Interview: 'Success more than skin deep at Ovelle'
From selling ointments in the 1930s to supplying Syrian refugee camps with essential supplies, Ovelle has done it all, writes Ailish O'Hora
At the height of the Syrian humanitarian crisis, in 2016 and 2017, emergency medical supplies for children were being shipped by air directly from Dublin Airport to Syria by UNICEF.
The urgent necessity for products like antiseptic, healing and anti-pruritic goods, meant they bypassed the normal logistics procedures at UNICEF's Copenhagen warehouse.
The products being shipped were manufactured and packaged at one of Ireland's oldest family-owned pharmaceutical firms - Ovelle, the Dundalk-based company founded by Joseph Gardiner back in 1934.
Since 2016, Ovelle has supplied UNICEF with more than 1.4m treatment packs for children displaced by wars and natural disasters globally. The company has similar arrangements with other relief agencies like Médecins Sans Frontières, the International Red Cross and the UN.
The business relationship with the aid agencies was the brainchild of Sean Gardiner, the son of founder Joseph Gardiner and father of Joanna, who is now managing director of the firm.
"We have been supplying the aid agencies since the 1970s and it's something my father Sean initiated and something he was very proud of and rightly so. We all are. Our products are also used in Gaza and the Lebanon," said Gardiner, from her modest office in Dundalk, Co Louth.
"It's an ongoing competitive tender process and we are up against international suppliers like those in India and Malaysia. I thought it might have become unviable from a competitiveness point of view from time to time but the agencies look at a range of other factors like reliability and continuity of supply and while it is competitive they take into consideration that we can deliver quickly," she said.
Ovelle, which now employs 75 staff and is celebrating 85 years in business this year, has had a member of the Gardiner family at the helm for three generations since 1934 when her grandfather Joseph started manufacturing and selling creams and ointments to pharmacies around the country.
"I suppose he was an entrepreneur but he wouldn't have used that term. He was trying to support a family and had no interest in staying in Mayo where he was born. My father Sean, who was a pharmacist, brought Ovelle to another level in the 1970s when the business started to supply pharmaceutical-grade skincare products."
Gardiner studied business in Trinity College, Dublin in the 1990s and she brought marketing expertise to the business when she joined the team in 1999, having worked in advertising agencies after leaving college. Her brother Patrick, a pharmaceutical chemist, is research and quality director at Ovelle while her mother, Rosemary, who is also a pharmacist, is still involved in the business. Her father Sean passed away after an illness in 2014.
Ovelle has two flagship brands - the Ovelle range of traditional products from calamine lotion to Silcock's base and the more modern Elave skincare range.
And while the export market has become more and more important for the company since Gardiner took over the reins as managing director in 2000 following a restructuring, the traditional home market is the template for success.
"We very much rely on the medical profession here for the core business - the doctors, pharmacists and nurses. They appreciate our standards. Traditionally we wouldn't have had the big advertising budgets of our competitors.
"Our expertise in making the Ovelle apothecary range allowed us to fine-tune Elave to where we are now. It was about creating a good product for a busy lifestyle. Some of our traditional products can be sticky and messy to use and they work brilliantly if you have the time to do it. But for the average Mum, running out the door in the morning and putting an emulsifying ointment on a baby is no mean feat. Even now we would suggest an emulsifying ointment at night and then use the Elave washing products and just protect the skin barrier," Gardiner said.
She added that the Elave brand is very much her baby and it was born out of her ambition to bring a more advanced product to market that was based on the research and development used earlier for the Ovelle products.
"It's about a daily skincare regime that helps keep the skin barrier healthy. Because when my own children were small l noticed this incredible rise in eczema. Along with my Dad, we did a lot of research, using many different ingredients, to find that modern living and showering and bathing at least once a day had led to this increased sensitivity around the skin barrier.
"That's how Elave started in 2000 and at first it was one or two products but now we have about 28 across baby categories to skin products and to sun blocks which is a big driver for Elave at the moment. Elave also isn't outrageously expensive and that also fits with where we are coming from with our products - simple and trusted. And Elave is very much more about prevention than cure.
"Having said that, we continued our focus on the more traditional products like Silcock's Base, the aqueous cream. They are tried and tested, they work. They are good value and I think that worked for us during the last recession and I would even say it saved us because people really did go back to basics."
