How Newbridge cornered the market in modern silverware and jewellery
Fresh out of college, William Doyle's first taste of business was as a travelling salesman. Now the executive with an eye for new ideas and markets tells Paul O'Donoghue how Newbridge is back on the up
Bidding almost €600,000 for the iconic gown worn by Audrey Hepburn in 'Breakfast at Tiffany's' might seem like a strange move for the chief executive of a company traditionally known for manufacturing cutlery.
Equally, William Doyle raised a few eyebrows when he first decided that Newbridge Silverware would launch a jewellery line from the metal leftover from its cutlery manufacturing.
However, both moves have since paid off in spades for the Newbridge boss. The firm's jewellery brand has gone on to become one of the most iconic in the country and is now responsible for 60pc of its annual turnover.
Although he narrowly lost out on Hepburn's legendary dress after driving the price to €590,000, Mr Doyle did manage to land several key Hepburn pieces.
They included a two-piece evening ensemble the famous actress wore in the 1963 movie 'Charade' that helped him to establish Newbridge's Museum of Style Icons, which now sees 350,000 people pass through its doors every year.
Bidding for Hepburn's dress brought Mr Doyle to the attention of the legendary Los Angeles celebrity auction house Julien's Auctions, which has sold items belonging to megastars such as Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley.
"At that time they had a whole collection of Marilyn Monroe's garments to sell that they were touring around the world and would then auction back in Los Angeles. So we told them that we had a museum and they said that they would bring their collection to our museum for a while," said Mr Doyle.
The problem was that Newbridge Silverware didn't have a museum.
"We had to build one. Not only that, but we told them that we would have a gala event in it. We were literally putting the staircase in on the night of the event," he said.
"It was quite a success though and now we're in the museum business." Such a spur-of-the-moment decision is fairly typical for Mr Doyle, who in his own words "never misses a chance for publicity".
Despite his eagerness to promote his brand and company, Mr Doyle himself comes across as a relatively unassuming figure, speaking quietly and often pausing mid sentence to make sure that he is conveying the message he intends.
However, taking almost total control of one of the country's oldest companies when you are barely out of your teens has a way of knocking the timidness out of most people and so it proved for Mr Doyle, who has served as the boss of the iconic Newbridge Silverware for roughly a quarter of a century.
The company was founded in the 1930s as a cutlery manufacturer. Renowned for years for its tableware, the firm was nonetheless unprepared for the lowering of tariffs on foreign goods after Ireland joined the European market in the early 1970s.
Caught out by the flood of cheap goods manufactured overseas and imported, 600 jobs were swiftly cut to 100 as Newbridge teetered on the brink of collapse. It was around this time that Mr Doyle's father, Dominic, took control of the business. Already a minority shareholder in the firm, Dominic had sold his previous self-made company, DB Doyle Ltd, after suffering a heart attack. However, not a man content to remain idle, he was soon working as production manager in Newbridge before deciding to acquire the rest of the company.
"He put his entrepreneurial skills to work and he managed to secure export business in the UK after deciding to just focus on the upper end of the [cutlery] market. That was the point I got involved in it," says Mr Doyle.
Fresh out of college, Mr Doyle started out his career as a travelling salesman, selling Newbridge's trademark cutlery canteens and catering knives to retailers and hotels. This was interspersed with time spent virtually running the entire manufacturing facility, as he recalls: "When I was only 21 I probably had a full year on my own there [as the manager], I was very much dropped in the deep end and managed a busy factory, HR issues, trade union issues, the lot. I had to learn quickly."
His involvement in the day to day running of the business was to increase as his father's influence waned due to his ailing health. Mr Doyle took over as chief executive in 1993 when his father passed away, "but I was more or less in charge for four years before that".
Business was initially slow but the introduction of Newbridge's jewellery line would change that. Instead of getting rid of the scrap metal left over from the production of cutlery, Mr Doyle decided to use it to create a range of bracelets and earrings.
Although it failed as a venture initially - "the retail network that we dealt with couldn't get the connection between a tableware company being in the jewelry business" - retailers' attitudes took a 180 degree turn after RTE presenter Barbara McMahon aired an item on the company's jewellery products. Soon, retailers were queuing up to stock Newbridge's wares.
The firm is starting to see its sales recover after taking a hit during the recession. Although it only reported a turnover of €21.5m last year - just above 2009 levels - Mr Doyle said Newbridge has seen a 14pc spike in sales since the start of 2015. "In 2007 we did €27m. Like everyone else in the jewellery business we suffered but it's starting to turn. At the rate of growth we're experiencing for the first four months of the year the home market could recover within the next two to three," he said.
Always a big believer in the power of the brand, Newbridge Silverware has continued associating itself with celebrities even during the recession years. The firm is currently in the middle of a partnership with Brian O'Driscoll's wife Amy Huberman and has recently announced a deal with Leinster and Ireland star Rob Kearney.
However, despite the glitz and glamour Mr Doyle still looks to sell the idea that Newbridge is a family company. As well as speaking often and fondly about his father, Mr Doyle says that both his sister and mother, who help run the business, have kept him on the straight and narrow.
As if to hammer the point home, as he goes to leave he turns and asks whether we're familiar with one of Newbridge's latest jewellery collections, eShe.
"My 16-year-old daughter did Transition Year work with us and she came up with the concept of eShe, which is more festival orientated. It's something a bit different. It's been successful," he smiles. He then looks worried. "She gets a bit embarrassed about it actually, we keep mentioning her in press releases." Probably best not to mention it so.