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Featured Business: Wexford Home Preserves
Name: Laura Sinnott, owner/manager at Wexford Home Preserves, a food producer
Since: 1988 (2008 under current ownership)
The story behind Wexford Home Preserves is a tale of two recessions. Established originally as a cottage industry in 1988 by Ellen and Sean O’Leary in Wexford, in 2008 the business was bought by Ellen’s nephew Tom Sinnott and his wife Laura when Ellen and Sean decided it was time to retire.
Tom had his own business in the building trade, specialising in one-off houses. Previously he had worked in retail, mainly in Caulfield’s Supervalu (where there is a family connection), and also trained as a butcher in Dunnes Stores. Laura, who has a hotel and catering, tourism and hospitality background, had worked in the Slieve Russell Hotel in Cavan, which gave her great on-the-ground and staff supervisory experience.
The business originally operated from a purpose-built factory in Our Lady’s Island in south east Wexford, but when Tom and Laura bought it they moved it across to the other side of the county close to where they live, rather than face a long daily commute.
Since they started “cooking” in 2009, the couple has enjoyed constant growth and secured new business. This has been down to having an established product and loyal customer base in Wexford, combined with their own vision.
In August 2013 they moved into new premises in the same business park in New Ross, County Wexford because they were at their limit in their first premises.
As well as needing more facilities for staff, such as a larger canteen, the company needed a bigger kitchen to be able to meet the demand for the product. This move proved timely when the company was approached by Dunnes Stores to do its Simply Better range. Without the new factory, it wouldn’t have been able to supply the range. “We needed to be in new premises to take on anything to the scale of Dunnes,” says Laura.
Wexford Home Preserves may have moved firmly into the 21st century, but the production methods are still the same. Its jam is still made in big pots on gas stoves, stirred with hurley-like Exoglass spoons.
Interview with Laura Sinnott
What was the inspiration for setting up your business?
The inspiration was that we felt we had all the tools to make the business work and saw a future in it. We saw it expanding. We thought it could go further, for example in the gift market and, potentially, exporting as well. We could see it developing.
How did you initially fund your business?
Some was our own savings. We got a loan from AIB; it was the most agreeable to what we wanted. It gave us a start-up loan for materials. That’s what got us started.
Have you diversified your offering from your original focus or set up other businesses?
The original line here we call our “bread and butter” line. We have nine varieties in it: three marmalades and six jams. That’s what keeps us going. Once we went through the first year we could identify when we had peaks and troughs and when we needed to come up with something to boost sales or when there was loads of potential. In the summer months there are loads of tourists around; especially in Wexford there are loads of tourist sites so we came up with a gift range for that and it really took off. A couple of years in, we noticed there was no really nice gift range for jams – they were all English, Scottish or French – so we said there’s space in the market to come up with something for gift ideas. We came up with “Ellen’s Choice”, which has been huge. Different companies have taken it on, including Fallon & Byrne in Dublin, Wright’s of Howth in the airport, Donnybrook Fair and speciality shops like that.
What have been the highlights to date?
The first highlight was when we had everything made, myself and Tom took off in the van and spent a couple of hours going around Wexford. Everyone was saying: “Oh Wexford Preserves is back on the market.” We came home with an empty van in a matter of hours. That was a great motivation and boost for us.
What’s your favourite part of being a business owner/entrepreneur?
I love the cooking side of it and I like dealing with people: people ringing up for orders and dealing with the different companies. Tom loves the sales and being in here managing the place. He’s very organised and structured in the way he works.
How do you achieve a work-life balance?
It’s hard at the moment. Robert is just gone one and Isla was two in September. They’re very small and they need a lot of time as well. We’re up at 6am, out the door by 8am. Tom is long gone by then and we’re not back home until 6pm. Our rule is not to work weekends. That was Ellen’s rule. You can’t do it 24/7.
Are you inspired by any business figures or success stories?
Sean Quinn. When I worked in the Slieve Russell Hotel, which was his first hotel, he would be in the whole time and you’d be very aware of him. He started small and built a fleet of businesses. The entire community up there is behind him and he employs the whole surrounding area of Ballyconnell.
What tools do you utilise that benefit your customers or that make running your business easier or more profitable?
We invested in a print and apply label machine, which has speeded up our labelling threefold. We used to put the labels on the jars by hand, and it would take two people a day to label two pallets (200 cases). One person can label four or five pallets a day now. It’s a huge thing for us.
Do you feel you know what your customers really want? How do you stay updated with this information?
