Ornua is sadly mourning the loss of one of the most prominent figures in the business’s history – the late Dr Noel Cawley, who passed away on 29 June 2023.

A true embodiment of the spirit of co-operation, fortitude and innovation that define Ireland’s agricultural eco-system, Dr Cawley was a visionary and a change-maker, whose imprint on the industry he devoted much of his life to will live long into the future.

Hailing from Moygara, Gurteen, Co Sligo, Dr Cawley was a student of St Nathy’s College in Ballaghaderreen.

Academic life

A brilliant academic, he graduated with a first-class honours degree in science from University College Galway, before attaining a PhD in biochemistry from University College Dublin (1970) and a post-doctoral fellowship to the University of California in Berkley (1970-1971).

During his academic life, Dr Cawley had a meticulous attention to detail and thoughtful decisiveness, attributes that guided him over the course of his professional career, 32 years of which he spent at the Irish Dairy Board (now Ornua).

Noel Cawley joined An Bord Bainne Co-operative (the Irish Dairy Board) in 1974 as a food technologist, at a time of significant change for Ireland and Irish enterprise and agriculture, following Ireland’s accession to the European Union (EEC) in 1973.

He was ambitious and forward-thinking, and had a natural interest in the commercial arena, transitioning within four years to the role of commercial and marketing development director.

On joining the EEC, An Bord Bainne had converted from a semi-state body to a private co-operative operating under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the successful delivery of which required immense focus, vision and attention to detail.

Dr Cawley played an integral role in embedding the new business structure and necessary pivot in relations with member suppliers and shareholders during these early years.

He was convinced that the global success of the Irish dairy sector depended on the concerted, collaborative and connected effort of all industry stakeholders, working in partnership for a collective benefit.

He saw the Irish Dairy Board as central to this and was instrumental in building strong foundations for the relationship framework that continues to define Ornua’s co-operative ethos to the present day.

Defending the purpose and value of the Irish Dairy Board throughout his reign was not without challenges, given the competing interests and sheer number of stakeholders represented across the industry. His determination, commitment and strong intellect stood to him, regarding his ability to bring others on the journey.

Sense of duty

He was frank and clear, tolerant of ‘silly’ questions, but less so of over-embellishment. He was empathetic to the unique needs and challenges facing others, and forthright in his thinking of how to respond and overcome them.

These qualities, along with a true sense of duty, shaped Dr Cawley into a model leader and obvious successor to Brian Joyce in 1989, as the fourth managing director of the Irish Dairy Board.

Dr Cawley went on to lead the business for 17 years, overseeing the remarkable growth of the Kerrygold brand, driving it to its number-one brand positioning in Germany, and seeding its launch in the US (currently its largest market) through its distribution business, DPI.

Despite the impact of quotas, introduced six years before his appointment as managing director, Dr Cawley led the Irish Dairy Board through a record period of growth and successfully guided the business through a number of legal challenges, which ensured that the cooperative continued to exist and thrive.

‘Deep love’ of the equine

It was also during this time that the Kerrygold brand became synonymous with the Dublin Horse Show.

The partnership, which married Dr Cawley’s deep love of the equine industry with his passion for the Kerrygold brand, proved to be a major success for both parties, raising the international profile of Kerrygold and also introducing a new audience to the Horse Show.

Connection with people

Although he possessed an astute commercial vision, world-class business acumen and a deep knowledge of dairy products and farming, Dr Cawley’s connection with people was the hallmark of his professional career.

One of his most important legacies will be the impact his leadership and guidance has had on the careers of many people within Ornua and the wider dairy industry.

He is remembered more broadly for treating everyone the same, being all things to all people; leadership qualities that stood with him throughout his career at Ornua, and elsewhere.

John Jordan, chief executive at Ornua, paid tribute to Dr Noel Cawley: “Noel was a true champion of Irish agriculture and enterprise, who was integral to the growth and development of our entire industry.

“In his 32-year career with Ornua, 17 of which he spent as chief executive, he was responsible for stewarding the business’s transformation from State body to a co-operative structure, a transition that has delivered five decades of growth and success for the organisation, its members and generations of Irish dairy farming families.

“He was a man of immense fortitude and integrity, who possessed immaculate clarity of thought and ambition. He leaves behind a lasting legacy and will be fondly remembered as one of the most important people to have graced our business and our industry.

“On behalf of Ornua, the management, staff and our Board of Directors, I wish to extend our sincere condolences to his wife, Anita, and daughters, Lisa and Claire, and the entire Cawley family.”

Tributes: ‘a lifetime’s contribution to farming’

Minister Charlie McConalogue:

“Dr Noel Cawley, over the course of his career, demonstrated a strong personal commitment to public service, serving as chair of the Teagasc Authority, the Irish Dairy Board and the Irish Horse Board.

“He was always generous in the giving of his considerable talents for the benefit of the public good and for the agri food sector, and he will be missed by all who had the pleasure of knowing him.”

Teagasc chair, Liam Herlihy:

“Noel was a person of the highest integrity, who made a lifetime’s contribution to farming and the agriculture sector in Ireland, leaving a lasting legacy through his role as chief executive of the Irish Dairy Board until 2006, as chairman of the Irish Horse Board, and also as chair of the Government-established Seafood Strategy Review and Implementation Group.

“We are most grateful for his contribution as chair of the Teagasc board over a 10-year period, when he expertly guided the organisation as it developed into a modern, science-based, relevant organisation to support the agriculture and food sector in adapting to the challenges they faced.”

Horse Sport Ireland chair, Michael Dowling:

“Throughout his life, Noel was always passionate about his horses and his family. He used every opportunity possible to promote Irish equine breeding, including the very successful and famed Kerrygold sponsorship of the Dublin Horse Show by the Irish Dairy Board.

"The association between Kerrygold and the RDS was something Noel was always very proud of.”

Irish Horse Board chair, Tiernan Gill:

“Noel was a great ambassador for the sport horse industry and a wonderful breeder who established his own successful performance line. We owe him a great debt of gratitude for his drive and passion in the establishing of the Irish Horse Board Co-op to further the interests of Irish breeders and producers on the world stage.”