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Mum always knows best as skincare company goes global

While many family-run businesses struggle to survive, Ovelle, with a strong team spirit, is bucking that trend, writes Sean Gallagher

'We have a very bright and loyal staff. It's like 'Hotel California' -- where once they check in, they never leave'

THERE'S a saying in family run businesses that "one generation makes it, the next one maintains it and the third usually blows it".

Research certainly supports the claim that many family businesses do not survive through the second generation and only about 10 per cent are still viable into the third. Whatever the statistics, this week I visited one family-run business that is working incredibly hard to buck that trend.

Based in Dundalk, Co Louth, Ovelle Pharmaceuticals has been manufacturing quality skincare products for almost 80 years. Now run by Joanna Gardiner, she is proud to lead the company which was founded by her grandfather, Joseph, in 1934.

"Our US customers in particular, love our story and our long company history," she tells me. "They appreciate the fact that we are an authentically Irish business."

Licensed by the Irish Medicines Board, today Ovelle is a leader in skin healthcare with two main brand divisions, Ovelle and Elave. Ovelle includes many of the company's more traditional products, used mostly in the treatment of eczema and other dry skin conditions. The Elave brand has more than 28 products among its face, skin and baby ranges.

"Much of the growth in our business is because the public today are increasingly concerned about the use of chemicals in skincare products and are looking for safer options," explains Joanna. "That's why our products are specially formulated to be free of parabens, sulfates, formaldehydes, dyes, colours and fragrances."

So what's her own story and when did she get involved in the business?

Having grown up in Dundalk, she studied business at Trinity College in Dublin and spent the next couple of years working in advertising before taking on a graduate internship with Enterprise Ireland. She later returned home to join the family business.

She started out as a medical sales rep and later progressed to become the company's marketing manager before eventually taking over as managing director in 2001. At the time the business was run by her father Sean, who is still involved today.

"Our traditional focus had always been on the Irish market but I was absolutely determined to internationalise the business," she insists.

While she got great encouragement from Enterprise Ireland, she readily admits that the biggest hurdle to overcome, as a company, was their mindset.

"Deciding to go global was a big step for us but once we managed to get our heads around the idea, and focused on the quality of our products, our confidence grew and doors began to open," she says.

That new-found confidence has definitely brought success. In the past two years, sales have grown steadily in the UK through key customers such as Tesco, Morrisons and Sainsbury's. "The US is also a really big opportunity for us," says Joanna. The company's anti-ageing skincare range is currently being piloted in more than 60 Duane Reade stores in Manhattan as well as Walgreen stores in Florida, Chicago, Texas and Puerto Rico.

Not content with that, the firm has also entered the Asian market through China and South Korea and is now in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Unites Arab Emirates.

"Much of this is driven by an increasing demand for quality European products," Joanna explains.

As I am led on a tour of the premises, it is clear that there is a definite air of busyness about the place. "We run two shifts daily, one morning and one evening," Joanne points out. As we enter the company's state of the art laboratory, she has strong praise for her brother Patrick. A qualified pharmaceutical scientist, Patrick is director of R&D. Together with R&D manager, Pamela McGeough, he heads up a team of highly-dedicated pharmacists and scientists who are charged with developing new formulations. "R&D is a critical part of the company's success and the creative engine of the business," explains Joanna.

Passing through the sales department, I engage with one of the sales team, Conor McEneaney, who is keen to tell me how well things are going. Conor's story is just one inspiring example of how staff are encouraged to develop under Joanna's leadership.

Conor originally began his career working in the company's warehouse. Over time however, he progressed into sales where now, as part of the international sales team, he is helping the company break into new markets.

The company currently employs 48 staff and Joanna is proud of the team at Ovelle. "We have a very bright and loyal staff," says Joanna. "Around here it's a bit like the song Hotel California where once they check in, they never leave," she laughs.

While her leadership style is relaxed, she insists that all staff know their individual roles and responsibilities and are expected to stand up and own them. She is clear too about her own responsibility for building the brand, managing customer relations and for ultimately "making the numbers".

It's an approach that definitely seems to be working. Sales have grown by 35 per cent in the last year alone. Her plan to internationalise the business is also proving successful, with half of all sales now coming from export markets. And this year the business will see turnover exceed €5.2m.

She only recently stepped down from her position as chairperson of the governing body of Dundalk Institute of Technology, to which she was appointed in 2006.

As a mother with three children, I wonder to myself where she finds the time? Does she feel it's tougher for women in business?

She admits to often feeling torn. Her daughter Sophie is 17, Tom is 15 and Patrick, the youngest, is 10. She was at meetings in the UK the day before, leaving home at 4.30am and getting back around 8pm. It's a reminder to anyone who thinks that life as an entrepreneur is easy.

However, she is fiercely committed to bringing her children to their sporting and other activities. "That really matters to me," she stresses. But her children are proud of her and what she has done.

Speaking of the future, I ask what is next for Ovelle?

"We are now collaborating with big pharma brands that are increasingly looking to contract out some of their R&D and manufacturing operations," explains Joanna. She cites a number of such firms with whom she is working to carve out specialised skincare niches. She believes it's a model that offers huge potential to leverage Ovelle's R&D capability.

I also get to meet some of the company's non-executive directors who were just finishing a board meeting as I arrived. Fergus McArdle is a partner in local accounting firm KMR, Tony Nordon, owns neighbouring firm Anord, and Patrick Rigney, developed the Boru vodka brand, among others. It's a good mix of experience -- but how useful is having such a board?

"They are very strategic and bring to the table a wealth of financial, manufacturing and brand expertise," she insists. "It's even more valuable in a family-run business like ours, where getting honest feedback is absolutely essential," she stresses.

As I leave, she quickly sums up the reasons for the company's success to date. "A strong brand, great products, a talented and dedicated staff, a strong board of advisers and, above all else," she says, "around here everyone works really hard".

It's not just Ovelle's products that have the right ingredients for success, it appears so too does the company. Something tells me Joanna Gardiner is only getting into her stride.

Sunday Indo Business