The problem-solver's latest solution
Edward McCloskey's natural talent for monetising his inventions lies at the heart of his company's success
In the world of business, innovation can loosely be summed up as the process of translating ideas into goods or services that meet a specific need and for which customers are willing to pay.
For most companies, it is this process of innovation that holds the key to their ongoing success. One man who knows all about this is Louth-based businessman Edward McCloskey.
Edward, who has a background in developing household products, invented the first ever range of water-based and chemical-free baby wipes, called WaterWipes. In doing so he has tapped into a huge global market - as parents the world over not only wish to use wipes for convenience but also want to protect their babies from exposure to unnecessary chemicals found in most other baby wipes.
His company, Irish Breeze - originally set up in 1993 to manufacture cotton wool products, soaps and other skincare products - is now experiencing huge growth in sales with staff numbers in the company rising to almost 50. This year, too, the company expects to see their turnover hit €15m.
And so, I visited Edward in his manufacturing facility in Drogheda to learn more - about both him, and his business.
"Our products are sold mostly through supermarkets and pharmacy chains, both here in Ireland and overseas, and about 80pc of everything we manufacture is exported," explains Edward.
"And while the UK is currently our largest market and the US our second largest, we now export to over 20 countries around the world - Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Scandinavia, Iceland and North Korea," he lists.
It's a great success story - but how did he end up in this business, and in particular how did he coming up with the idea for WaterWipes?
"I suppose I've been around business all my life," explains Edward, whose father Malachy is the well-known entrepreneur who set up the Boyne Valley Group in the mid 1960s.
"Growing up, my father used to run a number of small grocery stores - and as a child my brothers and I would regularly help out in his business at weekends and during holidays," explains Edward. "When the local beekeeper who used to supply his honey died suddenly, my father decided that he would buy a large barrel of honey and put it into small jars which he labelled and sold on.
"He soon realised that he had way too many jars of honey - so in his spare time he began to sell to other stores in the area. The business became so successful that, over time, it grew to become Boyne Valley Honey," he adds.
Now, 50 years on, the Boyne Valley Group includes 10 individual companies and distributes over 2,000 different products, including such household names as Erin soups, Don Carlos Olive Oil, McDonnell's Curry Sauces and Chivers Jam.
After school, Edward completed a degree in business in Trinity College, and after a short stint working in bars and restaurants in the USA he returned home to Ireland, to take up a trainee manager's role with Fruit Importers Ltd (now Fyffes).
The following year, when the position as warehousing and distribution manager came up at the Boyne Valley Group, Edward moved to join the family business.
"I was always interested in looking at ways in which we could add new non-food products into the mix and deliver these new products through our existing distribution channels," explains Edward. "The whole idea of import substitution was also big at the time, so I began to concentrate on finding products that were being imported into the country that we could make here in Drogheda," he adds.
His first major success came two years later when Edward came up with the idea to develop a new range of steel-wool soap pads. Up to that point, steel-wool pads had to be dried out during the manufacturing process before being packed into cardboard boxes. Once opened by the consumer, they were then required to be immersed in water before being able to be used.
Edward's new process eliminated the need for this expensive drying out process - and enabled the company to launch the world's first range of moist steel-wool pads in a new plastic container. It proved so successful that it led to the setting up of a separate division that became known as Killeen Kitchen Products. Edward was appointed the company's general manager.
For the next five years he worked hard to grow the business, introducing new products and establishing a wide range of household cleaning products. And today the company is the largest producer of steel-wool soap pads in Europe.
Not someone to sit back, Edward decided once again to turn his attention to developing other new products - this time he began focusing his attention on the cotton wool market.
"In 1993, I became aware that a Dublin-based cotton wool factory was closing down and that became my cue to start a new business producing cotton-wool products as part of the Boyne Valley Group. This was the start of Irish Breeze," explains Edward.
Again Edward took over the running of this new business. The company prospered, added additional soaps and other skincare products into company's range - and even secured the contract to manufacture Boots' own-brand cotton wool products for their UK and the Irish markets.
In 2000, driven by his desire to do his own thing, Edward borrowed money from the bank and in an ambitious move, bought Irish Breeze out of the parent company.
It didn't take long, however, for him to realise that with a global spike in the cost of cotton, the company was starting to go into slow decline. To turn the fortunes of the company around, Edward knew that he would need a game-changing product. And that product came about in 2006 - totally by chance.
"My daughter was born that year. She had sensitive skin and soon began to develop severe nappy rash. My inquisitive mind led me to begin to study everything we would put on her skin - including baby wipes.
"I was shocked to realise how many chemicals went into making these wipes," he says. "Because we were using 10 wipes a day on our baby's skin, I thought we should try chemical-free wipes - but we couldn't find any. And that's what led me to begin developing my own range of pure and natural-based wipes," he adds.
Edward knew instinctively that the market for a safer alternative baby wipe had global potential. But first, he needed to create a product that worked. For the next few years, he worked intensely with scientists, dermatologists and microbiologists to come up with an effective solution. Conscious of protecting the intellectual property behind the unique composition of his WaterWipes, he explains that it involves a combination of processes and technologies.
"We were aiming to achieve something as pure and natural as cotton wool and water - but with the added convenience of a baby wipe. That meant that we had to find a way to bind the cotton that did not involve the use of chemicals. What we developed was a unique way of actually adjusting the structure of the water molecules themselves," explains Edward.
"The process means that the wipes are sterile when the pack is opened - unlike other brands who use chemicals and can be used indefinitely, WaterWipes are required to be used within a month of opening. It's similar to the difference between having to use fresh milk shortly after opening the carton compared to using long-life UHT milk," he insists.
Given the premium price of his product, Edward initially launched WaterWipes through the pharmacy market. By 2010, and with demand now rising steadily, he secured additional investment though the Business Expansion Scheme, which allowed him to purchase new machinery and build the increased capacity he needed.
With this enhanced capacity, he turned his attention to the high-volume supermarket sector in Ireland. The following year, he launched in the UK, starting initially with online supermarket OCADO and then moving into mainstream stores.
Soon after he launched in Australia, New Zealand and the US. Once he had secured a contract to supply Walgreens and Diapers.com in the US he realised he was at last on his way to achieving his ambition of becoming a truly global business.
"Today, we are in every target store in the US as well as Babies 'R' Us - the leading baby product chain. We have also become the top-selling baby wipe in the UK for Amazon.com," he adds proudly.
With sales now doubling year on year, what's next for the company?
"Our current production capacity means we are now able to produce one pack of 60 wipes every second. But we have just bought a new 45,000 sqft factory beside us here in Drogheda," says Edward, pointing to his new facility. "By October we hope to be fully operational and this will allow us to quadruple output and make four packs of 60 wipes per second.
"We also see opportunities to expand the use of our products beyond the baby market into sectors such as the seniors market, sports enthusiasts and the flushable moist toilet tissue market," he adds excitedly.
For Edward McCloskey, business is all about innovation. He loves to invent new products and to come up with new ways of solving problems.
Unlike most inventors, though, he has proven that he has both the experience and expertise to commercialise his inventions - a skill that has often eluded many great innovators.
With his eyes set on the global market and a strong foothold already established, I think we are only beginning of witnessing what this Drogheda man is about to achieve.
More info at: Irish Breeze Ltd, Donore Road Industrial Estate, Drogheda, Co Louth. Tel: 041 9877477 Web: www.irishbreeze.com and www.waterwipes.com
Sunday Indo Business