My first interaction with Noel was when he was commercial director with the Irish Dairy Board/Bord Bainne.
There was an undercurrent that it should be formed into a privatised or PLC-type body. Joe Rea, in particular, thought the co-op structure was uncommercial. Paddy O’Keeffe, the then-Editor of the Irish Farmers Journal, was sympathetic but could see both sides.
At that stage, the dairy board of course was acting as the national intervention agency for dairy products and, while the Kerrygold brand had been launched, nobody could have foreseen how valuable it was going to become.
Side-by-side with that, Kerry and Avonmore, under Denis Brosnan and Pat O’Neill, wanted the value of their shares represented to be attributed to them.
Noel Cawley, in his highly principled way, refused and in the subsequent Supreme Court case, the historic judgement was handed down that the monetary value of a co-op share was its par value. The concept of a co-op being for its farmer members was copper-fastened.
A frequent visitor
Meanwhile, Noel was a frequent visitor to the Irish Farmers Journal. There were constant arguments over lunches on the merits of Ireland going down a specialist, added-value cheese route.
Noel always resisted the notion of a dairy industry that would require 12-month milk, with its attendant high-cost structure at farm level.
He saw butter, cheddar and powders as the way forward and so methodically developed Adams Foods in Leek in the UK and the German butter market, as a way of getting closer to the supermarket, in the case of Adams, and to the German consumer with Kerrygold.
Foresight and vision
He also spearheaded international developments with a strategy of buying broadly-based distribution companies in the US in preparation – as he saw it – for the inevitable day when Irish dairy products would have easier access to the US market. The results of such foresight are strikingly visible today.
Despite its lack of State monopoly powers, which had to be abolished on EU entry, Noel successfully grew the Irish Dairy Board as a co-op that was ultimately owned by farmer-owned co-ops and existing to pay farmers the maximum possible for their output.
It was a vision from which he never strayed and which continues to pay dividends to this day.
To all his dealings, he brought integrity and fair play, but he also brought determination to do the right thing based on clear analysis and an unswerving commitment to achieving progress in the interest of the greater good.
Noel exhibited this same commitment and capacity in his approach to the horse industry. He is probably the most successful Irish breeder ever of show jumpers.
Again, his methods were based on clear objectives, followed by clear analysis. His views were crystal clear – you seek out the best, based on performance, and breed from them.
His training was as a scientist, so facts were what mattered. This could make him unpopular at times – he abominated double-speak based on vested interests.
When he became, through Kerrygold, the main sponsor of the Dublin Horse Show (based it should be said on the urging of Charles Haughey, who saw a unique Irish institution in danger of disappearing), Noel insisted that clear lines of authority and accountability be established in the RDS for the event.
The sponsorship lasted for many years and was hugely successful in establishing internationally the Kerrygold brand.