Friday 25 May 2018

Gathering a positive way for Kerry's Willy Wonka to grow sales

In his new column, Bill Cullen visits small businesses and kicks them into shape. This week he met chocolate maker Colm O Healai

THE Kingdom of Kerry is a magnificent place of scenic beauty, ancient heritage and culture. It's the number one destination for tourists to this island since Queen Victoria's visit in 1861 which unveiled the Lakes of Killarney and The Ring of Kerry to the world.

On the north-western tip of the Iveragh peninsula lies an iconic vista of the Skellig Michael Island where St Finnian founded his monastery in the sixth century. The Augustinian monks resided there for centuries in the loose stone beehive huts which are now a unique visitor centre and are included in the UNESCO World Heritage list.

Sweeping down from the mountain pass from Portmagee you are struck by the panoramic view of St Finnian's Bay and The Skelligs proudly standing behind in the rolling Atlantic surf. This is a place of tranquillity, relaxation and spirituality.

It was here that a young Dubliner named Colm O Healai, eight years ago, tired of travelling the world, took one look and decided to stay.

Colm converted an old storage warehouse beside the beach into a chocolate making factory. Even though he had no previous experience in the business he worked hard to develop a wide variety of handmade chocolates with wacky, unusual and fun fillings. Originally for Colm it was the tourists that flocked to the area and the local community that were his main customers.

He was just getting up and running at the factory, and had opened his first shop in Killarney when disaster struck. The factory caught fire and it was burnt to the ground. Colm was faced with a tough decision, to take the insurance cheque and run – or to start again and rebuild.

As a passionate entrepreneur he took to the challenge and built a modern factory on his unique site. To conserve funds he closed the Killarney shop and set about getting other stockists. The Skelligs Chocolate factory was going to make a name for itself.

The new factory and cafe have become a winner with tourists and locals alike. The building is built in local stone with landscaped terraces and an extensive car park at the side. The whole facility is people friendly. The cafe fronts out onto an open terrace with spectacular views over the Atlantic waves sweeping into the bay, highlighting the majestic Skellig Islands on the horizon. A lovely place to spend some time in peace and relaxation. The chocolate making is clearly visible as the whole production team work in an open area with state-of-the-art equipment and of course the aroma of chocolate permeates the air.

There is a great display of tempting treats like Champagne and Strawberry, Lemon Truffle with White Chocolate, Hazelnut Praline, Honey Crisp, Sea Salt and Chilli and many more. One of the most popular and unusual items is a chocolate high heeled shoe which won Colm a prestigious design award.

I met Colm a few weeks ago and was gobsmacked by this gem of a business in such a remote location. We had visited the old factory some years back on our way round the Ring of Kerry but this new building is a quantum leap for Colm and he has now created a really worthwhile tourist attraction. Now for the next chapter: to create a recognisable brand and take it nationwide and beyond.

Colm has a friendly visage and a welcoming personality which is always good in a salesman. We quickly got down to business. He employs 10 staff and has a profitable turnover, but he wants to grow and move up the league table of Irish chocolatiers.

His major revenue comes from the factory visitors but the tourist season is short, just seven months – so what about the other five?

He is up against strong competition like Lily O'Brien's, Leonidas, and the 80-year-old Butler's Chocolate chain who have a strong foothold in major shopping malls and outlets. They have contracts with airlines, cafes at airports and have their standalone shops.

Colm knows he is on the hind tit in those markets. I challenged him to increase his sales and discussed the ways and means to make this happen. Colm has only 10 stockists who sell his chocolates. They are, however, high end retailers and speciality food stores like Avoca, Morton's and Kilkenny Shops. He agrees that he needs a sharp sales and merchandising person on the road to maximise orders from sales spikes like Valentines, Easter, Christmas and Mother's Day and a big spend on birthdays. For special occasions he has unique hand-painted gift boxes.

More important for Colm is this year's expected increase in tourism and he has to get a bigger piece of that pie from hotels and B&Bs in the surrounding area. Although his location is isolated he is in the midst of a plethora of quality hotels and bed and breakfasts and needs to elicit business from those sources.

In Kerry alone there are seven fivestar hotels and umpteen three- and four-stars. These provide great potential for recommendations. All tourists are looking for local attractions and places to visit and by making the right connections in those hotels, with the concierge and guesthouse owners, he could have a huge increase in footfall to the factory.

This type of local marketing just needs a simple brochure, a bit of legwork and costs very little. To increase sales is the key to success and he must push harder to sell-sell-sell.

Can he persuade the hoteliers to guide their clients to his factory? Can he develop the Skellig Chocolate experience as a "must see" for all Kerry tourists? Can he set up a small pet farm to attract families, a cow to show where the milk comes from to make the chocolate, some lambs, a donkey and a few rabbits? This is a very effective and cheap marketing tool and children love it.

Can he create his own Irish Willy Wonka character for the summer season and call him Chocolate Charlie, or Sean Skellig. These are just a few ideas to make the visit to the chocolate factory a real day out for families and to spread the word and increase awareness, with minimal spend.

Colm agrees that his website is not up to scratch and is setting about creating a new one. His online sales are only 5 per cent of turnover. A focus on web sales is essential as he is missing out on a huge growth area. He knows the web could be a juggernaut for promotion and sales of his products.

Colm has the staff and the capacity to process the increased orders as they arise with no increased costs. He says he's up for the challenge to hit higher targets and takes responsibility for the growth of the company. He is starting chocolate making classes in the off peak times and is actively looking for a chocolate shop/cafe in a high-profile location for 2014. Lots of ideas but he needs a more aggressive strategy, because I believe that there are opportunities for more than a 50 per cent increase this year.

So Colm this is my "Get on yer bike" strategy. "Ten per cent extra sales on your website, 10 per cent extra from stockists, 15 per cent extra from pop-in tourists, 20 per cent extra from hotels and guesthouse recommendations."

Next step is to rewrite your plan of action and I look forward to seeing the final draft, better still your progress in implementing it. I know you have the potential to make Skelligs Chocolate a national brand. Go for it Colm!

Irish Independent

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