Siobhán Talbot is used to handling the unexpected in her personal as well as her professional life.
The head of Glanbia, an Irish food and nutrition company, has overcome her surprise at the fuss her appointment as Ireland’s most high-profile female corporate boss once generated. And as a survivor of cancer — “cancer is just a dreadful word, but I love the word survivor”, says the 52-year-old with a hearty laugh — she has seen off a challenge that changed her life, and defined her career.
Sitting on a high-backed chair, she is speaking in the boardroom of Glanbia’s headquarters on the outskirts of Kilkenny, a medieval city in the Irish midlands surrounded by some of Europe’s best farmland. Two decades ago, Glanbia was a dairy co-operative, with a clientele of hard-to-please farmers. Now it is a global business with a growing specialisation in nutrition products: “trusted to enrich lives every day”, as the group’s website grandiosely puts it.
Ms Talbot has no problem with such marketing-speak; indeed, she is rather good at it. Phrases such as “best in class”, “engagement” and “future-proofing” slot effortlessly into the conversation. She is in the middle of the grind of reporting annual results and is about to travel to Frankfurt and then the US to meet investors. On her return she will do the same with her most important local constituency, the farmers who own about a third of Glanbia through the dairy-processing unit where its roots lie.
First, though, Ms Talbot wants to dispel the notion that Ireland’s most high-profile woman in a chief executive role (her official title is group managing director) is an overachiever.
In some ways, Ireland has an admirable record in recognising successful women. It has had two female presidents, and the top posts in the Irish justice and legal system — including chief justice, justice minister, attorney-general and commissioner of the national police force — are held by women. Yet while she agrees that corporate Ireland has been a laggard in promoting women, the attention and admiring profiles generated by her elevation two and a half years ago to the chief executive job at Glanbia were not so much shocking, she says, as intriguing.
“I often say I’m a woman and I’m a chief executive, but I’m not overly conscious of being a female chief executive, I must say. I’m in my 24th year at Glanbia, and frankly it’s never been an issue.”
Ms Talbot is opposed to quotas that favour women and is comfortable with what she regards as the relative meritocracy of the corporate world. “In business, there has to be an equal sense of entitlement,” she says. “When we look at our organisation, we always ask whether we are diverse enough. You don’t need quotas for that.”
Perhaps one reason for the attention her appointment generated was her personal background. In September 2010, during a routine health check, Ms Talbot was diagnosed with breast cancer. The first thing she asked her doctors when she got the diagnosis was if they could come up with another name for it besides cancer, that “dreadful word”.
At the time, she was Glanbia’s group finance director. She partly credits the altered perspectives resulting from her illness and treatment with her subsequent rise to the top job.
“When somebody gives you a yank like that, when opportunities come your way you value them a bit more,” she says. “So when the opportunity to become chief executive came around, rather than humming and hawing about it, I kind of went, why not? You have to do what works for you personally. And for me, what worked was to work through it, to keep on working.”
Now, her day begins at 8am, “and I don’t know when it ends, actually”. Such is the life of the corporate executive, especially one with operations as far-flung as Glanbia’s. The organisation has transformed itself, since listing on the stock market in 1998, with a series of acquisitions that have taken it increasingly into health foods and performance nutrition, and increasingly, too, into the US market.
Annual revenue last year amounted to €3.6bn, double the level of a decade ago; it has 6,000 employees spread across 32 markets. Ms Talbot is well rewarded by Irish standards for her work: her remuneration last year was €1.9m, up from €1.6m the year before.
The transformation of Glanbia was enabled by discovering the solution to a problem arising from the manufacture of cheese, which is what to do with the whey. Until recently, whey was a waste product fed mainly to pigs.
Now, thanks to science — much of it pioneered by her company, she says — the whey is being turned into the prime ingredient in a range of protein products such as bars and shakes. These have found a ready market with health-conscious consumers through gyms, health food stores and speciality sports outlets in the US.
The trend was amply demonstrated last year when Glanbia acquired ThinkThin, a producer of protein bars and other nutritional products, for $217m. ThinkThin was founded by the former model Lizanne Falsetto and is based in Los Angeles. It is a product beloved of those lifting weights on Venice Beach.
“The industry started with Arnold Schwarzenegger, but it’s not just for bodybuilders — not at all,” Ms Talbot protests, with mock-horror. “You know that afternoon lull when you feel in the mood for a chocolate biscuit? Well, the protein shake will take your mind off of that, and it’s much healthier, too.”
Ms Talbot will not be drawn into a discussion of the implications of Ireland’s recent inconclusive general election. On two other big issues, however, she has firm views. One is the prospect that the UK might leave the EU following the referendum at the end of June. Although the British market accounts for less than 10 per cent of Glanbia’s revenue, she is a Remainer: “You just never know the domino effect of the UK leaving.”
The other is Glanbia’s tax arrangements. In 2014 it emerged, through the “LuxLeaks” revelations, that its subsidiaries in Luxembourg pay a minuscule amount of tax on their operations there, amounting to about 0.5 per cent on €40m of revenue. Glanbia is headquartered in and managed from Ireland, which has a competitive 12.5 per cent corporate tax rate. Why does it need Luxembourg?
Ms Talbot argues that Luxembourg is simply part of Glanbia’s funding arrangements, similar to those of other multinationals. She says the group pays a 17 per cent rate of tax on its profits globally, and more than half its annual revenue is generated in the US. But is that not the fallback argument of all multinationals using tax havens? Ms Talbot bristles: “It’s not tax avoidance at all. We do tax planning as we plan everything we do every day,” she insists.
As she speaks, the sun breaks through the rain-darkened sky, illuminating Ireland’s faltering spring: there are daffodils on the lawn outside the window. The setting is idyllic: it feels a long way from the incessant travel and shareholder concerns of her job. Yet the rich agricultural land of Co Kilkenny and the surrounding counties has been in Glanbia’s make-up since the beginning.
Ms Talbot has no difficulty running a multibillion international company from such a bucolic spot. “I live in the middle of a field in Co Kilkenny,” she says. “In today’s world, you can absolutely be based here and run a global company.”