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30 June 2015

Featured Business: JJ O’Toole Ltd

Posted By: AIB Business

Name: Vicki O’Toole, Managing Director, JJ O’Toole Ltd

Employees: 23

Since: 1914

Company Background:

“In a never-ending and changing society the most powerful and enduring brands are built from the heart.”

Vicki O’Toole is talking about the importance of working closely with clients to understand their brand and develop the right packaging for them, but there’s a deeper resonance.

In 1914, one John O’Toole set up a packaging business on Catherine Street in Limerick (now Ireland’s oldest packaging company); at its heart were creativity and innovation.

JJ O’Toole Ltd supplies plain and bespoke packaging to the retail, industrial and food service sectors. It is the preferred packaging partner to over 6,000 clients in Ireland and the UK, including blue chip clientele Brown Thomas, Newbridge Silverware, Avoca, LloydsPharmacy and Fenwicks.

Little is known about John O’Toole’s inspiration for setting up the business, or indeed how he funded it. It has remained a family business through the generations since. Vicki came into the business in 2002 when her late husband Fergus, the third-generation male to run the company, was unwell.

As a stay-at-home mum, entering the world of business was a huge turnaround for Vicki. She had some business knowledge from hearing her dad and brother talk business over Sunday lunch. That business was McMahon’s, a builders providers with outlets nationwide and a seven-generation family concern.

Her previous roles and challenges also helped prepare her for the position of managing director; she read law in University College Cork for a year before doing a summer secretarial course and going on to au pair in Paris for nine months.

On her return she worked briefly in her father’s business, before getting married to Fergus in 1985 and having five children.

In 2005 she became a director, and in 2008 the reins were handed to her. During her tenure, the company won the Retail Excellence Ireland Supplier of the Year award in 2008 and the Best SME in the Mid West award in 2012. In 2011 Vicki won the Image Businesswoman of the Year award.

In 2002, when she joined the company, the bag tax was introduced and the business was changing. Vicki started sourcing and spending time with various departments such as purchasing and sales, which has contributed to her ability to understand both sides of the business.

“It was on-the-job learning and making mistakes. It was asking questions and learning from my mistakes.” As time went on she got more confidence, and became passionate about packaging. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with asking stupid questions for clarity.”


Interview with Vicki O'Toole


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

Completely. In 1914 the main products that were being supplied by JJ O’Toole Ltd were paper packaging – mainly plain packaging, not bespoke printed packaging. As time went on, plastic was the big thing; it was cheaper, more versatile and nobody in those days seemed to be thinking of the carbon footprint. When I married Fergus in 1985 the dynamics had changed. By then it was 80% polythene and 20% paper packaging. In 2002 when I came in part-time, the bottom fell out of our company; the plastic bag tax came in. Some 40% of our turnover went overnight. We had to quickly reinvent ourselves. We are now back to where we started at 80% paper and 20% polythene. We have grown our customer base. Back in 2002 we would have been supplying Brown Thomas with their plastic bags; we wouldn’t have been supplying them with all their packaging, which is what we do now.


What have been the highlights to date?

Reaching the 100th year has to be the biggest highlight for me: stepping into the shoes of three wonderful male generations before me. I was very nervous I wouldn’t get the company to 2014. The other was being chosen as preferred packaging partner to blue chip retailer giants such as Selfridges. They’ve been voted the best department store worldwide three times in a row. To think a family business, in the west of Ireland, has been chosen as one of their preferred suppliers is wonderful.


What’s the bravest step you’ve made in relation to your business?

Walking through the front door initially with no experience and not turning around and going back out again was one of the biggest challenges for me! It was probably the bravest thing I did – not realising it at the time. More recently, at the end of last year, we bought the building here that we had been renting for the previous 17 years. I pondered on that for a long, long time and then I took the plunge. I was nervous about it, but once it was done I was happy to have made the decision.


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

A lot of business people, I think, are a little like me; they get frightened and worried a lot of the time. When good things happen – for instance you get a thank you and feel “That was worth it” – that’s my favourite part. The thank yous, being appreciated and respected, and the celebrations we have when we win an order we’ve been waiting for for years. We can celebrate together, the 23 of us, and go “Wow, we did it”. I could get an order, but there could be 23 of us involved in that order at different times.


How do you achieve a work-life balance?

Is there one? Because genuinely I haven’t found one. I’m a mother of five and, not having Fergus around, it is difficult. But I have great support at home, I have great support here and I think multi-tasking skills are essential. My children know I’m busy. I can’t get it all done, and some days you just have to be able to say no.


Are you inspired by any business figures or success stories?

