Thursday 5 December 2019

How kissing the Blarney Stone spawned an iconic retail brand

Marian O'Gorman and her son Greg share the secrets of the Kilkenny Group's success

SUCCESS: Sean Gallagher with Marian O’Gorman and her son Greg. Photo: Tony Gavin
SUCCESS: Sean Gallagher with Marian O’Gorman and her son Greg. Photo: Tony Gavin
Sean Gallagher

Sean Gallagher

Business is booming for the Kilkenny Group as I arrive to meet Marian O'Gorman, the company's CEO, in its flagship store on Dublin's bustling Nassau Street.

With so much to choose from, it's easy to see why this emporium of Irish-designed products attracts so many local shoppers as well as a steady stream of overseas visitors.

There's a fascinating back story to this business, which most visitors to the store will be unaware of. The Kilkenny Group was originally set up by the government in 1963 and consisted of just two stores, one in Kilkenny and the other on Nassau Street in Dublin. The purpose of this move by the government at that time was to help stimulate economic activity by providing a sales outlet for Irish craft producers. Today, the business is owned and run by Marian and her family.

Marian O'Gorman too, has her own story. She is originally from Blarney, in Cork, and her late father, Christy Kelleher, was the founder of Blarney Woollen Mills.

"My father spotted a gap in the market to sell souvenirs and Aran sweaters to tourists, mostly American, who came to kiss the famous Blarney Stone. Not having the money to open a shop initially, he started out by selling his souvenirs from a mobile shop, which he built in the form of a thatched cottage," explains Marian.

Marian left school at 16 to work alongside her father in his business and credits him for much of her business acumen. She remembers how, at that time, she used to tell tourists the story of how her Aran sweaters, or fishermen's sweaters, as they were originally known, were made by local women in their own homes. She would explain that tradition had it that each sweater had a different pattern on it so that if a fisherman ever fell overboard, he could be recognised by the pattern of his sweater.

By 1975, her father had saved up enough money to buy the local mill in Blarney, where he had once worked as a young man. Later, he developed it into what became an iconic Irish retail brand, Blarney Woollen Mills.

Marian worked in the business for over 28 years, eight of which she spent as the company's CEO. During that time, the government put the two Kilkenny stores up for sale and Blarney Woollen Mills bought the Dublin store.

In 2000, and not uncommon among family businesses, Marian and her siblings decided to go their separate ways. As part of the agreement, she took the Nassau Street store, a sweater shop in Killarney (which she later branded as a Kilkenny store), and two outlets, one in Killarney and one in Cobh, which traded under the brand name Christy's.

Since then, she has gone on to grow the group to a position where it now includes a total of 13 different stores around the country, employs 230 staff and has annual revenues of €26m.

It's an incredible achievement. So what's the secret to her success, I ask.

"I think a big part of it is that we have always been committed to promoting authentic Irish products and to helping develop new Irish designers," she explains.

At the moment .she is gearing up for the third annual Kilkenny Irish Craft Fair and Design week, which takes place in all its stores from the October 6 to 12.

"It's a real opportunity for us to showcase the best in Irish craft and design and to support our home-grown talent," says Marian passionately.

As part of that commitment, she works closely with the Crafts Council of Ireland and, along with her staff, regularly provides advice and mentoring to up-and-coming designers on topics such as marketing, pricing and packaging.

"Being a family-run business helps too," interjects her son Greg, the group's marketing director, who arrives to accompany us on a tour of the store. Marian's daughters, Michelle and Melisa, also work as regional area managers with the company.

"We stock products from over 500 different designers and suppliers," explains Greg as we make our way through rows filled with contemporary gifts and traditional crafts.

Jewellery and accessories are big sellers for the store, with names such as Newbridge, Orla Kiely, Alan Ardiff, Enibas and Blaithin Ennis being among the most popular. There's a whole area dedicated to pottery where I quickly recognise well-known names such as Nicholas Moss, Stephen Pearce, Colm De Ris and Louis Mulcahy. And it's hard to miss the shelves full of glistening glass and crystal from John Rocha and Waterford.

