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Featured Business: Heritage Hampers
Name: Sarah Galvin, founder and managing director of Heritage Hampers
Who doesn’t love getting a hamper, whether it’s for a special occasion, Mother’s Day, or a corporate Christmas gift?
Luckily for Sarah Galvin, who’s been in the gift hamper business for 21 years, people still like giving gifts, and her business has not only survived through a recession, it has grown and diversified.
Having seen first-hand as a child how her family’s drinks business was run, Sarah was keen to get involved. Passionate about food, and having studied wine at a winery in France for six months as a school leaver, she was well placed to try her hand at improving the choice of gift hampers available.
As it turned out, she underestimated the idea’s potential and, in the end, spun out her own company.
More recent years have seen Sarah’s business diversify and grow at a time when everybody else was trying to pull back.
This diversification included starting a new drinks company, developing the online side of the business, and entering new territories such as the UK. Now supplying customers worldwide, the company’s offering particularly appeals to Ireland’s growing diaspora who want to send gifts home to Ireland.
Six years ago, Sarah invested heavily in web technology, giving her customers complete control over their hampers. With the build-your-own-hamper service, customers worldwide can pick their packaging, choose from thousands of products, and even select what ribbon they want.
The recession, combined with capital investment, meant that Sarah had to come up with a plan B and adapt to the changing marketplace. She went back to her initial love, which was the drinks business. Her new company – Heritage Wines and Spirits – imports alcohol from around the world and sells to other alcohol distributors; anyone with a drinks licence in Ireland is a potential customer.
There is also an online off-licence, which is popular with Irish ex-pats keen to get a taste of beverages only available in Ireland.
Heritage Hampers is a finalist in the SFA National Small Business Awards 2015 Food & Drink Category.
Interview with Sarah Galvin
What was the inspiration for setting up your business?
My father had a drinks company and I was going in there from the time I could walk. He used to sell these baskets; there was very little choice in them: a Christmas cake, a few mince pies and a bottle or two of wine. I saw an opportunity, and didn’t realise how big an opportunity it would become. When I originally set up, my idea was to stay working in the family business, do an extra few hampers and sell through my father’s existing business. It quickly grew to become its own separate entity.
How did you initially fund your business?
I was very lucky; it more or less self-funded, as I started very small and hampers are paid for on a pro-forma basis so you’re not giving out a lot of credit. However, AIB worked closely with me in the beginning.
Have you diversified your offering from your original focus or set up other businesses?
Hugely. Even technology has changed so much since I began. The world has changed and customers’ demands have changed. It would be a completely different business to what it was 10 years ago, never mind 21 years ago. The biggest change is our online offering.
What have been the highlights to date?
I built my own warehouse 10 years ago so that was a huge financial commitment. In the last two years, with the downturn in the economy, I started a new company, Heritage Wines and Spirits. Seeing that succeed and seeing the effort come to fruition was a huge personal achievement. It was great for a gift company to survive the downturn.
What’s the bravest step you’ve made in relation to your business?
I think the bravest step was restructuring when the recession started. I put everything on the line. All my personal money had to go back into the business. Whilst AIB worked particularly closely with me at the time and financed the new company, I personally had to finance it. It was sink or swim at that stage. It’s been a huge success, so it’s great.
What’s your favourite part of being a business owner/entrepreneur?
You’re answerable to no one; there’s a positive and a negative to that. You can work your own hours but unfortunately you tend to work more than anybody else because you have to have the commitment. When you get an idea it’s up to you to push that and make it succeed. But you’re fortunate when you own your own company in that you have the ability to follow through on any ideas you have.
How do you achieve a work-life balance?
With great difficulty. I found that extremely hard in the last few years. When I diversified I had to put a huge amount of my personal time into the business. I found that, to be successful, you have to have huge commitment to your ideas. If you don’t, you won’t succeed. One of my new year’s resolutions for 2015 is to concentrate more on my work-life balance. I have a nine-year-old son and have built an office from home, so my plan is to work more from home and get that balance.
Are you inspired by any business figures or success stories?
My biggest inspiration would have been my father. From the age of three or four I was brought into work with him. I very much believe if you give a child good work ethics from a very young age and teach them the value of working, it’s a gift for life. All of my family are high achievers, but we worked. If you wanted to buy something, you worked to earn the money to buy it from when you were very small. My father’s commitment to his work was incredible.
What tools or technologies do you use that benefit your customers or business?
