Follow the Leader: Pat FitzGerald


In the latest of our series of interviews with business leaders about their journey so far and plans for future success, we speak to Pat FitzGerald, founder and MD at Beotanics & FitzGerald Nurseries in Stoneyford, Kilkenny.

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Pat FitzGerald has taken on the major players of agri-tech from a small, centuries-old farm by picking his own products and markets for Beotanics & FitzGerald Nurseries.

What’s Beotanics’ elevator pitch?

“We’re a plants company that develops our own crops and niche plant varieties, with an eye on food and the environment. We deal with growers and farmers in 28 countries, charging royalties for our proprietary genetics.

“The business is split into two companies: FitzGerald Nurseries, which produces our planting stock; and Beotanics, which drives our research and development, intellectual property and agronomy testing. We have a fully fledged development laboratory, which works on tissue culture and breeding mechanics – for instance, we’ve cultivated a sweet potato variety that is now planted commercially across Europe.

“We’re the most active company in Ireland in this category because we work hard to specifically research the market, looking at things other companies don’t do. If ‘big agriculture’ is doing it, we don’t. Over the past 10 years, we’ve evolved from dealing with generic plants to only dealing with our own crops.”

Recommended reading: Follow the Leader, Philip Noone, Aalto Bio Reagents

What was the key motivation and raison d’être behind your business?

“Necessity really. We’re a dairy farm outside Kilkenny – that’s as traditional as you can get. My family has farmed here since the 1700s, and it has the remains of a ring fort farming settlement from the 12th or 13th century. In the 1990s, the dairy quotas dried up so we had to diversify. I pursued horticultural training, and as a site, we had to be creative because there were two families on the farm, as my father was only in his mid-50s. We’re still based at the farm and use it to test new crops like wasabi.”

Looking back now at the early stages of your business, would you do anything differently in terms of leadership?

“I would have taken a lot more strategic and financial advice. It would have been great and advantageous to find a mentor because I had to learn from my own experience and it took a considerable amount of time. If I were talking to my 23-year-old self, I would say: ‘Get some good people around you.’”

What keeps you motivated and engaged to drive the business on?

“I enjoy it, which I suppose can be dangerous. I have a little picture in my head of the future of the business, and it’s becoming clearer as we get closer to it.

“We’ve identified a societal need for new plant-based products and the vision is about how we can fulfil that need. That’s my drive, and I enjoy it more than ever now that the vision has become clearer in the past couple of years. I’m now confident that I’m not totally crazy, which is a nice relief.”

What does achievement and success look like for your business?

“The formation of other businesses and joint ventures that have been spinning out from the core business. We already have one operation in Portugal and are looking at two others in the next 12 months, based on other food crops and plants for the urban environment. This means new revenue streams that will drive revenue back to the core company.”

What’s the best business advice you’ve ever been given?

“If something isn’t working, give it up – give it five years, then be prepared to exit.

“It was something a lecturer in agriculture once said off the cuff in class, but it really stuck with me. Five years can seem a long time when you’re in your early 20s. Plants are long-term things, so I go into something with at least three years in mind and try to commercialise it in five years. The point of the advice is that you’ve got to see progress or take a reality check. I dropped one crop recently after spending a lot of time and money on it and had to accept it just wasn’t working.”


“As a small company in a big world full of powerful players, we’ve always had to think about finding new markets and focusing on what we’re good at”



What has been your proudest achievement with your business to date?

“Survival! We’ve registered unique plant varieties and are dealing in 28 countries, from Australia and New Zealand to South Korea, China, Japan and the US – that’s a significant achievement.”

Your approach as a leader is best described by which three words?

“Committed. Innovative. Impatient. I’m patient on big things, but with smaller problems, I want them solved right now.”

How are you preparing and planning for Brexit?

“Disruption in your major market is the sort of thing that every business should be thinking about every day. Think about the Second World War and the many problems in the world: Brexit is not the end of civilisation; it could be a red herring for our failure to simply future-proof our businesses.

“As a small company in a big world full of powerful players, we’ve always had to think about finding new markets and focusing on what we’re good at. If I have to play sport against the All Blacks, that’s fine, but I want to be playing hurling, not rugby.

“Our strategy for the UK is still to grow, but you have to keep growing elsewhere, too. In 2005, 40% of our business concerned exports and 90% of those exports went to the UK. Exports are now 97% of our turnover but only 20% goes to the UK, so it turns out we’ve been preparing for Brexit since 2005.”

What opportunities and risks are you facing in the next 12 – 18 months?

“One opportunity is the sugar tax and the demand for healthier plant-based products. We’re developing a high-fibre crop that gives some alternatives to some sugar-based products and is known to improve gut health. Another example is the purple sweet potato, which is now a ‘superfood’ and which we’ll be exploiting through improved genetics.

“The main risk would be felt if we don’t keep diversifying and get too locked into the Irish food market. There’s safety in diversity.”

Parting shot: what’s next for your business?

“The plant food ingredient business is the next big thing for us. We have a lot of new products like baby formula ingredients and ingredients to help people suffering from digestive problems.

“We do a lot of desk research and have been looking at very promising plants used by the Incas and the Polynesians, and an Okinawan sweet potato and wasabi from Japan, as well as daisy yams that were grown by Indigenous Australians. That’s our challenge for the future and it’s a very exciting prospect.”

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