How does your garden grow?
Michael Nolan tells Sean Gallagher how he left farming to set up two successful family-operated businesses
Last week I took the N11 south to Wexford and met one of Ireland's most enterprising families. Located in Camolin, Co Wexford, Michael Nolan and two of his daughters run not just one, but two successful businesses.
Maria and Elaine manage Cois na hAbhann, a destination garden, home and lifestyle centre. Michael, along with two of his other daughters, Antoinette and Catherine, and her husband Anthony, run S&N Granite, a leading supplier of granite and natural stone products.
Theirs is a story of passion and courage - but above all else, of hard work. Michael Nolan started out as a farmer, having taken over the family farm along with his brother Ned following the death of their father. Michael was just 25 years of age. They later bought a neighbouring farm and, between them, ended up farming over 300 acres - predominantly for cattle and sheep. Michael met and married Mary, and the couple went on to have seven daughters.
Maria, who now runs the family's garden centre, remembers life on the farm as being a mix of fun and hard work.
"In addition to the cattle and sheep, we also reared a few hundred turkeys each year for the Christmas market. Once we had these plucked, we were straight into the lambing season," Maria says. "Dad always seemed to manage to get the lambing to coincide with our Christmas holidays," she adds with a laugh.
"While I loved the farming, it became clear that none of our seven daughters had an interest in taking it over - so in 1996, Mary and I decided to sell the farm," says Michael. "Influenced by our love of both people and gardening, we decided instead to set up our own garden centre. Our eldest, Elaine, was studying horticulture at the time and we felt it would be a good opportunity for her too," he adds.
However, finding the right site for their new garden centre proved more difficult than they had expected. In the interim, Michael and Mary turned their attention to other possible opportunities, and following a period of research, they discovered that there was a growing market for affordable natural stone products, driven largely by the increase in the number of new houses being built at the time. In 1998, they set up S&N Granite and began importing solid, hand-cut granite from India and China.
"In the beginning, we brought in just one container of granite in order to test the market. Now we bring in hundreds of containers every year," says Michael as he shows me around the magnificent show area located next door to the garden centre. Here you can find everything from paving and window sills, to lintels and walls. There's also a wide selection of piers, capping, cast iron gates, railings, kerbs and water features.
Building the business, however, involved a lot of hard work and a considerable amount of travel, with Michael and Mary often attending as many as 15 or 20 different trade shows each year.
"When I knew that another show was coming up, I would often say to Mary mischievously: 'Sure, why don't we head away for a weekend?'," laughs Michael. "We'd enjoy meeting existing customers from all over the country, as well as new ones. And then at night, the two of us would spend time together over a relaxing dinner. It was great," he adds with a warm smile.
"Mary also felt the need to feed customers who had travelled long distances to visit us here," adds Elaine. "So much so that when we would come down in the morning in our pyjamas, you'd never know who you might find at the kitchen table tucking into one of her famous fries."
After a long wait, Michael and Mary eventually found the current site and in 2007 fulfilled their dream of opening their own garden centre. By that time, Elaine had already gained experience as a professional horticulturist and joined her parents to look after that side of the business.
Maria had meanwhile become a secondary school teacher. But with a flair for interior design, she took a career break to help set up the giftware and interiors department of the business.
"But I fell in love with the place so much that I never went back (to teaching)," she adds happily.
It's approaching lunchtime as Michael, Maria and Elaine show me around the centre. The car park is almost full. For those who love to shop, this is the place. From furniture and soft furnishings to jewellery and handbags, there's something to suit everyone.
"We worked hard to get all the leading brand names - Waterford and Tipperary Crystal, Newbridge Silverware, Nicholas Mosse, Paul Maloney, Denby, Joseph Joseph, Kitchen Craft, Sanderson, Genesis and Mindy Brownes," explains Maria. "And we also have a few more unusual ones, such as Alice Hannah scarves and Pearls for Girls jewellery.
Over in the garden section, customers are perusing the rows of plant and flower displays. With soft music playing in the background and surrounded by nature, there's a wonderful sense of calm throughout the place. In the outdoor section, there's an impressive display of barbecues and garden furniture, as well as every class of tool you will need to turn your overgrown garden into a Diarmuid Gavin-like creation. There are even expert horticulturists on hand to offer advice to those who, like me, don't know one garden plant from another.
By now, the Bay Tree Cafe is really buzzing. From healthy salads to hearty lunches and delicious home-baked treats and cakes, it's the perfect place to take a rest or catch up with friends.
It's no surprise that the centre has won many awards since it was set up, including the Bord Bia 'Garden Centre of the Year' for six years, as well as the five-star 'Gold Garden Centre' award.
"We are certainly very proud of the place. But it wouldn't be anything is it weren't for our staff and our customers," says Michael.
"In the short term, we are hoping to expand the capacity of the cafe area and are also working on an online store," explains Maria.
"We're also planning a much bigger Santa experience this Christmas, complete with Santa's bedroom, an elves' workshop, a stables for the reindeer - and Mrs Claus's very own kitchen," adds Elaine.
Although aged 72, Michael looks to have more energy than someone half his age. I ask him if he still enjoys being in business.
"Every bit of it," he responds like a shot. "Not bad for a fella who left school at 14. But to be honest, I don't really see it as work. I love meeting people and while the farming was great, you don't get to meet as many people as you do here.
"If anyone had told me when I first started out that I'd end up with two businesses and have four daughters working alongside me, I never would have believed them. It's great.
"I'm only sorry that Mary is not still here to see it," he adds, his voice beginning to break as he tells me that his wife sadly passed away just two years ago. "She'd love to be here to see how it's all turning out," he adds with a smile.
In the short time that I have spent with Michael, Maria and Elaine, I have come to appreciate just how lovely a family the Nolans are. And as I leave, I can't but feel a great sense of pride at what this family have achieved as a result of hard work and above all, their courage to follow their dreams.
Michael, Maria and Elaine's Business Advice
1 It's simple - look after your customers
"The essence of business, retail in particular, is simple - look after your customers. If you are genuine when dealing with them, they are more likely to turn into loyal customers. Make the customer the focus of your business and you will succeed."
2 Don't be afraid to try something new
"The market is constantly changing and evolving. So don't be afraid to try new things, offer new products or change the way you do things. If you don't change with the market, you face getting left behind when the market moves on."
3 Enjoy what you do - and smile
"People respond to you because of the way you treat them. If you enjoy what you are doing, your staff will be happier. They, in turn, will treat your customers better and together you will all build a more successful business. Remember to smile."
Company: Cois na hAbhann and S&N Granite
Business: Garden, home and lifestyle centre, and specialist suppliers of granite and natural stone products
Set up: 2007 and 1998
Founders: Michael and Mary Nolan, and daughters Maria Nolan and Elaine Walsh
Turnover: €1m & €2.5m
No of Employees: 25 between both businesses
Location: Camolin, Enniscorthy, Co Wexford
For further information visit www.coisnahabhann.ie and www.sngranite.ie
Sunday Indo Business