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The secret of greeting card success

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Sean Gallagher with Michelle Daly, Marketing and Sales director and Aisling Naughton, Operations Manager, P & G Cards, Athleague, Co. Roscommon.

Sean Gallagher with Michelle Daly, Marketing and Sales director and Aisling Naughton, Operations Manager, P & G Cards, Athleague, Co. Roscommon.

Sean Gallagher with Michelle Daly, Marketing and Sales director and Aisling Naughton, Operations Manager, P & G Cards, Athleague, Co. Roscommon.

It is one of those universal truths in life that most of us, no matter what age we are, love the feeling of receiving a greeting card in the post. Whether it's a birthday card or the recognition of some special occasion in our lives, there is something truly magical about receiving cards.

This week I travelled to Co Roscommon to meet the Naughton family, who run one of Ireland's most successful card companies. Located in Athleague, just outside Roscommon town, P&G Cards specialises in the design, manufacture and distribution of a wide range of greeting cards on everything from birthdays and weddings to new arrivals and Christmas greetings.

Set up by former nurse Pauline Naughton after she lost her job in Roscommon County Hospital in the mid-80s, due to cutbacks, the company has since grown to become an international success story. It's an inspiring and uplifting story of how adversity and disappointment can sometimes turn out to be positively life-changing.

Pauline and her husband Gerry are currently in China, where they are meeting suppliers. So as a result, I am welcomed to the company's facility by their daughters Aishling Naughton and Michelle Daly. Ashling works as operations director while Michelle is the sales and marketing director.

With Christmas coming up, their dedicated showroom and display area is packed with a wide range of Christmas cards including a range which the company design and manufacture in aid of the Jack & Jill Foundation. In addition to the ranges of greetings cards, the company also supplies an extensive range of gift bags and wrapping papers.

"This is one of the busiest times of the year for us," explains Aishling who, along with her team, has been working hard to get products out to their customers in plenty of time for the Christmas rush.

"Our customers include most of the large symbol groups such as the Musgrave Group (whose brands include Supervalu, Centra and Londis), the BWG Group (who have Spar), the Barry Group (who own the Costcutter brand), as well as prominent national brands such as Dunnes," explains Michelle.

In addition to these, the company also supply an extensive list of smaller independent card and gift shops, newsagents and post offices.

Over and above their large Irish customer base, the company also exports its cards and accessories to an impressive and growing number of international markets that includes France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Cyprus, Malta, South Africa, Canada, Malaysia, Barbados and Australia.

"Our sales in these markets have grown to represent approximately 15pc of our total sales," explains Michelle.

It's an incredible success story, especially considering that the business only began when their mother lost her job as a nurse - but let's go back to where everything began.

Pauline Naughton grew up in Aughnacliffe, Co Longford, and studied nursing at the former Ardkeen Hospital in Co Waterford, where she worked for many years. She later moved to Roscommon with her husband Gerry, a member of the Gardai, and she took up a nursing post in the local hospital.

However cutbacks in the mid-1980s meant that Pauline lost her job at the hospital. With three young children and another on the way, she was keen to continue working and so took up a part-time job in her sister's newsagents in Longford town.

One of her duties included looking after the greeting card section of the store where Pauline noticed that the greeting cards she was selling were all imported from either the UK or America. This led her to conclude that there had to be an opening in the market for a quality Irish supplier of greeting cards.

Over the next few months, she took the opportunity to quiz customers in the shop about what they looked for when buying cards.

Armed with the research, she left the newsagents - and in 1988 she set up P&G Cards.

"The business started out from very humble beginnings," Aishling tells me. "In fact, my mother set up the company in an old outbuilding at the side of our family home. And she was starting with a small bank loan of just £2,000," she adds proudly.

Today, the business operates from a new 16,000 square foot purpose-built facility on an adjacent site, employs almost 60 staff and has a turnover of €10m.

With the help of a mentor, Ron Woods, who also owned a greeting card business in the UK at the time, Pauline began sourcing and customising cards from abroad which she sold in shops and outlets all across the West of Ireland.

