my garden; I’m going to be smelling the roses and seeing how it goes.”

Talbot says she has promised her “long suffering husband” that 2024 will be downtime, but after that, “we’ll see”. She says she has no desire to step back into an executive role.

One thing that does change with her retiring from the role is that the number of Irish women leading listed companies will fall closer to zero – and will hit it when IRES Reit CEO Margaret Sweeney steps down early next year.

I have no doubt I will miss it, because it’s the most fantastic organisation with the most fantastic people, but the time just felt right for me and for my family

Talbot has often said it is important for young women starting their careers to be able to see role models in management positions: “if you can see it, you can be it”, is her oft-repeated mantra. So, does she see any problems in a falling number of such role models?

“I think we are still at the beginning, rather than at an end. I think we are progressing – and we’d all like more pace, no question. For me, I got great support from those around me. I was really lucky with the mentors I had, and they were always very supportive.

"The phrase that was used while I was travelling my journey was ‘why not’, which was very powerful.

One thing that does change with Siobhán retiring from the role is that the number of Irish women leading listed companies will fall closer to zero

“I’m not going to say it was easy, because it is not, and it wasn’t easy back in the day because the infrastructures that are there now were not there then, like the ability to flex work – just that recognition of all the balls that are in the air.

"Organisations are so much better at that now, and societally we are all so much better at it.”

Talbot says she is confident that things will continue to get better and emphasises that the path is about both diversity and inclusion. “Everybody can have a superb career at Glanbia. Everybody.”

What advice would she have then for anyone, male or female, starting out in their career?

“Be very ambitious for yourself. Be very ambitious, but be easy on yourself. I meet graduates coming in here and they put themselves under pressure with their five-year plan and their 10-year plan, and I smile and tell them not to oversweat it.

“Find something you think you will like to do, then work hard at it. Be ambitious, but be kind to yourself on the journey. Give yourself a little bit of space. I genuinely think finding the right organisation is important.

“Relationships with people are critical, in the right organisation you will find people to support you, and we all need that support. You will know in the early days in an organisation if it is one where you will find that support to be everything you want to be.

“When I say to be ambitious, I mean to be ambitious authentically. Don’t try to be someone you’re not because you’ll never be able to wing it for long enough.”

Be very ambitious, but be easy on yourself

She said that she feels, from the perspective of an organisation like Glanbia, the job is to create the environment for people can make the choice that is right for them.

Clearly, there is no denying that she was given the space and support to make the choices that were right for her.

Looking back over her tenure she says: “It’s just been a real privilege to be able to run an organisation like this and live in a field in south Kilkenny. Really, what more could you ask for?”