Fashion and handbags are popular too with established brands as well as new ones aimed at attracting a younger generation of shoppers to the store.

Designer Orla Kiely is to the fore with her familiar colours and distinctive patterns adorning everything from hand bags and towels to mugs, stationery and homeware. Near the entrance, a display of Irish artisan foods also catches my eye with its colourful and enticing array of jams, chutneys, biscuits and chocolates.

Upstairs, the cafe is buzzing, adding greatly to the overall atmosphere of the store.

"We do 1,000 covers, seven days a week," explains Greg.

But getting the business this far must have presented its fair shares of challenges too, I ask Marian.

"Absolutely. Our 'back to the wall' moment came in 2001, long before the recession took hold. We were hit in rapid succession by foot and mouth disease, the Sars outbreak and the September 11 attacks. And because we were more reliant on the tourist trade then than we are now, the severe travel restrictions that were placed on tourists at the time had a serious knock-on effect on our turnover. To add to this, we had inherited significant costs as part of the takeover agreement which needed to be addressed," she admits.

Concerned, and with her confidence severely affected, she sought advice from friends and mentors. The advice she got from most was to sell the company. First, however, she would have to strip out costs and drive up profits if she was to have any hope of getting a reasonable price for the business.

"However, I was absolutely determined to turn the business around," says Marian. "We put a survival plan in place, reduced our fixed overheads and variable costs, relocated our head office to Killarney and downsized our warehouse," she explains.

By 2005, she had managed to turn the business around and even achieved a small profit that year. It was, however, enough to restore her confidence in both herself and her business and, with momentum now gathering, she reaffirmed her decision not to sell the business. Instead, she turned her focus towards expanding the company and began opening new stores around the country.

Even between 2008 and 2013, during the height of the downturn, while others were closing stores, the Kilkenny Group invested over €2m in an expansion plan that saw it open eight new store locations and take advantage of the availability of lower rents during the period. As a result, its overall visitor numbers increased by more than 40pc.

Greg joined the business in 2003 as store manager. He later progressed to become marketing manager for the group, where he worked for 10 years before taking on his current role as director. With a degree in marketing from Cork Institute of Technology and a Master's in Business Strategy from the Smurfit Business School, Greg focused on helping grow the brand from a niche craft store to one of Ireland's leading retail groups. In addition, he spearheaded the development of the group's online store, which now receives over one million visitors every year.

"Our staff are definitely one of our most important attributes," says Marian. "We invest heavily in training, getting the best out of people and helping them to reach their full potential. This results in better service for our customers, as well as a strong staff retention rate," she adds.

In meeting her, it is obvious that Marian has lost none of her passion for the business. For her, there is still a lot more to be accomplished. She continues to look for suitable locations where she can open new stores in Ireland and is set to invest even further in growing the company's online business, with a clear focus on targeting the Irish diaspora and the US market, in particular.

Marian O'Gorman is a charming and engaging woman. She is also a powerhouse of an entrepreneur. She discovered at an early age that she simply loved business and has dedicated her life to it ever since. Although focused on meeting the needs of her customers, she is equally committed to developing the potential of her staff as well as helping emerging Irish craft- makers and designers grow their respective businesses.

Together with her son Greg and her daughters Michelle and Melisa, she continues to expand the Kilkenny brand. This year, she and Greg will represent the company at the Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year Awards.

While it is a well-deserved acknowledgement of her achievements in business, for Marian, it must surely be a clear recognition that she has certainly come a long way from the days of selling Aran sweaters from her father's mobile shop.

Visit the Kilkenny Group at www.kilkennyshop.com

 

MARIAN AND GREG'S ADVICE FOR OTHER BUSINESSES

Research is key

Make sure to carry out proper research when undertaking new projects. It is important to scope out the opportunities, but it is equally important to identify any red flag issues that might require attention.

Business is all about people

Your staff are key to your success. They are your ambassadors and the interface between you and your customers. Hire those with passion and good personalities and then invest time in developing their potential.

Believe!

To be successful in the long term, you have to believe in your business and what you are offering to the market. But you also have to believe in yourself. It's also cyclical; the more you succeed, the more your confidence grows.

Sunday Indo Business

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