Local entrepreneurs show how it can be done

Aileen Hahesy

Aileen Hahesy

Blarney Woollen Mills CEO Freda Hayes and Kilsheelan entrepreneur Ed O’Donnell of O’Donnell’s Crisps spoke candidly to the No Bailout for Black Tom Economic Forum about how their companies were overcoming the challenges of the recession.

Ms Hayes, who is one of Ireland’s leading women entrepreneurs, told the forum that when they re-opened the expanded and upgraded Dovehill Irish Design Centre store near Carrick-on-Suir in 2007 the timing couldn’t have been worse as the recession was on its way and hit consumer spending before a lot of other sectors.

“We have an awful lot of debt and knew we had to take some serious decisions and had to act swiftly before getting ourselves in hot water. By the time the recession hit we have already cut millions, removed layers of middle management and cut a lot of jobs. We battened down the hatches.”

In all, she said the company cut its costs by €10m in 2007 and looking back she now wondered had they gone mad during the Celtic Tiger years.

“I think we had. We had too many members of staff, too many outside contracts and were spending too much on professional fees. When we cut it out we saw we could do without it.”

Ms Hayes said they the recession in the 1980s was much easier to get through because they had little or no debt because you couldn’t get it. It was different this time around and it was the same for many companies.

She was highly critical of the service FAS provided to people looking for jobs and employers trying to find workers to fill vacanies. She highlighted the bad experience Blarney Woollen Mills encountered with a FAS employee when the company contacted the agency to get help in filling a managerial position a few days previously. When the company made a complaint to FAS, the agency looked into the matter and reported back that the woman who handled the vacancy had some “personal issues”.

Ms Hayes said this was a “load of rubbish” from the organisation that was there to help 430,0000 unemployed people look for a job. “If they treat an employer like that. I would hate to be one of the 430,000 looking to get a job.”

In relation to Carrick-on-Suir, Ms Hayes said with its beautiful heritage, fantastic scenic walks and drives it should be getting a lot more tourism. While it hadn’t a Blarney Castle or Guinness Store House as a tourist attraction, it still had a lot to offer tourists, who wanted to experience local foods, restaurants, bars and have banter with the locals.

“Carrick delivers all of these. It has a lot to offer but what we are not doing is selling ourselves.”

Ed O’Donnell of O’Donnell’s Crisps outlined to the forum how he went about setting up his own potato crisp company after finishing college in England and returning home to the family farm at Seskin, Kilsheelan in 2006/07.

It included extensive market research and a period studying crisp making alongside representatives of top multi-national crisp manufacturers at the Ohio State University in the US. His crisps are handcooked and are made from potatoes grown on his farm.

“I saw a lot of imported crisps coming in from the UK and felt there was a niche market for an Irish brand coming from an Irish producer. We had done the market research and I believed in myself and the people around me.

After failing to secure a loan to build a crisp manufacturing plant, he approached an existing Irish manufacturer, which agreed to make his crisp to the specifications and flavours of his brand and then invested a lot of money on the brand design for the crisp packaging. O’Donnell’s Crisps in mature Irish cheese and red onion and Irish cider vinegar flavours were launched in 2010 and they were due to launch a new sweet chilli flavour bag this month.

Mr O’Donnell reported that he was doing a lot of promotion of the crisps at trade shows, through newspaper advertising, Facebook and Twitter.

The brand was listed with Tesco and Dunnes Stores and he hoped to launch the brand in the UK market in the autumn and to start exporting to Austria in the next month.