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22 July 2014

Featured Business: Irelands Eye Knitwear

Posted By: AIB Business

Name: Paul O’Sullivan, Director, Irelands Eye Knitwear

Employees: 28

Since: 1988

Lifestage: Established

Company Background:
When Paul O’Sullivan was a student in UCD in the 1970s and set up a stall selling legwarmers at a market in Belfield, little did he know he would set up a contract manufacturing knitwear business a decade later with his parents and siblings.

Paul had made the leg warmers on a knitting machine in the garage at home. His father had trained in knitting technology in Leicester Technical College and worked for the Government supporting the clothing and knitwear industry.

In 1988, the whole family had gotten behind the new business. Prior to that, Brendan was working as a chef, Paul as an accountant, Wendy as a clothing factory employee and Noeleen was teaching piano.

The business was initially bootstrapped, with the O’Sullivans all living at home without mortgages or young families to worry about. Paul describes the first six months as like a pilot project. After that, they had to get the right machinery to take on more complex designs and further contracts. The machine they needed cost IR£50,000 – it was the equivalent of buying two houses – so they turned to AIB for leasing.

A chartered accountant, Paul had trained and qualified in one of the big firms before moving to London to gain experience. His background, he says, was a great help in getting a good feel for how business runs.

The key to the business’s continued success has been taking on the advice: “Business is simple, it’s about having what people want. The rest is easy. It’s easy to say, it’s not that easy to do.” says Paul.

The key is to know what the market wants; establish that you can produce it at a market price; employ the right people and let them get on with it, he says.

Contract manufacturing for Irish labels and Irish retailers is now more or less gone from Ireland. The only way to survive in Ireland, he says, is to design. And not only has Irelands Eye Knitwear moved from contract manufacturing to its own designs over the years, it has also gone upmarket too, which has resulted in the trebling of turnover since 2010.

Customers became more interested in the provenance of products in the last few years. While they know it will cost more, they want to know it’s made in Ireland, says Paul.

Irelands Eye Knitwear was highly commended in the Small Business Exporter of the Year category of the SFA National Small Business Awards 2014.


Interview with Paul O’Sullivan


What was the inspiration for setting up your business?

Why would you set up a business in the ’80s? A good few of us in the family had this urge to work for ourselves. My father had worked for the Government in the knitwear industry and he knew how to knit. Somebody approached him, they wanted him to supply them, the problem was nobody else would supply this company as it was small – so we decided we’d do it.


How did you initially fund your business?

We were all living at home so nobody needed much money; we worked for nothing for the first month. Anything we got, we put back into the business. We started on a shoestring. We went to the smallest place with a hole in the roof and a leaky bucket. My father managed to get some old machines from somewhere for 20 quid. He showed myself and Brendan how to use them.


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

We started out as a contract manufacturer making garments to other people’s designs. We realised early on there was no future in that. For us as a business, we wouldn’t survive. The only way was to get our own designers and start designing our own ranges for our own label. That started after 3-4 years.


What have been the highlights to date?

One of the great things is that we’re still here, particularly after surviving the last recession in 2007, and the business is actually growing. Since 2010, our sales have trebled. That’s a highlight to be able to do that in the economic environment we’ve been in.


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

Your autonomy to make your own decisions. You stand over your own successes and your own mistakes and you’re not trying to second guess anybody else. You make your own decisions and you live with them. It’s that and the ongoing challenge to try and improve. You have to keep reinventing yourself. That’s enjoyable because otherwise you get bored. We do two collections per year and we would sell them all around the world. That starts at yarn selection, and our designers would go to the big yarn fair in Florence, which would tell you trends with yarns and forecast colour trends. You take on board what’s relevant from the forecasts and apply it to our products and what our customers want. You’re continually refining what you do all the time to match what your customers are looking for.


How do you achieve a work-life balance?

It’s your work and your hobby. When you’re involved in a smallish business like that you have to have the passion for it and you love it. It comes first. If you were annoyed with that, you’d never keep going; you’d give up.


Are you inspired by any business figures or success stories?

I find Michael O’Leary inspirational in that Ryanair’s approach to business seems to be why not rather than why. They try and change things, they’re reinventing themselves and are being more friendly – never giving up and adapting and changing to the market’s requirements.


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

A lot of the knitwear factories in Ireland traditionally would have been on the Western coast. When you’re based in North Dublin, space and overheads are a lot higher. Our factory is very compact. Trying to do what we do in North Dublin forces you to be efficient. Our knitting machines are computerised and run 24 hours a day.


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

We feel at the moment we know what they want. When you’re doing knitwear and it’s changing every season you have to keep talking to the customers and the retailers. Ask them what they want and give it to them.


What has been the biggest challenge your business has faced?

From 2007-2010 survival was a challenge. In the last 2-3 years we’ve been coping with the more positive challenges of fast growth. The turnover has trebled in three years. One of the strategic challenges is the workforce and hiring people to do what we do. We need design skills and productions skills. They are hard to get. Making knitwear nowadays is technical – the machinery is computerised and traditional craft skills of finishing the garment and sewing the different components together are dying away.


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

For a lot at the moment I would say finance and working capital, with the hangover from the crash.


What part of running a business comes to you naturally? 

To be open-minded and to listen to your customers. To never give up. You need to be open-minded and willing to adapt to survive.


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

The satisfaction of knowing you’re designing and creating something that wouldn’t exist if your business didn’t exist. You get some satisfaction with the fact you’ve 28 people employed here. To see your products on display in some of the best shops in the world.


What was the main catalyst for growth?

Back in 2010, we moved upmarket. We felt our products had become too ordinary. With the recession, you were chasing your product down. In Ireland it’s never going to be cheap so it better be special. We moved upmarket; we invested in design. The garments became more expensive, but we’re selling more of them.


How did you scale/grow your business?

One brick at a time.


What obstacles to growth have you faced in the past?

If you know what people want it’s easy to grow. We had a self-imposed obstacle; we weren’t listening enough to the customers a number of years ago and not putting an effort into finding out exactly what they wanted.  You have to know what they want and be able to produce it at a market price.


How do you get ideas to further your business?

For us, we continue to have dialogue with sales agents and customers: finding out what they want and continually trying to refine and improve our offer to the marketplace. If we do that, the sky is the limit.


What motivates you to stay running a business?

I love it. You have to love it. It’s the challenge of creating something. I get a buzz out of it.


What’s your vision for the future?

For the foreseeable future, hopefully continued growth and keep making what we refer to as special knitwear for customers all over the world. The people that can afford our knitwear already have enough stuff, they don’t need another sweater. There’s no reason for us to exist unless we’re special. We have to keep on figuring out how to make what people want and make it special to them.


Do you have a mentor; do you find this has positively impacted on your success?

We were on an 18-month programme in the IMI (Irish Management Institute) about 20 years ago – the Business Development Programme for Small Businesses. Each company was put in touch with a mentor. We had a mentor in the area of marketing, an area in which we needed help. That was a big help.


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

Never give up. Back in 2010 I was taking up cycling again. 2010 was the worst for us, it was the bottom. I was talking to the guy in the bike shop. He said they were at the crest of the wave. “You see where you are now, we were there two years ago. Keep going.”


What would be your advice to businesses starting out?

Make sure it’s something you’re passionate about. Whatever excites you, work in that area. If it excites you, you’ll more than likely be good at it.


What’s your favourite motivational business quote?

People buy the story not the product. What we do, it’s the story people buy.


What, if anything, would you do differently?

If we were starting it all again, with the wisdom of hindsight: maybe be bolder and braver, more confident, think bigger.



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