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15 April 2014

Featured Business: Brook Catering

Posted By: AIB Business

Name: Sharon O’Donoghue, Sales Director and co-founder of Brook Catering, a nationwide contract and event catering company

Employees: 178

Since: 2007

Lifestage: Established

Company Background:
It’s no surprise that Sharon O’Donoghue is in business. Network Ireland’s Businesswoman of the Year 2013, she established Brook Catering in 2007 with three colleagues – Liam Murphy, Tim McCarthy and Kieran Callinan.

While her teen contemporaries were earning their pocket money babysitting in the early 1990s, Sharon established a successful babysitting service – contracting out babysitters in Tralee, Co Kerry.

When she grew out of the babysitting phase, Sharon went on to gain experience alongside one of Ireland’s big entrepreneurship success stories, Jerry Kennelly, who set up Stockbyte (a stock photography website, which sold to Getty Images in 2007 for $135 million). She attributes being surrounded by such people to being a driving force behind getting into business herself.

Sharon graduated with a marketing qualification in 1999 and went on to work with Penneys as a trainee manager. From retail she made the move into hospitality, working in a sales and marketing role with White’s Hotel Group in Tralee before moving to the Shelbourne Pub Group in Cork. There, as a sales and marketing manager, she met her present business partners.

While selling staff barbeques to an event management client, Kepak, she learned that they were looking for a new contract caterer urgently. Kepak saw the opportunity in Shelbourne Pub Group and, although it wasn’t their industry, the team took on the challenge. They realised that they were good at it and the client liked their processes.

This led to the realisation that they could offer further contract and event catering, and the decision was made to go ahead and set up a separate company – Brook Catering.

“Looking at our own skillset, we all came from a hospitality background; we had finance, purchasing, accounts, operations, sales and chefs. We had the skillset to make it into a business that is our business.”

The company prides itself on being ahead while also being a small indigenous company. “We were talking about Irish produce six years ago and natural cooking techniques, but we didn’t have the marketing budget to be going on about it – whereas competitors are only doing that now,” says Sharon.

Brook Catering’s clients include corporates and multinational companies that require catering onsite, as well as everything from weddings, corporates and house parties on the events side. Its client list includes Pfizer and the Tall Ships Festival.


Interview with Sharon O’Donoghue


What was the inspiration for setting up your business?

We had the luxury of a year behind us to look at the market and talk to our one customer to get that market research. The inspiration was simple: we had the skillset, we had the experience, we had the opportunity – and we took the opportunity.


How did you initially fund your business?

Working capital from ourselves as shareholders.


Have you diversified your offering from your original focus or set up other businesses?

We’ve reviewed and refined the services we present. At first we thought we were going to be a contract catering company. That was very easily knocked on the head after three months. We branched into event catering because it’s an easier sale and that helped fund the business for the first 12 months. We looked at what we could do: we could do event management and event catering and we went into both of those straight away.


What have been the highlights to date?

In 2007 we secured two contracts that were the backbone of our business: the Rose of Tralee Rose Ball and the Mercy Hospital in Cork celebrating its 50th anniversary; two hugely significant contracts that had great public profiles. They have been instrumental to the success of Brook Catering. Winning the Businesswoman of the Year award with Network Ireland is a very personal highlight. It gives you confidence in yourself again to keep going with what you’re doing.


What’s your favourite part of being a business owner/entrepreneur?

I love the buzz of being in business. I love the energy that’s about it; the drive that can be coordinated.


How do you achieve a work-life balance?

I don’t have a work-life balance. You have to work to make sure that you’re happy in your job. I have a rule that I work Monday to Friday. It doesn’t matter if I work morning, noon, eve, night – whatever needs to be done will be done in those hours. Friday at 6 o’clock I Iike to switch off. I try to keep the weekends as my own, as best as I can. With the nature of the business I’m in, that’s not always possible.


Are you inspired by any business figures or success stories?

