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Featured Business: Sanctuary Synthetics
Name: Mark O’Loughlin, director and founder of Sanctuary Synthetics, which specialises in the artificial lawns side of the landscaping industry, primarily for private gardens. His company uses a new generation of Astroturf (minus the sand and rubber infill) for crèches, schools, corporate work and even Tayto Park.
Employees: Eight full-time, as well as seasonal staff
Selling artificial grass to consumers in Ireland brings to mind clichés such as selling sand to Arabs or bringing coal to Newcastle.
However, for landscape company Sanctuary Synthetics, the supply of artificial grass for domestic gardens, schools, crèches and companies was a gap in the market that has been well worth filling.
Ten years ago, who would have thought of replacing a family garden with artificial grass? Or using synthetic grass as a promotional tool to cover a van, a big screen or even a couch? For that matter, who would have thought a farmer’s son would build a business in synthetic grass? Sanctuary Synthetics founder Mark O’Loughlin has been self-employed as a landscaper since 1998, but his background is a mix of farming, marketing and various office jobs. His farming experience was instrumental in developing his interest in, and love of, landscaping.
Mark's skills in landscaping are self-taught, and he attends courses and seminars regularly to keeps abreast of industry developments. He says his formal education contributed to his understanding of business and consumer behaviour. Meanwhile, his advanced diploma in marketing and administration from COMAD/DIT Mountjoy Square (he is also a graduate of the Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators) has contributed to his ability to market synthetic grass to an Irish audience.
Aside from Sanctuary Synthetics and Sanctuary Landscaping, Mark is also founder of Hidbin – a pleasant disguise for ugly wheelie bins – which is a big seller on the UK market. The secret to taking a market that never existed before by storm, it seems, is to educate that market. Mark has invested time, energy and money into doing just that, and who knows – perhaps it is this investment in marketing that has made the general public more aware of the existence of “fake grass”.
Interview with Mark O’Loughlin
What was the inspiration for setting up your business?
In terms of specialising in synthetics, I was sick of trying to get lawns right – drainage, trouble with weeds, constant maintenance, getting mucky, the dog destroying them – that’s how I got into the artificial grass end of things. I ended up, by pure coincidence, with a friend at a PGA Golf show in Florida. There were synthetic putting greens on show but I was more interested in the fringe grass around them. That’s what led me to go the route I’ve gone. In terms of setting up the Sanctuary Landscaping business in the first place, the inspiration was to become master of my own destiny.
What have been the highlights to date?
We get sexy, weird jobs as well as going in and out of semi-d back gardens. We did a lot of work for the Ryder Cup. For O2, we did a massive installation on a large screen for the Rugby World Cup. We’ve done stuff for Setanta TV and have been in and out of RTE. We’ve done a lot of different corporate jobs.
Initially we were laughed at with artificial grass, but the satisfying thing is that we were right. We had the belief and we’ve taken a market that didn’t exist.
We went to Bloom in 2011 and did the Alice in Wonderland sanctuary garden, which I conceived of, financed, designed, sponsored, and physically built and promoted. We got a silver medal from the judges. It was great in terms of profile. That was a major plus. This year we’re going to do the Wizard of Oz garden. You have to be bold.
How did you initially fund your business?
Just with a credit card and overdraft facilities from AIB, and constant reinvestment – not draining cash out of the business.
Have you diversified your offering from your original focus or set up other businesses?
Initially we were a hard and soft landscaping business. We are still strong on hard landscaping – putting in patios, stone walls etc. Because there are very few barriers to entry for anybody with a van, a wheelbarrow and a shovel, the way forward was to specialise.
What’s your favourite part of being a business owner/entrepreneur?
In relation to what we do, it is transforming chaos into order and beauty. There is genuinely great satisfaction. It’s fantastic what we can do for people. Then there’s having personal freedom of choice. Will I do a show garden? Will I go to a show abroad? Will I take the day off?
How do you achieve a work-life balance?
I barely understand the question because if you love what you do, which I do, it isn’t really work. As a self-employed entrepreneur, working 50-60 hours a week, Saturdays, evenings – growing up on a farm, that’s what people do – it’s like second nature to me.
Are you inspired by any business figures or success stories?
I read quite extensively, and there are people I admire. There’s a Blaise Brosnan in Wexford, with whom I’ve done two management development courses through the Enterprise Board. He would be my go-to guy. We all have management theory but he translates it into practical realities. The analogies that hit home with me, having played rugby at a fairly high level, are that you prepare for the game – and business is the game. You prepare and execute the same way, and teamwork comes into that. He would be my one and only mentor in that regard.
