Featured Business: Farm Tours Ireland
Name: Gerry Giggins, founder and director of Farm Tours Ireland, escorted tour operators for Ireland and Europe
Employees: Two full-time and 10 seasonal staff
Considering that Ireland has long been marketed overseas for its green fields and agricultural heritage, it’s surprising that only in recent years has a company like Farm Tours Ireland been set up.
Farm Tours Ireland does what it says on the tin. Gerry Giggins, an agricultural consultant, and his son Aonghus bring farmers from around the world on tailored tours of Irish farms. These are technical tours promoting Irish food production, farming techniques and, of course, some of our culture.
Gerry has worked in agriculture for many years, initially with Keenan’s before setting up Nutrition Link, and spends a lot of time consulting outside of Ireland. He offers a nutrition service for dairy and beef producers, which helps to improve efficiency, lower costs and improve margins through the implementation of proper feeding techniques and management practices on their beef and dairy farms.
While doing this work, Gerry realised that agricultural communities abroad have an interest in Irish agriculture. Now his two businesses feed into each other: he can make new contacts for Nutrition Link through Farm Tours Ireland and also bring new customers into Ireland.
Interview with Gerry Giggins
What was the inspiration for setting up your business?
I spent a lot of time doing consultancy work outside of Ireland. There’s a fascination with Ireland – and it’s not just the Irish Diaspora. People were saying, “Maybe I should come to Ireland sometime?” so it just clicked with me that I should formalise it into a business. We initially set it up and, with some of the contacts I had, we started promoting it.
How did you initially fund your business?
From our own funds. We had to set up a website and get a small bit of merchandise.
Have you diversified your offering from your original focus or set up other businesses?
Yes we have. My original business was consultancy on animal nutrition, so we have diversified. We’ve brought part of that business into what we’re doing. We’re bringing people into the country, offering technical tours and training modules – for people within the country too. For example, we had groups from throughout Ireland on training days and technical tours.
What have been the highlights to date?
One of the highlights was our involvement in Alltech’s Global 500, where 700-800 of the top beef and dairy farmers in the world were invited to Ireland [as part of The Gathering 2013]. Alltech [an Irish animal health and nutrition company] asked us to do the farm tour part of the conference at the RDS. We showcased some of the best Irish farming techniques to some of the top farmers in the world.
What’s your favourite part of being a business owner/entrepreneur?
My favourite part is being in control and being able to take control of my own destiny – and maybe inspire other people. I know we started our business at a time when agriculture was at a low two years ago. We continue to promote the good story of Irish agriculture; I like that part of it – being positive.
How do you achieve a work-life balance?
I enjoy the work. I’ve a garden at home where I grow the majority of the fruit and vegetables we use at home as a family. I spend a lot of time at that. I’m also a singer in a male singing group and every bit of work will drop for a Tuesday night practice – and everything will stop if we have a performance. I’ll change travel plans anywhere in the world if it means missing out on that.
Are you inspired by any business figures or success stories?
There’s Gerard Keenan from the Keenan organisation in Borris in Carlow; I’m closely involved through my nutrition business with them. They very much inspired me. I started with them in 1995 and spent 12 years full-time with them. In a local sense in Co Louth there’s Tom McGuinness, owner of Horseware Ireland. Tom’s passion is horses and I’m sure at some stage the penny dropped with him that he could get involved with his passion and he started making blankets for horses and then went from that to horse related equipment and clothing. I’d like to think that in a few years’ time Farm Tours Ireland will be a renowned brand like Horseware Ireland.
What tools do you utilise that benefit your customers or that make running your business easier or more profitable?
I’d better speak on my son’s behalf – I can just about switch on a mobile phone. He’s tweeting and using Facebook, and those pieces of technology are huge for our business. There’s a lot of contact from that. We tweet from the tours. One time we had a tour in from Denmark and tweeted the fact we were there and within 10 minutes we had the local press onto us wondering if they could photograph the group in the area.
Do you feel you know what your customers really want? How do you stay updated with this information?
I was in Canada a while ago doing consultancy work with my other business. The Canadian beef industry is going through a bit of transition – they’ve been producing beef but using artificial hormones. They have the opportunity to sell beef into Europe hormone-free, but they don’t know how to do it. While I was there I said, if you can come to Ireland we can show you how it’s done. I saw the opportunity and have already sent them an itinerary, programme and prices for them to come to Ireland and see how beef is produced hormone-free.
What has been the biggest challenge your business has faced?
Access to grant aid has proved difficult. A lot of time was spent pursuing it, which proved disappointing.
What do you think the biggest challenge to businesses in Ireland is at the moment?
Negativity. We’re told that there’s great access to grant aid support and funding, but I genuinely wouldn’t want to be out looking for €100,000 to fund this business – you’d be nearly selling your soul to get anything.
What part of running a business comes to you naturally?
I’m good with people. I think when people leave me they’re motivated. My son is in the business as well; we work as a very good team, his skillset and mine. I’m very focused on what the end goal is.
What has been the best reward in running your own business?
I’m getting a lot of personal satisfaction out of it. We’re only a start-up company; we haven’t had to borrow money. We’ve a bit of money in the bank. We have good ambitious plans.
What was the main catalyst for growth?
Ireland is at a crossroads in food production at the moment and the world is at a crossroads. We can show the rest of the world how you can grow your agricultural output in a clean sustainable way and not have an impact on the environment.
How did you scale/grow your business?
We’ve been able to scale up by creating a lot of alliances; different companies and contacts I have. I do a bit of writing in the Farming Independent. I’m never afraid to shake the hands of journalists and tell them what I’m doing.
What obstacles to growth have you faced in the past?
Negativity and access to support. That negativity has inspired me to drive on. That’s the type of character I am – if there’s an obstacle put in front of me I’ll go round it. It does push me to go a little bit harder.
How do you get ideas to further your business?
I’ll be constantly on the watch for ideas. We’re doing a lot of training modules and there are people coming into the country for production techniques training.
What motivates you to stay running a business?
Financially we can make a good business out of this.
Do you have a mentor; do you find this has positively impacted on your success?
The start of my career was in Bord na Móna and there’s a guy there, Colm Ó Gógáin, who started as a young engineer prior to my starting there. I can ring up Colm and he is always hugely positive no matter what.
What’s the best business advice you’ve received?
I worked for seven years with Larry Goodman on his own estate and managed his operations there. One of the things I learned was to stay focused in times of adversity; stay at it. And that’s probably one of the best bits of advice I would give to people: stick at it. If you have the right vision and have put the plans in place, you’ll get there anyway.
What would be your advice to businesses starting out?
Don’t go on a whim; have it well-researched.
What’s your favourite motivational business quote?
An aunt-in-law, who was a woman in business in the 1950s and 1960s when times were tough, she always reckoned that so many businesses failed as they lacked “stick-at-it-ness”.
What, if anything, would you do differently?
I would have started the business a number of years earlier.
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