Internationally, Indra Nooyi who is CEO of Pepsico. I listened to a documentary about her a few years ago on CNN and I was very inspired by her story. She’s an Indian lady running one of the biggest companies in the world. Her feet are very firmly on the ground. She was brought up in a culture where you got married, you didn’t go to university. She was lucky in that she did have an education, and when her sister was getting married the focus wasn’t on her so she decided she was going to break the news to her parents she was going to study in Harvard. She’s now one of the most powerful women in the world. Closer to home is Maureen Forrest, CEO of the Hope Foundation. I’ve watched her in action. She’s an amazing woman who has given so much to the street children in Calcutta and fundraised so much money for the charity. More locally, Helen O’Donnell, who was voted Person of the Year in Limerick. She and a few others are really putting such an incredible effort into promoting Limerick in a positive light.


What tools or technologies do you use that benefit your customers or business?

We have a full graphic design department here, which would be unique compared to many of our competitors. We’re able to create innovative designs and products, and I’m very involved in that. We’re also able to show our clients 3D visuals and mood boards, which helps them to see what we’re creating. The next step is to get them a production sample. The other tool we are using is a CRM system that helps us manage business relationships and the information associated with them.  


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

I think we do, and I think it’s paramount that you do. An important thing, particularly with our sales team, is that we know as much as possible about the client’s brand before we meet them. Packaging is a virtual billboard, so it’s very important that we understand what our clients are looking for. You have to meet the client face to face to really get them and, through meeting them, you really find out what they want and what they need.


What has been the biggest challenge your business has faced?

In my tenure here, it was absolutely the bag tax in 2002. It changed the company completely. We had to close the Dublin offices and warehouses. That was very upsetting for my husband. It was like starting a new business. People were very scared at the time. Thankfully no one in Limerick lost their jobs.


What part of running a business comes to you naturally?

I love the creative design, marketing and sales end of things. It’s getting to know the client, and being as excited as they are about what we’re going to do for them. It’s seeing something that started out as an idea land in the back door of the warehouse.


How did you scale/grow your business?

We’re still at it; it’s growing slowly each year. It’s simply through winning new accounts. That transpired by staying ahead of the competition and introducing new packaging concepts, combined with good pricing. The most important thing is offering and delivering an excellent service.


How do you get ideas to further your business?

I am always looking around. I go to packaging fairs, I travel to Asia. We’re looking at new ideas, not just packaging concepts but new artwork and designs. There are ideas and opportunities everywhere. Occasionally I get samples from new manufacturers in Asia who want to work with us, and I would go “Wow” and think “That would suit somebody.” I’m always looking around – it’s a passionate curiosity!


What motivates you to stay running a business?

Two things: passion for what I’m doing and fear of failing. I’ve three generations that went before me and I genuinely do not want to let them down, nor do I want to let the next generation down. I would hate for it to go down on my watch. I’m proud to be doing what I’m doing and I want to hand it over to whomever I’m going to hand it over to in good nick. That motivates me to continue to work hard and stay running the business.


What’s your vision for the future?

To expand further into different retail sectors – to go more into the food service sector particularly and also to expand further into the UK.


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

It’s from my late husband: to go with my instinct and gut feeling. He used to say to me: you have it, so just go with it. You have to listen to your contrarians, but you have to trust your gut.


What would be your advice to businesses starting out?

I’ve loads; research needs to be done first and foremost to make sure there is a market for your business model. The next step is hard work and perseverance and a “Never give up” mentality. I’m not sure that when people go into business they understand the hard work that’s involved. I don’t have a Monday to Friday job. There’s no switching off when you run your own company. They might look at an MD or CEO and think they have a great life. We actually worry more and work harder than anybody else. They need to take into consideration how difficult it is. Customers come first. That is paramount to me – follow up, follow up and follow up. Ignore the naysayers, surround yourself with positive people. I think the last thing is what Albert Einstein said: “Everything should be made as simple as possible but not simpler.” It just seems habitual to me, how things are over complicated. Keep it simple. Strip it back. Every business is pretty similar if you’re a service provider. It’s just a question of how you are going to do it. Also, you need to be curious. You can’t just sit there and expect things to happen around you.


What’s your favourite motivational business quote?

I have two. Steve Jobs: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them going backwards. You have to trust in something: your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down and it has made all the difference in my life.” To me there’s no point in looking back. Another one I say to my kids a lot is: “See it, do it, finish it.” It’s so often that we see what needs to be done, do it but never finish it.


What, if anything, would you do differently?

What I would like to do differently is to spend more time out of the office, do less micro managing, and spend more time with clients and sales colleagues. It’s so much easier to think clearly when you get out of the office. One of my favourite pastimes is gardening. I often get more thinking done for the business weeding than when I’m behind my desk, because you have so much on your plate in the office.


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