"She wasn't afraid to cold call and win new business," explains Michelle. "In fact, many of the customers she signed up then are still loyal customers to this day."

The greeting card market is a highly competitive one and trying to break into it initially was no small challenge for the brand new entrepreneur. However, with a portfolio of quality cards, short lead-in times and a highly personalised service, Pauline gradually began to build up a steady customer base.

Her biggest challenge however, lay in getting into the larger multiples. Never an easy task for any new company, Pauline managed to secure her first orders from the Musgrave Group in 1990. She knew she was now on her way.

"Today we have more than 5,000 different card ranges - but the business still maintains the same level of quality and customer service as when Pauline first started out," says Aishling.

One thing that has changed however, is how the company uses technology and IT analysis systems to enable them to monitor the sales and stocking activity of each individual store. Using handheld devices loaded with elaborate software, P&G sales staff can now get instant access to key information that includes overall sales turnover of each store as well as the number of times an individual card design is sold.

However things didn't always run smoothly and in 2008 when the downturn hit, the market for greeting cards changed almost overnight.

"This put us under immense pressure," explains Aishling. "With less disposable income available to them, customers became incredibly focused on value for money.

"As a result, we had to immediately design and produce a new value range to suit the changed market conditions. While this led to reduced margins and much tighter stock controls, it did however, allows us continue to drive sales while reducing costs," she adds.

Today the company is experiencing an uplift again. Christmas cards are selling better than ever. It's an unexpected side-effect of the emigration in recent years, which has led to increased numbers of cards being mailed to friends and family overseas.

"This is something we see not just at Christmas, but also at other times of the year such as Saint Patrick's Day," Michelle says.

Family is a big part of the success story at P&G Cards. Their father, Gerry, has always been an integral part of the business and in 2002 after he retired from the Gardai he joined on a full-time basis as purchasing director.

Michelle, studied marketing and French at Dundalk IT and joined the business in 2001. She quickly mastered her new role as a sales rep and worked her way up to her current position as the company's sales and marketing director.

Aishling joined the company in 2003. She had worked in the banking sector since leaving school. Since then she has worked as a regional sales rep and today she is the company's operations director.

"But Pauline, as managing director, is still very much the boss," insist both the daughters. "She is the first person you see here in the morning and the last one at night. And while it can be challenging working for your parents, we are incredibly lucky to have received the opportunities we have," both insists.

Staff too, are a critical element of the company's achievements to date.

"We are very fortunate that every member of our team is committed to the business and to our customers and, as such, are paramount in sustaining the growth of the company," explains Aishling.

As they look to the future, Aishling and Michelle tell me that they are focused on growing the P&G brand both at home and abroad.

In addition, they are currently investing heavily in research and development in order to diversify into complimentary products such as giftware and stationary.

"It's all about continuing to add value to our customers," insists Michelle and Aishling as they rush off to an important meeting. Christmas orders need to be fulfilled and so it's back to their stations for the hard-working sisters.

As I say goodbye to Roscommon, I have no doubt that the future of P&G Cards is in good hands.

 

BUSINESS MASTERS

Company name: P&G Cards 

Business: Manufacture and distribution of greeting cards

Set up: 1988

Founder: Pauline Naughton

Turnover: €10m

Number of employees: 58

Location: Headquartered in Athleague, Co Roscommon

 

ASHLING AND MICHELLE'S ADVICE FOR OTHER BUSINESSES

1. Be sure to get the right people on board

"In order to grow your business, you need to find and retain the right team. This team has the right mix of skills, and also share the company's overall vision."

2. Know your capabilities as well as your limitations

"You need to know where your strengths lie and use these to create the company's competitive advantage. And you also have to stay focused and grounded."

3. You've got to know and research your markets

"Knowledge of your market is essential. You have to continuously research. Stay close to your market, know your customers' needs and be ready to respond to them."

Sunday Indo Business