Technology is one of the most difficult areas in the last five to six years for business because it’s advancing so rapidly. We’re on our fourth website; it’s a huge financial commitment with the development of each one. Online marketing technology is the biggest investment time wise and financially. Social media is huge. It’s a full-time job for somebody. If you don’t have a website or social media, and you’re in sales, you haven’t a hope. It’s something that needs to be done daily.
Do you feel you know what your customers really want? How do you stay updated with this information?
For the hampers we’re very lucky because we have online ordering; the customers can pick what they want, and it gives us a trend we can follow. Because our customers are all over the world, their expectations and requirements are so varied. You have to provide a service that’s tailored to each and every customer. We’re lucky; with the new website, we’re able to do that.
What has been the biggest challenge your business has faced?
One was our website last year; it was an extremely difficult project, and I’d underestimated the amount of work in it. Unfortunately, as we neared the end of it, the website company [I was using] disappeared. We had made a huge financial commitment, and we were very lucky that another website company came on board. Personally, that was my biggest challenge because I put so much of my time into it. The development of that website took thousands of hours. The downturn in the economy [was another challenge]: trying to decide what options I had to diversify to keep the company alive, and then committing to that.
What part of running a business comes to you naturally?
One of my best skills is organising. I’m good on leadership. I think that’s really important. You have to be a good multi-tasker because you personally have to be able to do every element to run a business. I’m not saying you do it all the time, but you have to understand what’s involved in all the different elements and make sure they all work well together.
How did you scale/grow your business?
Initially it took off very rapidly. The first Christmas was a lot bigger than I had anticipated. I moved warehouse three times that year. However, it grew slowly; I put a structure in place, and I didn’t take out huge loans. I did a lot of the development myself – making cold calls and providing good customer service – so we got a lot of repeat business. It grew organically. If you get the hamper as a gift, the next time you need a gift you go back to that company and look for it. It’s a game of numbers. If your service is good, your product is good and you focus on your sales. You can grow slowly but steadily, and that’s the way I’ve grown in the last 21 years.
How do you get ideas to further your business?
I’m very focused on what’s happening around the world. Generally there are very few new ideas. Normally you see something and you try and replicate it. I look at what hamper companies do in other countries, what the trends in the drinks business are, and what the next big trend to hit Ireland will be. Generally we try to be the innovator in the Irish market rather than following a trend. We try and bring in what we think is going to be the new trend. We’re the only company in Ireland that runs a build-your-own service. We’re the only company online I know of where you can see what is going into your hamper, and when it’s full you can pick a ribbon.
What motivates you to stay running a business?
My business is like my child. It’s a little seed or an idea that’s grown into a big business now, so it’s part of who I am. I’m very fortunate in that I work with a great team so I enjoy coming to work every day. I get great satisfaction when we achieve good results. The biggest motivation is that I enjoy it. I’m fortunate after 21 years that it still interests me. There’s never a day that’s boring. I very much enjoy the technology side of it, I very much enjoy working on the website. There’s lots of different elements that I enjoy. I’ve a good relationship with my customers, and that’s great.
What’s your vision for the future?
It would be great to remain one of the leading suppliers of hampers in Ireland. We just recently launched into the UK. It would be wonderful to be successful in the UK, as the market is so much larger than Ireland. We showcase a lot of Irish food and drink producers. It would be lovely to work with them, get their products into the UK and hopefully become a household name over there.
What’s the best business advice you’ve received?
A very hard lesson: that turnover is vanity and profit is sanity. It’s a hard lesson to learn that your bottom-line figures are the most important figures to look at. I learnt that the hard way. If you’re not making money, walk away. I had to walk away from certain contracts where there was a lot of money involved but the profit was not enough to justify the work. It is one of the most important rules.
What would be your advice to businesses starting out?
Do something that you’re passionate about. You need to have a clear vision. You need to have a good plan. You need to be completely committed to your vision. Otherwise you won’t succeed. The most important thing is to surround yourself with a good team. Initially you’re working on your own, but when you start to get bigger and need people working with you, pick the correct team. You need to have good leadership skills, and it’s important to have the finance behind you. If you’re starting out and don’t have the finance to see it through for six months or a year without profit, you’re going to be under huge stress and that will affect whether you realise your vision.
What’s your favourite motivational business quote?
It always amazes me how few people prepare, even people coming to me for an interview or to try to sell their products and they haven’t gone on our website to see what we do. I always say “By failing to prepare, you’re preparing to fail.”
What, if anything, would you do differently?
We could all – if we went back on our careers – pick lots of situations we would love to change. The reality is that they build you into who you are, and you learn from your mistakes. It’s my mistakes that have got me where I am. If I changed anything, my path in life would be different. I don’t think there’s anything I’d change.
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