In fact, it's the traditional range of skincare products that recently marked a first for the firm, as Ovelle became the first Irish company to sign a contract with the Hong Kong Health Authority for its aqueous cream.
"As a result of the deal, Ovelle's aqueous cream is supplied to patients in hospitals there which is, to some extent, how we started here. We are also in Watsons and Mannings in Hong Kong which are very big retailers, not unlike Boots," Gardiner said.
The Middle East has become a big market for Ovelle products over the past few years and this move was part-influenced by Pat Rigney, a veteran of the Irish drinks industry and an investor in the firm, who is a big proponent of the benefits of the trade show as a marketing strategy.
"In about 2010, we started to look at international markets with the domestic market as a showcase for the brand. Trade shows are a big part of the business now. I was at World Arab Health (the biggest health expo in the region) in Dubai for five years in a row. We are now launched in Life Pharmacy, the biggest pharmacy group in Dubai and they also have a big distribution wing right through the Middle East. We have just launched in Saudi Arabia.
"It's a slow process, there's a lot of due diligence but it's also about building long-term business relationships and there is a lot of loyalty.
"Again these contacts were made though trade shows and we're also dealing with a big distributor in the region called United Italian Corporation, a similar setup to ours - a family business. I never did anything around trade shows until around 2010/2011. I was surprised at how expensive they were. But you have to showcase your products and it was probably one of the best pieces of advice I ever got. There's a lot of support from Enterprise Ireland too and it works."
The figures speak for themselves and the strategy of honing the home market while building relationships with international markets is paying off. Exports now account for 55pc of Ovelle sales.
"In 2014 we had sales of €6.3m to €8.4m last year and we're projecting €9m this year and I can see the visibility so it's all going very well," she said.
Closer to home, the company has strong relationships in the UK with both suppliers, for the manufacturing end, and retailers for the final products and Brexit is a constant focus.
"We import some supplies from the UK, not everything but some core ingredients for manufacturing the creams and ointments. We have a very big team for a company of our size - of six managers who, on top of everything else, were the Brexit team. We also got help from the Irish Exporters Association including training on paper work, for example, and we're doing a lot of supply chain work. Supply is where we would be more vulnerable because of the tariffs for import. In fact, it has made us closer to some of our suppliers, which is a good thing. It's been very good for the business especially looking more closely at the supply chain for future exit (Brexit) and looking at alternative suppliers like Poland."
"The tariffs would only apply to imports in our case. We're pretty Brexit-ready and we've audited ourselves through Enterprise Ireland who have done a brilliant job. Our finance team have really worked hard over and above everything and we have a very loyal workforce here in Dundalk," she said.
Looking ahead, Ovelle is regarding the 85th anniversary of the business as a rebranding opportunity with a budget of about €100,000 for the exercise.
"We are looking to refresh the Ovelle and Elave brands but also build on the connection with the two brands and also to tell the Gardiner apothecary story from my grandfather, to my father to me.
Gardiner says the company is continuously looking at improvement in terms of the environment and ocean plastic and may reintroduce some glass packaging.
"By early 2020 we will have refreshed both brands. We've also put huge research into our sun blocks and we just launched our 50+ range for children and adults - very high protection and allergen-free. Investing in the brands is critical, we are up against machines like L'Oreal," she said.
"We strive to build on our traditional Ovelle apothecary standards by introducing new certification where relevant including Natural Organic and also the Cruelty-Free PETA bunny accreditation which is now achieved for our entire Elave sensitive skincare range. And most of our Elave products are also vegan."
Gardiner said the company will also invest in its international team and digital, inspired not least by her travels in Asia.
"You can really see the future of the market when you travel in the Middle East and China," she said.
Name: Joanna Gardiner
Position: CEO, Ovelle Pharmaceuticals
Lives: Blackrock, Co Louth
Education: Business, Economics & Social Studies. Trinity College Dublin
Family: Three children: Sophie, Tom and Patrick
Pastimes: Training early before work. Friends and family
Favourite movie: Cinema Paradiso
Favourite book: The Great Gatsby
Who is your business inspiration?
My father, Sean Gardiner.
What’s your favourite bit of business advice?
The only constant is change.
Any career lessons?
None of us is as smart as all of us.
Sunday Indo Business