I’ve great admiration for Denis Brosnan [founder of Kerry Group]. He had a vision, he knew what he wanted, he always had a very strategic plan. He has this work ethic to be the best at what you do. You can’t fault Michael O’Leary [Ryanair CEO]; he is an absolute genius when it comes to business. He doesn’t care what anybody else says about him, he doesn’t want to be anybody else, he knows what his business is about.


What tools do you utilise that benefit your customers or that make running your business easier or more profitable?

We introduced an IT system that gave us live, up to date information. If you don’t know those costs you’re not going to be in control of your business. It’s invaluable.


Do you feel you know what your customers really want? How do you stay updated with this information?

With food, it’s all about trends: it’s about markets, it’s about what’s evolving. What you always have to take into account is the changing nature of the people we deal with every day. We have to take into account the current buzzwords in industry. For example, at the moment there is a huge emphasis on using Irish and local producers and also on health and wellness. You can do all the research in the world but the person you need to speak to is the customer; if you can deliver what they want, you’ve got a customer for life.


What has been the biggest challenge your business has faced?

Our biggest challenge is that we’re based in Cork and it was very easy for us to develop a reputation and a brand in our home town. The biggest challenge we have is to make sure our name is known outside Cork. Our head office is in Cork, but we do business in Dublin: 45% of our business and 55% of our event catering is outside of Cork. The biggest challenge is you’re up against the multinationals.


What do you think the biggest challenge to businesses in Ireland is at the moment?

The cost of everything. We have different minimum wage rates. We have increasing food costs and energy costs; costs are just going up and up. On the other side of it, our clients are trying to get their costs down.


What part of running a business comes to you naturally?

Sales. I enjoy the preparation of it, the dealing of it, the negotiation of it. It was instilled in me from an early age.


What has been the best reward in running your own business?

Satisfying my own ambitions, goals and drive. Personal satisfaction is the biggest reward.


What was the main catalyst for growth?

We had a very clear strategy from the start: if we can get one of the big names from industry in, the rest will follow. Once you get those first one or two clients in …


What obstacles to growth have you faced in the past?

We were the small guy starting out. We were getting so far in the process of tendering but we didn’t have the experience; we were very young as a company. We looked at the obstacles and, if it was something that prevented us from growing, we went and changed it.


How do you get ideas to further your business?

Our ideas simply come from the people. We solve people’s problems. We don’t have a fear of going out there and taking on things.


What motivates you to stay running a business?

The belief that we’re delivering the best possible product to the market and working with people. We’ve a really low turnover of staff. That team of people doesn’t change; you’re responsible for them. They’ve given us their lives, their loyalty. We’ve a responsibility back to them that we make it a success for them as well. Each one of those people is instrumental in our success.


What’s the best business advice you’ve received?

Turnover is vanity and profit is sanity.


What would be your advice to businesses starting out?

If you’re going to do something, you’re going to have to make sure you’re going to deliver on it 150%. If you promise your customer you’re going to do something, do not go back on it. We live by that here. Exceed their expectations all the time. And know your bank balance – you need to know what’s going in and out of your account. And also sell – you might have the best product in the world but, if you don’t talk to the public and you don’t sell, it’s no good to you.


What’s your favourite motivational business quote?

The best way to predict the future is to make the future. The minute you’re satisfied with where you are, you’re not there anymore.


What, if anything, would you do differently?

There was no definitive marketing plan – but you can’t spend money you don’t have on marketing, so you have to make the best of it. If we had to go back maybe we would have worked our brand slightly differently. We’ve learned loads. How we started out doing jobs and how we do jobs now are totally different. You have to learn that by experience. Everything you do is a lesson to improve what you do, because if nobody is going to tell you how to be better at it then you’re going to have to learn. The quickest way to learn how to be better is when you’re paying yourself. Your mistakes cost you money – if you make mistakes, you have to learn from your mistakes. Don’t beat yourself up about them; just don’t make that mistake a second time.


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