Life is a box of chocolates for Lily O'Brien boss as sales soar
60 Second Pitch: Why you should invest in Lily O'Brien's
Published 06/07/2014 | 02:30
The smell of chocolate in the mornings is one of the earliest memories which Eoin Donnelly, the managing director of Lily O'Brien's, has. His father worked in the Urney chocolate factory in Tallaght in the 1970's. As a young boy, Mr Donnelly often accompanied his father to work.
"I'm sure that subliminally that memory has brought me to where I am now," said Mr Donnelly.
It's about three years since Mr Donnelly became managing director of Lily O'Brien's - after joining the company as finance director in 2009. Mr Donnelly previously worked for about ten years with Nestle. He has noticed big changes in the confectionery market since the late 1990's.
"There are more exotic tastes today - you've now got things like chilli-added, ginger and salted chocolates," said Mr Donnelly. "People want the experience of chocolate - rather than the old days, when they just wanted a sugar buzz."
Lily O'Brien's was set up by Mary Ann O'Brien - who was appointed a Senator about three years ago - in 1992. The company, which had a turnover of more than €20m last year, started from humble beginnings. The business was set up in O'Brien's Kildare kitchen with little more than two saucepans, a wooden spoon and her then toddler, Lily. It is after O'Brien's eldest daughter that the company is named.
Lily O'Brien's first started selling its chocolates in farmers markets. Its first big retail opportunity came when it secured a contract to sell its products to Superquinn. Aer Rianta, Aer Lingus and British Airways soon followed and the chocolate maker today has food service contracts with 23 airlines. Retail is also a huge part of its business - it supplies multiples, convenience stores and independent outlets across the world.
What started off as a small home business is now a major exporter - about 80pc of Lily O'Brien chocolates are now exported.
"Britain is our main export market and we've also got significant business in the United States, Australia and the Far East," said Mr Donnelly.
It has recently started to export into the Middle East.
"The Middle East is a big market to tap into," said Mr Donnelly. "They have a sweet tooth out there and there's quite a lot of airline hubs in the region."
It's important to adapt to the taste buds of the country you are selling to, added Mr Donnelly.
"Food is always local," said Mr Donnelly. "Rose- and tea-flavoured chocolates for example would be popular in the Far East. Milk chocolate would still be the favourite in Ireland and Britain. When you go to the United States, it's all about dark chocolate. The taste for dark chocolate is starting to increase here. Ireland tends to be about four to five years behind trends in the US - but that time lag is constantly shortening as the world becomes a smaller place. They have had bacon in chocolate in the US for the last two years but that hasn't made its way here yet."
Lily O'Brien's, which is based in Newbridge, employs more than 110 full-time staff. It produces up to 50 tonnes of chocolate a week at peak times and has over 180 different chocolate recipes.
It will be able to produce up to 100 tonnes of chocolate a week when its new production line comes on board over the next month, according to Mr Donnelly.
So is there a demand for 100 tonnes of Lily O'Brien chocolates a week?
"Absolutely," said Mr Donnelly. "More and more people are enjoying chocolate."
As the company produces premium chocolates, it wasn't immune to the recession. In 2011, it branched into desserts to cope with the economic downturn. Some of its most popular desserts include its Death By Chocolate and Key Limey pie.
Its most popular chocolate sweets include its crispy hearts and sticky toffee, according to Mr Donnelly.
With the recession now behind us, the company has already seen a pick up in sales.
"From last September onwards, there was a definite pickup in the Irish market," said Mr Donnelly. "We've seen sales across the world increase since 2012. We had double digit turnover grown in 2013. I wouldn't expect that same level of turnover growth again for 2014 but I still believe there will be strong and consistent growth over the next year."
Mr Donnelly admits the confectionery market is a competitive one. So what makes the Lily O'Brien brand stand out from others?
"The biggest thing for us is the chocolates themselves," said Mr Donnelly. "If we get someone to taste out chocolates, we've got them. We updated all our existing chocolates about two years ago - if it wasn't a 'wow' chocolate, it didn't get into the box. We'd always do a lot of research and development. Innovation is hugely important - you don't want to be looking at the same box of chocolates you did thirty years ago."
Another reason Lily O'Brien's has done well is that it has chosen its market wisely, added Mr Donnelly. It is not in the 'super-premium' market, where there are bars of chocolate priced at €15 or more.
"We're in the affordable premium chocolate market," said Mr Donelly. "Generally our chocolates are given as gifts. People want to give gifts that they're happy to be associated with."
So what does a Dubliner who grew up smelling chocolate in the morning when accompanying his father to work enjoy most about running a chocolate maker?
"A chocolate factory is great fun," said Mr Donnelly. "You have tasting sessions. You find that people who work in the chocolate business are good fun as well."
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