Business Irish

Wednesday 21 March 2018

Cully-nary skills make pair's firm hot stuff

Eight years after building their brand from scratch, lifelong friends are keeping a firm lid on just how much it was that a US giant paid for their business. By Mark Keenan

CULLEN Allen and Colum O'Sullivan -- aka home grown food entrepreneurs Cully and Sully -- list their mobile numbers on their website, so they never quite know who might ring them.

It could be Mrs Murphy about heating instructions for her particular oven, or a flatlander wondering if he's left his Cheeky Chicken Curry too long in the freezer. Schools want to know about visits and charities want to know about sponsorship. But we want to know about the bread.

So how much dough did Cully and Sully raise back in April when they offloaded their piping hot food business, lock, stock pot and barrel, in a flashpan deal to the US-based food giant, Hain Celestial?

"Nope. I'm not even going into that," says Sully.

There was a bit of a rumour that it was about €10m?

"Nope. We're not going to talk about it."


"Not saying."

The Cully Sullies will talk about good food until the grass- fed Jersey cows come home. But when it comes to the Hain Celestial greens they're keeping the lid firmly sealed on that particular hot pot.

The pair knew each other before they could remember-- as the knee-high children of well- known mutual foodie friends, the Allens and O'Sullivans of Cork.

They later shared a house as college students in the city. Cullen's mum is Darina Allen and his granny is Myrtle of Ballymaloe -- where he grew up with organic cooking, farming, food and catering.

Colum's mum Eleanor founded the Granary Foodstore -- another pioneering food business with the same high culinary standards and work ethic.


Cully says: "After college I went around the world then he (Sully) went around the world. Then one day when Sully was doing an internship at Musgraves he gave me a ring and said I have an idea, let's go into business. I'm visual and foodie and Sully is into accounts and systems. We're both very marketing led."

Despite osmosing the food business and the recipes they would need through formative years, their first year in business, 2004, was nonetheless spent doing nothing but around-the-clock research.

"Sully had a good job (at Musgraves) and I was living at home working for the business, watching every penny. Initially Sully supported me. We borrowed €15,000 from the bank and it lasted us for almost a year," says Cullen.

"It can be good to be young and not have a bean. It teaches you a lot," Sully adds.

"Too many start-ups spend too much -- on irrelevant consultants, for example. Why pay them when you can get good free advice all around you?

"We asked everyone -- family, friends, business people, people we knew, people we didn't know. We must have talked to hundreds of people.

"If you're going into business, form your idea properly and then ask your mum, and your dad, your brothers and sisters, then your extended family and when you're finished with your family ask your friends.

"If they don't think it's a good idea, then you should know that there's something wrong."

But living together, socialising together and working together presents its own challenges. Didn't they ever have a fight?

Sully offers: "It can be dangerous going into business with friends, especially when it's 24/7 and it's nearly like a marriage. Both of us are very different people with different strengths and initially I was afraid that we'd both morph into the same person. But thankfully that never happened. We have never fought once. Having grown up at Ballymaloe around the hotel where he was surrounded with 100 hotel guests, Cullen is always able to keep his calm.

"We both drive each other a bit mad but we know when to take a step back."

One of the toughest parts of starting up any food business is getting your first shop listing.

They first pitched and landed their big break with Musgraves. From there they successfully pitched to Dunnes and Superquinn.

But they are brave enough to admit that they also made mistakes.

"We launched a failed desert range and had to cancel it," says Sully. "Our meals used to come in earthenware pots. One of our costliest mistakes early on was when we dropped two pallets and smashed thousands of them."

Distribution was also tough to get the hang of, recalls Cully, with the company unable to predict orders and they ended up giving away large amounts of food to charity in the early years.

"At any time during that period the business could have easily gone," says Sully.

For them the recession has been a double-edged sword. "On one hand people have become more value-focused and cut back on spending at the supermarket. On the other hand they are more likely to eat in or take their lunch to work," says Sully.

"We've actually won more awards for our marketing than our food. The ingredients and the food are paramount but it's vital for any business starting out that your marketing is consistently good," adds Cully.

While it was never to the forefront, selling the company was always there somewhere at the back of their heads.

"We have turned down a number of approaches," says Sully. "But with Hain Celestial it happened from start to finish in two months.

"We got on their radar when we won the overall prize in the Global Sial d'Or in 2009 in Shanghai, the Oscars of the food industry.

"We were the first Irish company to win the overall award.

"We've been talking to them on and off for a while. Earlier this year they rang us up and asked us outright to buy the company. They've been really keen to get a brand of fresh soup into the US market where it doesn't really exist as such."

The deal means Cully and Sully can bring on new products and get their existing ones -- high-quality fresh soups, hotpots and ready meals -- into the UK and the US, while Hain gets ready-made quality brands in niches it wants to develop.

Hain's recent global buying spree also saw it gobble up the £160m (€202m) turnover UK-based Daniels Group in October and it plans to push aspects of the two operations together.

It has also said it will be torpedoing some ready-made meal brands which have failed to make the grade or match the brand mix.

Now in the belly of the global health food giant -- Hain had revenue in 2009 of almost a billion dollars -- the home-grown duo will be batting for the big boys.

Hain boss Irwin Simon has defined his global organisation's mission statement via a question: "How do we ensure we feed consumers health foods at affordable costs?"

Given the rash of food awards, there's no doubting the quality of a Cully and Sully meal, but at around €5 for one person per pie, is it possible ever to come up with cheaper good food product that will reach the people those obesity headlines talk about?

Cully is temporarily sullen over the idea of cheaper ingredient and queries the relevance to "this kind of a media interview." "How much? Three euros? Well you won't get Irish lamb in that, it would have to be a pasta dish." Shortly afterwards he departs to a meeting.

Post buyout, it's clear that they are still serious about ensuring the product is made from good food.

A Cullyless Sully makes the point that good nutritious food is not cheap and that they have already cut 45c off their ready- meal prices.

"We're competing for space on supermarket shelves with lots of other products all the time. Having cheaper products alongside your regular line is confusing for customers and the shops don't like it."

Hain deal

That details of the Hain deal haven't been disclosed perhaps suggests that final terms might be based on performance and that even they don't know the answer right now -- no more than they can tell whether Hain might seek to consolidate their Irish food manufacturing with that in the UK. "Maybe we're still a little naive," reflects Sully, perhaps mischievously.

But despite the "Ben and Jerry" business personas, Cully and Sully have already proven their intelligence, determination and nous in founding, building and selling on a world class brand in just eight years -- and in the worst recession since the 1950s.

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