What tools do you utilise that benefit your customers or that make running your business easier or more profitable?
We use social media extensively, though probably not to its full potential. You dabble and experiment without investing too much time. I would be very conscious of the fact that people can go mad doing their Twitter campaign and ignoring the basics. Having said that, I spend a lot of time, energy and money on constantly developing our website. We have over 50 videos of jobs we have done. We combine that with the use of iPhones. We video and take photos before and after a job. That way, we can record what we’ve done and, when we get a testimonial from a customer, we can add that to our latest news. That’s an ongoing process. We put it all into Dropbox so we can all dip in and out of it. We also use iPads so we can show our work to potential customers.
Do you feel you know what your customers really want? How do you stay updated with this information?
We talk to them face to face. It’s part of our process. We also have a testimonial form that we send with a stamped addressed envelope subsequent to a job in the hope that they like us and that we'll get their permission to use it. That includes an open question: “What else would you like? What do you need?” If there is something people are asking for, we will offer it in due course. We also attend consumer shows.
What has been the biggest challenge your business has faced?
The nature of landscaping is that we can work in the snow if necessary, but people don’t get their gardens done in winter so it’s a seasonal business to some extent. Therefore, there are cash-flow issues. In fairness to the bank, we have been offered and taken up extended overdrafts when it is quiet.
What do you think the biggest challenge to businesses in Ireland is at the moment?
What affects us is consumer confidence.
What part of running a business comes to you naturally?
I’m not really good with the figures side. I would be the ideas guy, the marketing guy, the vision guy. I would be thinking further down the line.
What has been the best reward in running your own business?
Freedom, being master of one’s own destiny and creating jobs for people who have families and mortgages. We have staff outings, and small companies – by their nature – are close. There’s a low staff turnover, which is nice.
What was the main catalyst for growth?
We’ve gone from educating the market to making it a no-brainer for people. We have used free trials for some of our schools and larger crèches, so that has helped. I have mentioned reinvestment, which has also helped.
How did you scale/grow your business?
Delegation – taking on a full-time sales guy has helped exponentially, and giving responsibility to the guys.
How do you get ideas to further your business?
I’m very conscious about keeping an open mind – you would spot gaps in the market. I read extensively, travel and go to trade shows. I am prepared to be brave and take a step that might look foolish, but you don’t know until you try it. On a figary, I decided to cover a couch for last year’s Bloom; we did an Irish-flag couch. Thousands of people sat on it to take photos, and our logo was right behind.
What motivates you to stay running a business?
The constant challenges and variety, and trying to keep some fun in it.
What’s your vision for the future?
The main thing is not to drift. I have a number of goals, both personal and for the business. We need a larger warehouse, and we need an area where we can do show gardens and let the public see what we have. We have a new Hidbin under development and we know there is huge export potential for that.
What obstacles to growth have you faced in the past?
Consumer confidence. Everybody wants it. We’re inundated on an ongoing basis with enquiries but, when we say it will be a couple of thousand, people will say “I thought it would be a few hundred.” That’s your obstacle. If you go back five to eight years it would be: “Cool, is that all? We’ll put it on the credit card.” Or there will be jobs in the bag and the credit union turns them down or there’s a redundancy in the family and they are postponed.
Do you have a mentor; do you find this has positively impacted on your success?
What’s the best business advice you’ve received?
Again, that would be down to Blaise Brosnan who hammered it home as regards leverage, delegation and watching the bottom line.
What’s your favourite motivational business quote?
It's something Blaise uses in one of his books and is from a Polish guy who was working for me and quoted his grandfather: “An ounce of commerce is worth a tonne of work.” We were literally digging a hole at the time, and it struck home with me so much that shortly afterwards I thought “I don’t need to be out here digging holes, I need to be in the office or sitting back in the jeep working on the next quote.”
What would be your advice to businesses starting out?
Be bold, be different, know your unique proposition. Don’t bother relying on grant aid, go and get it, don’t spend your time filling out forms. People just get side-tracked and delayed with all that. A detailed business plan that is reviewed regularly is important, as is goal setting. This year you want to make a million quid, so work backwards – what do you need to do?
What, if anything, would you do differently?
Get mentorship earlier – I’m not talking about grant assistance. And it’s only in latter years that I’ve started reading up on my business advice. You just need to constantly self educate. Some of it will stick and some of it will go in one ear and out the other, but I think it’s important.
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