Happy scientist who found right formula
When the laboratory Evelyn O'Toole managed burned down, it was the motivation she needed to start her own business, says Sean Gallagher
Nowadays, for most companies and sectors, meeting strict standards and regulations has become an essential part of doing business. From the food we eat, the water we drink to the air we breathe, there are regulations that govern what is, and what is not, acceptable for human consumption.
In the health sector, in particular, innovative developments in the medical device and pharmaceutical sectors are constantly pushing the boundaries of what is possible - but all need regulation to ensure they meet the stringent standards required to ensure their safe use by the public.
This week's entrepreneur - Evelyn O'Toole - is a woman who understands more than most about such standards. A scientist by training, she set up her own laboratory business in 1994, when the lab in which she worked burnt down. Finding herself out of a job and with few options available other than emigrating, Evelyn decided to take control of her own future. Today her company, Complete Lab Solutions (CLS), employs 110 staff and has an annual turnover of €7.2m.
"I have never liked mediocre. I can't identify with it," insists Evelyn as she welcomes me to one of the company's two laboratories - in Ros Muc in the heart of Connemara. "For the last 22 years, we have continuously invested in building both our expertise and our people, so that we could become leaders in our field," she adds.
It is here, in Ros Muc, that Evelyn and her team carry out important food testing and environmental analysis for their many clients.
"We test a variety of food products and have developed specialised expertise particularly in the testing of the ready-to-eat sector for clients such as Supermacs and Topaz," explains Evelyn. "Our clients depend on us to protect their customers from potential food poisoning and other hazards - and to support this, we have a fleet of 12 vans collecting samples daily, under controlled conditions, with full chain of custody protection and real-time reporting of all results," she adds.
On the environmental front, the company carries out water, waste water and sea water sampling and testing throughout Ireland and has built up a strong reputation working with well-known organisations such as Shell and the EPA. The firm has also developed the highest capability in hydrocarbon testing in the country - involving testing water and soil samples for contamination from substances such as oil, petrol and diesel.
Her second laboratory, CLS MedPharma, is based in Galway city and is a dedicated, state-of-the-art facility that specialises in working with medical device firms such as Medtronic & Cook as well as pharmaceutical giants such as Allergan and Astellas. Here, the company carries out analytical and microbiological testing including the monitoring of clean rooms, media fills, drugs, stents, catheters, metal and polymer components as well as artificial hips and knees.
It also has the only facility in the country for potent drug testing including chemotherapy drugs.
"Globally, we are now in demand for the testing of sterile barriers, ensuring the integrity of products such as syringes and other drug delivery systems to ensure their safety during their lifespan," explains Evelyn. "Having our various licences and accreditations such as ISO 17025 (108T), ISO 9001:2008 and GMP (Good Manufacturing Practice), as well as approval by the FDA in the USA, are also important and help provide confidence to our clients," she adds.
It is no wonder therefore that the company's client base is constantly growing. Apart from her many Irish clients, Evelyn also has an expanding international client base drawn from countries such as Switzerland, Germany and Denmark.
With many new enquiries coming in from as far away as the US and Israel, the future looks bright for CLS.
Supplying fully trained analysts on contract to clients has also proven to be hugely successful for the company. Each analyst is specially trained by the company and is then available to be outsourced when required to client sites.
"This is a unique approach in the marketplace and we created it to provide flexibility to our clients, so they can choose to either send us their samples for testing or we can supply them with highly skilled, ready to go analysts on contract."
Evelyn O'Toole grew up in the small village of Cushatrough, outside Clifden in Co Galway, where as a child, she developed a keen interest in biology. After school, she attended Athlone Institute of Technology where she studied Applied Biology and later Environmental Science at the Sligo Institute of Technology.
Since then she has continued to learn, adding a diploma in training and business development as well as her latest business education last year - the Leadership for Growth programme through the IMI and IMD.
Once qualified, she worked as an R & D analyst in the UK before landing an interesting job managing an in-house support laboratory in Carna for an aquaculture group. However, in 1994, just two and a half years into her contract, disaster struck when the building in which the laboratory was located was totally destroyed in a fire.
Faced with the prospects of emigrating to find employment, Evelyn began considering the option of setting up her own business.
"I was applying for jobs everywhere I could and it soon became a race to see which I could secure first - a job or my first contract. I landed a contract," she says with a laugh.
She set up initially in a local enterprise centre, then rented the current premises in Ros Muc from Udaras na Gaeltachta before going on to buy it - and later doubling its size.
"However, I had no business experience up to that point and very little knowledge of finances - so everything was a learning curve. In many ways I was oblivious to the pressure, because sometimes in life you just don't know what you don't know," admits Evelyn. "But thankfully, I have always tended to look at things as opportunities rather than obstacles," she adds.
With no marketing plan and very little money for advertising, Evelyn focused on growing her business through referrals. Market changes and rising costs in 2003 resulted in the business haemorrhaging cash, and she soon realised that she needed to figure out a new way of working.
"Financial stress brings out a different level of thinking in a person," admits Evelyn. "I began to strategise for the first time. Taking a more helicopter view, I set out clear short-term and long-term goals for the business. The short-term goals were about bringing in business and cash quickly, and to achieve this I formed our first sales team who immediately sprang into action and began bringing in lots of smaller jobs - tons of them.
"While many were small accounts with very low profit margins, they did bring much needed revenue that helped absorb overheads and pay wages. I decided to take the bigger clients - the iconic brands in the industry - and began to develop relationships with these.
"I realised that this was going to be a slow process but nevertheless I knew we had to get these into the pipeline for the longer term growth and sustainability. That was the point where CLS changed from being a group of happy scientists into a proper business.
"We now were determined to create a company that would be sustainably profitable. So while the business was started by me, it was built by my team and led by the industry," she insists.
Having grown by an average of 20pc each year for the last four years, Evelyn is keen to keep up this recent pace and momentum. She has recently doubled the size of the facility in Galway city and has invested more than €3m in the place.
"I still see ours as a company in its infancy," insists Evelyn. "We started out small, and have grown slowly and organically.
"Over the next five years, our plan is to build our brand further, expand our international business, become even more recognised as leaders in our fields of expertise and become truly global providers of innovative testing solutions," she adds.
While all of us will face challenges and upsets in our lives, sometimes it is worth remembering that our greatest challenges can also be like blessings in disguise. Evelyn O'Toole's story is testament to that.
For further information contact www.cls.ie
Sunday Indo Business