We have someone employed to do promotions and tastings in shops. She works in the kitchen as well so she knows exactly how the product is made and knows what she is talking about. She goes around to different stores with a tasting table and puts out some of the different jams that people might be afraid to pick up in case they don’t like them, for example the Gooseberry, and Rhubarb and Ginger. It’s a great way to get feedback from and interact with people. We do shows as well: Bloom, the Ploughing Match, the Wexford Food Festival.
What has been the biggest challenge your business has faced?
The biggest challenge so far has been the move and the expansion, which happened in the summer, our busy season. We have fruit coming in from the farmers and are trying to wash it, get it into the freezers and use as much as we can. We had to change over the kitchen so we had to stop production for the week and move. We had to get ahead of ourselves to do that, so it was a big challenge to get everything right.
What do you think the biggest challenge to businesses in Ireland is at the moment?
For us, cashflow is a challenge. Everyone seems to be in the same boat, everyone is under pressure. I would say that is a big factor for most people.
What part of running a business comes to you naturally?
The kitchen – I am so used to kitchens and communicating in the kitchen. Customer care is a big thing – you would have people calling in just to say they buy the jam, and to stock up. You’re dealing with people the whole time. I like the customer service aspect of it.
What has been the best reward in running your own business?
It feels like this is what we are supposed to do. The two of us like it. We always want to expand and develop the products, especially the gift range, and export is our next target. We sit down at the start of every year and say who are we going to target this year and what big companies do we need to be in to expand our business? We contact those companies, and 50% of the time you’re successful and 50% of the time you’re not. That’s the challenge.
What was the main catalyst for growth?
The Dunnes Stores contract is huge for us. We do its Simply Better range. We do a strawberry, gooseberry, raspberry and a three-fruit marmalade. It’s a high fruit jam – 60% fruit, 40% sugar. It’s a really nice range. Dunnes’ aim was to source really nice products from artisan producers. Part of its marketing is to name the people it is sourcing the new products from. We’re delighted we’re named on the jars.
How did you scale/grow your business?
We identified the peaks and troughs and came up with a plan to boost sales in those periods with the gift range etc. We developed the Ellen’s Choice range for the speciality shops and tourist destinations. We brainstorm. We sit down every few months and say who should we be targeting? Where are the in places, where are people shopping? Where should we be seen? And we target those places.
What obstacles to growth have you faced in the past?
What was slowing us down was we were too restricted in the other premises. It was too small. Our kitchen was too small and our equipment wasn’t standing up to the use it was getting. We invested in better gas burners, new saucepans, spoons. It’s all very simple. We just upgraded everything. We had to do that to withstand the use and the volume.
How do you get ideas to further your business?
We work with Paula Ronan of Ronan Marketing. She has great ideas and helped us with Ellen’s Choice. She has great ideas for promotions and what we should be doing, what markets and shows we should be doing.
What motivates you to stay running a business?
This is our life now. This is what we depend on. We have a young family and we need to grow it. I don’t think we’ve thought of doing anything else since we started. We just focused on it.
What’s your vision for the future?
I’d love to get into the export market. Ellen’s Choice is a perfect product for export. It has such a long shelf life and the packaging is good. It’s an Irish handmade product. It ticks all the boxes. Hopefully we’ll get in somewhere. We’ve had a few requests for samples from wholesalers in Japan and Thailand. There are also nice speciality shops in the UK.
Do you have a mentor; do you find this has positively impacted on your success?
We started out blind really. We took a risk. We didn’t really get any help – it would be great if there was somebody who could sit down with you and say these are the organisations you should be contacting for grants and support. We found all of that out along the way. We got Paula Ronan as a mentor through Wexford County Enterprise Board, and Tony Ennis as a mentor to help us with the move, the business plan for the new venture and getting funding from Wexford County Enterprise Board.
What’s the best business advice you’ve received?
I always say “Eat the frog for breakfast”. There could be something annoying you from yesterday evening. There’s no point leaving it hang, so pick up the phone and get it done first thing in the morning. Just get it out of the way.
What would be your advice to businesses starting out?
Research thoroughly and find out who can help you – with funding and advice. The advice you get is invaluable.
What’s your favourite motivational business quote?
“If I had nine hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend the first six sharpening my axe.” Just be prepared. Here you have to be prepared for a day’s cooking and, with the Dunnes contract, we had to be prepared. Then you’ll do it easily.
What, if anything, would you do differently?
If we knew how much was involved risk-wise, maybe we wouldn’t have taken on the business. Going in green was the best thing. If we knew too much we might have been spooked and not done it.
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