Your Business: All your eggs in one basket
Margaret and Leo Farrelly talk to Sean Gallagher about going from 150 hens to producing 50m eggs per year
For generations, the humble egg has served us well. While in the past, the production of eggs was seen as supplementary to a farm's main source of income, today it has developed in a sophisticated and highly regulated industry.
One couple who certainly knows the egg industry well is husband and wife team, Margaret and Leo Farrelly. In 1987, they set up their business, O Egg, with just 150 hens. This year, however, they will produce 50m eggs - making them the largest dedicated producer of free-range eggs in the country. With 30 staff and an annual turnover of more than €6.5m, their once-small farm enterprise has now morphed into a national success story.
"We will soon be celebrating 30 years in the egg business," explains Margaret and Leo proudly as they take me on a tour of their hen houses and modern grading and packing facility in Clonarn, near Mullagh, in Co Cavan. "We focus solely on the production of free-range eggs and for us, our chickens come first. That's why the quality of our eggs is so good," insists Margaret.
What is the difference between free range and other types of eggs? I ask.
"There are basically four types of eggs on the market. Cage or battery eggs get their names from the cage-like conditions in which the hens are kept. Barn eggs on the other hand are produced by hens that are kept indoors in a barn or hen house but are not confined to tiny cages. Free-range eggs, which is what we specialise in, come from birds that have the freedom to roam between outdoor pastures and the indoors. Organic refers to free-range eggs that are produced to organic standards," she explains.
As we make our way through the hen houses, I can see that each one opens on to a dedicated pasture of lush green grass where the hens are free to graze. Free to spend most of their day outdoors as nature intended, they also have the added security of being able to return to the houses at night to drink from the farm's fresh spring water and feed on a healthy balanced ration of natural grains and cereals.
"The distinctive flavour of our eggs can be attributed to the happiness of the hens whose freedom allows them experience many hours of outdoor adventure," adds Leo. The company also set up a production facility in Cootehill, in Co Cavan, in 2012, where it now produces a range of pasteurised liquid egg in bottles - something that is now used in home cooking as well as by those involved in commercial sauce makers, ice cream manufacturers and bakeries.
"Given its high protein content and its versatility, it has become popular among gym users as well as being used to make cocktail drinks in many of the country's trendiest bars," adds Margaret.
The company's products can now also be found in leading retail stores such as Tesco, Dunnes and Supervalu as well as in Avoca outlets and numerous craft butcher shops around the country. To keep up with demand, the company also sources eggs from other producers throughout counties Cavan, Monaghan, Longford and Meath. Collected twice weekly, these are brought in trays to the packing facility where they are graded into small, medium, large and extra-large sizes. Having been quality checked, each egg is then date stamped, and each box is given an electronic batch number and bar code for traceability purposes.
As we make our way into their office meeting-room, Leo stops to show me a photograph on the wall. It's of their first ever hen house - a converted horse and cart shed.
Leo Farrelly grew up on the farm where the business is now located. Having taken it over following the death of his father, he quickly realised that, on its own, it was never going to be capable of providing him with a sustainable living, let alone support a family. From nearby Billis, Margaret was the daughter of the local Blacksmith. She remembers her first part-time job at the age of 12 was collecting eggs at a nearby broiler farm. Having finished school she moved to Dublin where she worked with AIB for the next 13 years.
"Leo and I met at a dance in the White Horse Hotel in Cootehill. And that night changed everything," recalls Margaret with a laugh. When they later married, she left Dublin and moved to Mullagh. "Our decision to get into egg production came out of the need to supplement our family's income," admits Margaret. "We answered an advert in the local Anglo Celt from a company looking for farmers to produce eggs for them. Soon afterwards, we converted the old horse and cart shed into our first hen house and took possession of our first 150 hens," she adds.
Within six months, they had grown their flock to over 500 hens. Within 12 months they had obtained their own grading licence from the Department of Agriculture enabling them to start growing and selling for themselves, firstly to local shops and eventually into the Dublin market.
When Musgraves introduced central distribution and its own branded free range eggs, O Egg was fortunate enough to be selected as a supplier. Central to the company's ongoing expansion has been its commitment to continuous investment in their business. In 2000, it invested in a state-of-the-art grader, the first of its kind in Western Europe, and more recently invested over €1m in the first modern breaker and pasteurisation system in the country.
"Innovation too, has been an important part of our success," insists Margaret. "In the early 2000s, we developed our own range of Omega-enriched eggs by feeding our hens on omega-enriched feed, something that has also become a big hit with consumers. The idea of producing pasteurised liquid egg came about as a result of us looking for alternative uses for our surplus eggs during off-peak times.
"To address the issue, we linked up with the University of Ulster, Coleraine through Inter-trade Ireland's Fusion Programme and that eventually led to our setting up our pasteurising facility. Today, that operation has grown into a successful business in its own right and is set to be a big part of our future growth as we tap into the expanding demand for sources of protein for sports enthusiasts, pregnant women, young children and the elderly," she adds.
Margaret and Leo Farrelly's business started out as a way to supplement their small family farm income. Through their willingness to work hard, their relentless focus on innovation and their commitment to continuously reinvest in their business, they have become the largest producer of free-range eggs in the country.
They have never lost concern for the hens or the importance of the quality of the eggs they produce. With three of their four children now working full time in the business, the journey for O Egg, looks set to continue.
Margaret and Leo's advice for other businesses
1 Embrace failure
There is no such thing as failure, only feedback. When you try something new and it doesn’t work out as planned, accept the lessons learned and use these to do better next time. You will never succeed in business without experiencing failures. It is a natural part of the process of being innovative. Learn to embrace failure rather than fear it.
2 Build on basic values
There are few shortcuts in business. The foundation on which most successful and sustainable businesses are built often involves some very basic traditional values. These include a willingness to work incredibly hard, to be committed to your business, your staff and your customers. And to developing a reputation for being honest and honourable in your business dealings.
3 Focus on your USP
To start a business, you have to identify a product or a service that customers really need. However, to really excel in business, you have to identify your own unique selling point, or USP — that something special about you and your company that enables you to stand out from your competitors.
Company: Clonarn Clover Ltd, t/a O'Egg
Business: Free-range eggs
Set up: 1987
Founder(s): Margaret & Leo Farrelly
No of Employees: 30
Location: Headquarted in Mullagh, Co Cavan, with an additional facility in Cootehill
For further information: www.oegg.ie
Sunday Indo Business