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Featured Business: Gubbeen Farmhouse Products
Name: Fingal Ferguson, a director of Gubbeen Farmhouse Products
Industry: Food production. Gubbeen Farmhouse Products is a combination of a farm, a dairy (which makes Gubbeen cheese), a smokehouse for meat curing, and a herb garden.
Employees: 20, including seven in the dairy and seven in the smokehouse
When Tom and Giana Ferguson first began making cheese on their West Cork farm in the 1970s, little did they know that a few dozen pieces a week would turn into a business employing 20 people.
Fast forward 35 years and Gubbeen is not only a well-known artisan food brand but a thriving family business based on produce from the farm that has been in the family for six generations. What started out as an artisan cheese maker has expanded into a smokehouse for cured meats run by son Fingal, and a market garden in the hands of daughter Clovisse.
Choosing to work in the family business – alongside his parents and sister – was a firm decision for Fingal Ferguson on leaving school.
This life choice has given him not only the freedom to live and work on the family farm but also the opportunity to diversify and grow the family business as a knife maker and charcutier.
Although Gubbeen Smokehouse was officially established 12 years ago, Fingal had spent a number of years experimenting with curing meats and trying them out locally. One of the benefits for local food producers in West Cork , such as Gubbeen, is the range of restaurants and delis in the area that are willing to buy from them.
The story of how this once-fledgling enterprise developed and diversified is an encouraging one for today's early-stage food businesses.
Interview with Fingal Ferguson
How would you identify the “lifestage” of your business at this time?
The main business is established, while the smokehouse is growing.
What was the inspiration for setting up your business?
My mother started the cheese on a very small scale 35 years ago. She was one of the first cheese makers along with other cheeses like Collea and Milleens and Durrus, so I grew up with the artisan food business in my blood. I always wanted to have my own products, so the work then became the meat curing and smoking.
What have been the highlights to date?
Ireland is a small country, so to have a product that succeeds is great. We’re able to have a business doing something we really enjoy. The highlight is just to be able to live at home and produce a product we love and are proud to make.
How did you initially fund your business?
The company has always reinvested any money it makes back into itself. My parents have always had loans from AIB.
Have you diversified your offering from your original focus or set up other businesses?
Absolutely. There are many tangents to Gubbeen. One of my own things – which started as a hobby – is I’m a knife maker. My sister is a grower but she’s an amazing pickler, preserver and chef. My mother, who would very much be a food producer, has been involved in many things, including Slow Food Ireland and artisan food forums. She’s becoming an educator and a teacher. My father, who is the backbone of everything, is an amazing builder and has built everything round us. We all have fingers in many pies, but food – and the land – has always been the backbone, and being able to produce it from there.
What’s your favourite part of being a business owner/entrepreneur?
I like being able to make something original taste good but at the same time stand out on its own and have our trademark flavours.
How do you achieve a work-life balance?
My wife actually works harder than I do, so juggling is a huge part of it. Our parents help us out in a huge way. We’ve two kids at the moment. We moved into our new home a couple of years ago. With the home farm, having the back-up and being in a rural community, we have many facilities available to us.
Are you inspired by any business figures or success stories?
I’ve had many people who have helped me along the way. It is a huge list. Of course there’s my parents – they were one of the first farmhouse cheese makers. They inspired me; they are quite original and have been a huge part of it.
What tools do you utilise that benefit your customers or that make running your business easier or more profitable?
We are hoping in the next couple of years to go with a greenfield site for the smokehouse. I think that part of what we do will be physical – our products will always have to be handmade. That only leaves certain areas for which you can start to use technology. Nowadays it’s about communication, ordering, dispatching, invoicing and accounting. We are looking into cloud-based systems for all those kinds of things; we use AIB’s iBB and, in the future with the new facility, we will look at ERP systems and computerised systems.
Do you feel you know what your customers really want? How do you stay updated with this information?
We do up to five farmers’ markets a week; that’s the equivalent of meeting 100 people a day who give feedback. The farmers' markets have always been a large part of our stepping stone and how the smokehouse has grown. It’s like PR, sampling and customer relations all at the one time.
What part of running a business comes to you naturally?
Working with people and making food for our customers. Our experimentation and the fun we have with our products is something we connect with.
What has been the best reward in running your own business?
The rewards include being able to work from home with my family around me and the positive feedback you get from people. It is wonderful when people enjoy your food enough to send you postcards or emails to say how much they like it.
What was the main catalyst for growth?
The growth has always been done incrementally, in baby steps. We’ve never gone for the big jump, it’s always evolved and grown naturally. Necessity has led us to our next stage of growth, like our recent plans to build up the smokehouse!
How did you scale/grow your business?
We are constantly coming up with things – we can’t help ourselves. The farmers' markets have allowed us to test products and get them out there. Our growth has come from always wanting to reinvent ourselves and come up with something new.
How do you get ideas to further your business?
We’ve come together with a group of people to try to put in a management system. You can start to lose money very quickly if you don’t follow the financial side of things; we’ve brought in people for that, and those people are becoming more important to us.
What motivates you to stay running a business?
The fact that I’m not too stuck behind a computer and I still get to do the things I love.
What’s your vision for the future?
I’ve always had the same vision in my head – for Gubbeen to be passed onto the next generation. I want to keep making food of a high standard. The smokehouse is something I want to improve, and I want to set up a co-operative for ethical pig producers. Getting bigger will only happen at Gubbeen if it can be done better.
What obstacles to growth have you faced in the past?
The obstacles we have met in the past have sometimes happened for a reason. Obstacles usually happen and give you enough time to think about it.
Do you have a mentor; do you find this has positively impacted on your success?
There’s my traditional mentors who keep me on the straight and narrow; there’s the business mentors who remind me of process flow and productivity. One doesn’t need one mentor, he needs several. I love the camaraderie of fellow food producers in Ireland; they have become mentors as well.
What’s the best business advice you’ve received?
I sadly come from the world of learning from my mistakes. I think the best advice is to stop doing that, and think about it before you do it. I can’t help myself.
What would be your advice to businesses starting out?
There’s no harm in trying.
What, if anything, would you do differently?
I feel I’m blessed. I’ve no regrets. There are always little things in the business that you would change, but I think everything happens for a reason.
Interviewed by: Web Content Partners
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