Ann Rudden's dream of having her own business started earlier than most other entrepreneurs. In fact, she was just nine years old when she decided that she wanted to be in business for herself. Today, she runs one of Ireland's leading artisan chocolate companies, Aine Hand Made Chocolate. And this year, after 15 years in business, she will see her turnover cross the €1m mark for the first time. Hers is a story about hard work, innovation and quality. But above all, her story is about passion and about the total and all-consuming love she has for what she does.
Its early morning when I arrive to visit Ann in the picturesque village of Stradone in Co Cavan. Like most other rural Irish villages, it is quiet, except for some passing traffic and the sound of a lawnmower cutting grass on the large village green. This is where Ann Rudden grew up. As a child, her father ran the local garage in the same premises which she has now lovingly converted into a modern and high-quality food production unit. And it is here where she now runs her well-known chocolate making business.
"Growing up, my brother and I would do the pumps for my father's garage. I was only seven or eight at the time so my brother pumped the petrol and I collected the money," recalls Ann. "It was great craic at the time and, looking back, it really gave me a great interest in the whole world of business," she adds.
While many of her friends would be watching TV in the evenings, Ann could be found busily baking and cooking in her mother's kitchen. When the local Foroige youth club, to which she belonged, held events or awards, Ann would always volunteer to look after the baking and food-preparation side of things. At weekends, she worked in the local village pub and during school holidays, did the night shift in a local bakery. She was always busy and almost always in the kitchen experimenting with new ideas.
After school, Ann completed a course in bakery and management in the Dublin Institute of Technology in Kevin Street. Her love of baking and chocolate landed the young graduate her first full-time job with the Irish Chocolate Company, now known as Butlers Chocolates. From there she moved to Lily O'Brien's where she became the first ever employee of the company alongside its founder, Mary Ann O'Brien.
"I loved it there and gained great experience. Mary Ann was a true marketer and a real inspiration," explains Ann. "And because there was only the two of us in the business at the time, I mostly looked after production and new product development while Mary Ann concentrated on branding, sales and marketing," she adds.
When the company later became part of the much bigger Queally Group, Ann also got experience in the systems and processes that are required to achieve higher volume production. But after seven enjoyable years there, she was ready for a change. No veering far off course, she spent the next couple of years working with a food ingredients company selling everything from flour, flavours and sugar to bakeries, ice cream producers and chocolate manufacturers around the country.
"While I enjoyed selling and meeting new people, I really missed the buzz of the production floor and the sense of satisfaction that only comes from making something you love. For a while, I toyed with the idea of opening a shop which would have been a mix between a patisserie, bakery and chocolate store," explains Ann. "But I couldn't afford the rents in Dublin as I literally had no money and no assets at the time except for my little Peugeot 306 car," she adds with a laugh.
She decided, instead, to return to what she knew best and loved most - making chocolate. Initially, she rented a small production unit in Coolmine Industrial Estate and quickly got to work on developing her own range of chocolate products. However, getting access to capital did not come so easily.
"The banks simply didn't want to know. One after another, they turned me down. That was until one official, who was just about to leave his job the following week, agreed to give me a loan."
She later married and moved to Co Meath from where she continued to run the business. On one of her regular visits home to Stradone, she found herself staring at her father's garage which, by then, was closed and lying idle for some years, when it suddenly dawned on her that it would make the perfect location for a new manufacturing facility for her business.
"The place needed a lot of work to bring it up to modern standards but the whole thing just seemed to make sense," explains Ann. "For the business, it meant the end of expensive rents and for my father… well, he was only too delighted to see the place restored and helping to bring life and, more importantly, jobs back into the village," she adds.
Getting her chocolates listed in stores was the next item on her agenda and one that she soon learned would be an uphill battle.
"Without a large marketing budget, I had to get the product out to the market directly myself. That involved doing in-store tastings in every store what would allow me and going to every farmers market, agricultural show or Christmas fair that I could find," explains Ann. "However, once people actually got to taste the quality of the chocolates, we began to get noticed and gradually more and more stores began to list us. And many of these same stores are still loyal customers today," she says proudly.
Her commitment to quality was rewarded with 25 Great Taste Awards (the equivalent of the Oscars in the food industry) including eight Gold Medals and recommendations from leading food critics such as John and Sally McKenna and food guru Rick Stein. Business was growing steadily for the master chocolatier, that was, until the downturn, in 2007/08. Consumers began to cut back on luxury items and the sales of hampers and corporate gifts declined. "Instead of thinking about giving up, we focused our energies, instead, on developing a range of lower cost chocolate products - chocolate bars - but with the same level of quality that our customers had come to expect from us. At the same time, we redesigned our branding, added even more colourful, eye-catching designs to give our products a greater standout appeal on the supermarket shelves," insists Ann determinedly.
Her hard work paid off and sales began to increase again.
Inside, Ann leads into the shop and demonstration area where samples of everything she makes are on display. It's an irresistible mouth-watering feast for any chocolate lover. There are rows of golden coloured gift boxes. Next to these are shelves packed with rows of different flavoured chocolate bars in tantalising flavours that include zesty lime, Sicilian lemon, toffee butterscotch, wild raspberry, and roasted hazel nut, crisp honeycomb, summer strawberry, flaked coconut and Seville orange.
"What about these?" she says pointing to what looks like large chocolate lolly pops. "These are our famous Hot Chocolate Swirl Sticks. Probably one of the best products we ever developed and one that sells all-year round. You simply drop one of these into a mug of hot milk and you have the perfect serving of gourmet quality hot chocolate," she adds waving one around.
Conscious of the growth in free-from products, everything in the factory is gluten free and there's even a range of sugar-free chocolate products suitable for diabetics which are made using a natural plant-based sweetener called maltitol.
With all jewellery removed and white coats on, we make our way to the production and packing areas where I was truly surprised to see that everything in the place is genuinely either hand moulded, piped or filled, and even the individual chocolate bars are wrapped by hand.
"Surely this labour intensive process is an inhibitor to scaling up?" I ask. Ann agrees. And with sales on the increase, she soon hopes to be in a position to get an automatic wrapper to speed up the process. But for artisan producers, this is always the dilemma. Do you wait until you have sufficient volumes before investing in automation or do you take the jump and borrow in the hope of generating extra sales as a result?
At home, she has built up a range of large supermarket customers that includes Dunnes Stores, SuperValu, Londis and Gala as well as a host of independent retailers such as Avoca, Kilkenny Shop, Morton's and Fallon and Byrne. In addition, she also ships to a number of fine-food retail outlets in the UK, Dubai, Russia and Malaysia. Online sales, too, are on the increase.
With the economy picking up, Ann is more excited than ever about the future. Working closely with Bord Bia, listings with stores is on the up and she has recently secured contracts to produce own-label ranges for two of Ireland's largest supermarket chains. All of this will see her turnover double to over €1m this year.
Ann Rudden is a dynamic, bubbly, and inspiring woman. She has managed to grow a successful business and brand from a starting position of few, if any, resources. Having survived the recent downturn, she is now in growth mode and set to reap the benefits of all her hard work over many years. Having spent a morning with her and her team, and having sampled her amazing chocolate treats, it's easy to understand why she is now achieving such well-deserved success. Her key ingredients - total commitment to quality and an all-consuming passion for what she does.
For further information: Aine Hand Made Chocolate, Stradone Village, Co Cavan. Tel: 049 4323744, email: firstname.lastname@example.org, web: www.chocolates.ie
Sunday Indo Business