Malachy O’Connor has worked in nearly all of Ireland’s biggest food retailers, with over 25 years’ experience working in the Irish and UK supermarket trade.

The experience and knowledge he has gathered during his time has led to the success of his company, Food First Consulting.

“Since 2017 I have been an FMCG [fast moving consumer goods] and private label business consultant, helping suppliers and buyers do better business through my unique retail insights, negotiation skills training and strategy development,” he explains.

He held category buying roles in Dunnes Stores, Superquinn and Spar and then went on to hold senior buying roles in Aldi “helping them grow market share from less than 2% to more than 10%”. Malachy also worked in Tesco Ireland as the fresh foods category director. His early roles as a food technologist in M&S and Dunnes helped him to understand food production and the value chain.

His advice for anybody who wants to get into the industry is: “I think food technology is a great place for anyone to start if they want to be a buyer as you really understand where the value is.”

Interest in retail

Malachy’s interest in agriculture stemmed from working on his uncle’s farm picking fruit and vegetables and watching him sell it on.

“I was academically good in school but from the age of 10 I worked weekends at my uncle’s farm where he was doing a market garden type of operation. I would have been fairly hands-on with the rest of my siblings on the farm. I was the only one who stayed at it right until I was finished in college.”

Malachy went on to study food science in Queen’s University but decided to take a year out, which was rare at the time, as it wasn’t built into the curriculum. Malachy was given the opportunity to work in Marks & Spencer’s London head office during this year out, which is where he discovered his passion for the industry. “I got a real buzz for retail and thought right this is what I really want to do,” he recalls. Malachy wanted to gain experience in one of Ireland’s retailers and got the opportunity to work for Dunnes Stores after college, which he describes as his “entrance [into Ireland’s retail industry]”.

After working in many different retail companies as a buyer, Malachy became a buying director for Aldi. At the time there were only “two people in Ireland making all of the buying decisions, me and another buying director”.

His role evolved when he became the marketing director also which he explains is “what happens when you’re in a small country – we had a skeleton structure in Ireland. I had the ability to join the dots when you see customers behaving a certain way and you see what they respond to.” Throughout his time with Aldi, Malachy organised several big marketing campaigns and projects including the “swap and save” campaign. He also listed Angus beef under the specially selected range and he brought “Aldi to the Ploughing for the first time”.

Venturing into consultancy

Malachy created his own business Food First Consulting in 2017. Since then, Malachy has been working with companies that need commercial skills training and has created his own programme to assist them when they are negotiating with big retailers as “the balance of power is so off balance, they need all the support they can get”. The other half of the business is strategy consulting where Malachy uses his model to help any company of any size. “I have a strategic planning model with six steps that I have created,” he says, elaborating that this provides businesses with “a really robust strategy plan of how they are going to grow their business”.

Malachy explains that this allows companies to find direction and pave their way in the market.

Inflation challenges

In the past, the biggest issues facing companies that Malachy advises used to be the cost pressure and the challenges of finding a balance between brand and private labels.

“If they go too far in with one of the discounters in the private label, they can find themselves making very low margins very quickly and not having the ability to invest in the brand, which is the piece in the business that delivers profitability with them,” he explains.

He also outlines the risks of cost pressure. “With a private label, retailers can change suppliers if you don’t have a long-term agreement with them or they put pressure on you to give a cost decrease,” he says.

The main obstacles now, however, are inflation and the increase in costs at all levels of production across the sector, the agri-food industry. Retailers and SMEs are also feeling this, says Malachy. “Right now, the big challenge is inflation, how do they manage the inbound inflation from their ingredients and packaging suppliers and logistics suppliers. That’s a real source of tension right now.” The advice he offers for any company in the market at the moment is: “You have to solidify your commercial position now to be able to trade through this new normal, this inflation high. I would be strongly suggesting that companies need to invest in their commercial skills and go and get that cost increase and be consistent about it.”

Speaking at the Irish Country Living Women & Agriculture conference last week, Malachy outlined the tension at the moment between “people who don’t want to pay more and people who need to get paid more”. There is a lot of concern everywhere in the market from farmers to consumers about inflation and uncertainties surrounding prices.

For more information on Malachy’s Food First Consultancy visit

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