Saturday 24 August 2019

Resilience at core of JJ O'Toole's success

When her husband died, Vicki O'Toole swapped homemaking for dealmaking. Today she runs Ireland's leading packaging firm

Vicki O'Toole, managing director of JJ O'Toole Packaging, with Sean Gallagher. Photo: Tony Gavin
Vicki O'Toole, managing director of JJ O'Toole Packaging, with Sean Gallagher. Photo: Tony Gavin
Sean Gallagher

Sean Gallagher

Given the complex and ever changing environment in which businesses operate, longevity must be a fair indication of just how good they are at what they do. For that reason, this week's company JJ O'Toole Ltd must surely be doing something right.

Set up in 1914 and now based in Raheen in Limerick, the company is Ireland's oldest packaging supplier. Last week, I met up with the company's CEO, Vicki O'Toole, to learn the secret behind the company's success.

A confident and articulate businesswoman, Vicki took over the business in 2010 following the death of her husband Fergus - grandson of the original founder. It has been a long and challenging journey for the former full-time mother and homemaker and one that she had never envisaged undertaking. Yet a combination of tragedy and necessity left her with few options but to rise to the challenge. Today she leads a dynamic and award-winning business that employs 25 staff and has an annual turnover of more than €9m.

Her story is one of great courage and resilience.

"My late husband Fergus's grandfather JJ originally started the business over 100 years ago to supply paper and stationery to business customers here in the Limerick area," explains Vicki, "Over the years the company has faced many challenges, two world wars and a number of economic recessions. However, our objectives today are the very same as they were when the company was first founded - that is, to provide our customers with products of exceptional quality, delivered with excellent service while maintaining honesty and integrity in all our dealings," she adds.

As she escorts me around the firm's show area, Vicki shows me samples of the wide range of packaging products the company produces. These include high-end luxury packaging bags and boxes in a variety of different materials and finishes, complete with carrying handles and colourful ribbons as well as the more basic grip-seal bags, bubble wrap, deli containers and butcher bags.

"Our 'one stop solution' approach has been key to us winning business from many of Ireland and the UK's leading firms across sectors as diverse as retail, food and general industry," she explains.

Among the colourful display of bags and wrapping papers are those from well-known brands such as Brown Thomas, Avoca, Newbridge Silverware, Kilkenny Group, Meadows and Byrne, Musgraves, Dunnes Stores and Lloyds Pharmacy. About 20pc of the company's work comes from the export market, including leading UK high street brands such as Selfridges and Fenwick on Bond Street in London.

"While these type of blue chip companies account for a large part of our business, we also supply everyone from butchers, delicatessens, restaurants, boutiques, golf clubs, schools, online businesses and lots more," adds Vicki.

Explaining how trends in packaging are constantly developing, she shows me an eco-friendly range of products the company has developed that includes bags made of bamboo, soya-based inks for printing, and others made largely from recycled plastic cola bottles.

Vicki O'Toole was born in Limerick. She was exposed to the world of business from a young age - her father was a successful entrepreneur who ran the hugely successful McMahon Builders Providers, with branches all across the country.

After studying law for a year in UCC, Vicki decided academic life wasn't for her. She spent a year au-pairing in Paris, and returned home to work in the family's business. It was then in 1985 that she met and married Fergus O'Toole.

At the time, Fergus had just become managing director of JJ O'Toole. Set up by his grandfather and later led by his father, Fergus became the third generation to own the business.

Soon afterwards the couple had the first of their five children and Vicki became a full-time mother. Occasionally too, she would help her husband at work, particularly during busy periods or to cover staff who were out sick or on maternity leave.

In 2001, out of the blue, Fergus became ill.

"It was the first sign of his depression we had seen," explains Vicki. "The following year he got worse. The situation was further compounded with the effects of the introduction of the plastic bag tax on the business. At the time, 80pc of the company's turnover was coming from supplying plastic bags to retail. The change in legislation meant that businesses now had to charge customers for every plastic bag that they used, the result being that many retailers stopped using them completely. As a result, the business lost 40pc of total turnover, literally overnight," she adds.

With Fergus's depression continuing to worsen, Vicki found herself becoming more and more involved in the running of the business.

"It was a tough time because our youngest child was only a year old at the time," she recalls. "At the start, I didn't really know where to even begin. It really was like starting from scratch. Every day became a school day for me from then on - and still is to this day," she adds.

In 2005 she became the full-time managing director. Gradually finding her feet, she began to redesign the business creating an in-house graphic design service as well as outsourcing production to paper manufacturers across Europe and the Far East. Her actions began to pay off as she won major new contracts from clients such as Brown Thomas and Selfridges.

The company's attention to detail and their focus on customer service saw their reputation develop as leader in the premier luxury packing space. As the customer numbers grew so too did Vicki's confidence and self-belief.

She remembers at that time writing to Simon Pratt, the MD of Avoca. "A great business and hugely creative, I told him that I really wanted to work with Avoca," explains Vicki. "As a result, I got to meet with Simon's sister, Amanda, and we really clicked. She gave us our first order after that and we have been supplying them ever since. It was a turning point for me because it gave me a boost when I needed it most and really helped propel the company forward. And as with all our customers, my job is to get to know everything about their brands so that we can create packaging to best reflect what their businesses represent," she adds.

But in 2010, everything changed. That year, her husband, Fergus, died tragically.

"It changed everything for me," admits Vicki. "I immediately wanted to sell the business. I couldn't see what else to do. And only for my brother, at the time, I may well have. He convinced me to wait for a while until I could think more clearly. Gradually it began to dawn on me that I had five children, the youngest of which was just nine at the time - and I simply had to continue to provide for them."

Worried as to how she could possibly manage to run the business and look after her family, she eventually decided to give it three months to see if she could juggle both tasks.

"I used to hate it when people would tell me that things would get easier with time but they did. However, I would often receive emails which had also been copied to Fergus and that was really hard," she admits.

With the support of her staff and great kindness and patience shown by all her customers and colleagues, she got through this period. And from there, things gradually began to get easier.

"As a woman stepping into the shoes of three generations of men, I also had to face the challenge of gaining acceptance from some colleagues and associates," she recalls. However, her determination and perseverance saw her though.

Currently conducting a feasibility study into whether to buy or rent a premise in Dublin, she is keen to have a presence in the capital where many of her customers are now located.

"The highlight of this year for us was in August, when we secured the prestigious Dunnes Stores account. We will start delivering the first parts of this significant order this month and we hope that being chosen as a preferred packaging partner to such a giant retailer will open the doors to further retailers, in both Ireland and the UK," explains Vicki excitedly.

With revenues up 6.5pc compared to last year and with a further increase of over 30pc projected for the next 12 months, Vicki is increasingly confident about the future of the business.

"I think the combination of a more positive economy and a greater awareness of our brand among retailers and other clients is helping to drive this growth," she explains

Vicki O'Toole never set out to head up her own packaging company. When her husband died suddenly, she was faced with the stark reality of either stepping into his shoes or closing the business down. She chose to fight. Since then, her confidence has grown and so too has her business.

"I have lots more things I would like to accomplish in the future. But for now, I still love this business and am totally focused on making it even more successful," she adds.

Does she ever wonder what Fergus would think about her success? Or what his grandfather JJ, who set up the business over 100 years ago, would think of a woman at the helm?

"I think they'd be happy. At least, I hope so," she adds with a smile.

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