Tuesday 24 September 2019

Candle firm has bright future

Sean Gallagher meets owners of small and medium sized businesses and shares the lessons they’ve learnt in building their companies

Sean Gallagher with Mark and David Van den Bergh. Photo: David Conachy
Sean Gallagher with Mark and David Van den Bergh. Photo: David Conachy
Sean Gallagher

Sean Gallagher

Home fragrance specialist Max Benjamin was set up in 2007 by siblings Orla, David and Mark Van den Bergh. Located in the picturesque Wicklow Mountains just outside the village of Enniskerry, the company employs 12 staff and is on target to see annual revenues reach €5m this year.

"We design, manufacture and sell a wide range of scented candles, scented cards and fragrance diffusers," says David, the company's managing director.

Their most recognisable range, their Classic Collection, comes in bright colourful boxes and in fragrances ranging from a homely Cloves and Cinnamon scent to the more exotic White Pomegranate, French Linen Water and Persian Rose fragrances.

Their Amalfi Collection which includes fragrances such as Acqua Viva and Fiora Rosa, draws its inspiration from the Amalfi Coast in Italy where the family spend a lot of time both for business and leisure.

"Our Elysium Collection is also very popular. Focused on creating a sense of indulgence and illusion, we use relaxing scents with names such as 'Enchanted Paths' and 'Escape to Wonderland', to help give users a sense of escape from the demands of their busy lives," says Mark.

David and Mark then show me their premium range, the Ilum Collection.

Now sold in top gift and department stores across the world, this range comes in large porcelain vases with swirling geometrically shaped designs inspired by the family's Belgian heritage.

I am totally taken by the quality of everything this company does.

From the design of their packing to the meticulous layout of their showroom display. There is a level of care and attention to detail that is rarely seen.

Beyond the showroom is the production area where a team of skilled candle makers are busy pouring the day's production. What's surprising is that every candle is poured by hand.

"We add the selected fragrance to the melted wax before the blend is poured into each candle holder," says David.

"The process takes seven hours from start to finish. We use only 100pc natural waxes that do not contain any paraffins, while our wicks are made from natural Italian cotton," he adds.

David, Mark and Orla grew up right beside where the factory and showroom are now situated. In fact, this used to be the site of the family's stables.

Their father, originally from Belgium, was himself an entrepreneur who ran a successful engineering business, something David and Mark believe helped instil a strong work ethic in them, together with a sense of independence.

"He really encouraged us to do things for ourselves and I think the reason none of us grew up with a fear of being self-employed is largely down to both his encouragement and his example," says Mark.

The initial idea to get into the candle business came from Orla. She had studied economics at UCD before moving to the US where she found a job in a candle-manufacturing business.

On her return to Ireland in 1995, she began making church candles, more as a hobby than a business. However, in time, that changed and two years later she began producing candles under the name Oberg for private label and department stores.

Mark joined the business in 1998. Having completed a degree in economics and philosophy he had gained considerable experience in sales with Beamish Irish Stout in Germany.

David, a business and finance graduate from NUI Maynooth had been working in the IT sector in Sydney, Australia and on his return home, he too joined the business, in 2003.

In 2007, Orla, David and Mark launched Max Benjamin with all three as equal shareholders.

"The business is called after Orla's twin boys, Max and Ben. We were trying a few names and this one really stuck with us," says Mark. "We launched at Showcase in 2008 and were fortunate to secure Avoca and the Kilkenny Group as customers.

"From there we exhibited at trade shows in the UK where we landed John Lewis and Selfridges. The following year we launched in Germany and grew it out gradually from there.

"In the early days, we were put in touch with a mentor with a design background who helped us identify the key areas where we needed to improve if we were to be successful in creating products of difference that would stand out in an increasingly competitive market.

"These included hiring quality sales professionals, investing in high-quality photography and undertaking more PR - and these really did help shape our future growth," says David.

Since then, the founders have developed vast experience from dealing with international retailers, attending international trade shows and setting up worldwide distribution agreements.

Today they supply their products into 42 countries worldwide, including luxury department and homewares stores such as Brown Thomas in Ireland, Harrods and Selfridges in the UK, La Rinacente, 10 Corso Como, Italy, KDW and Operpollinger in Germany, Le Bon Marché in France, Mitsukoshi and Takashimaya Japan, Stevens in New Zealand and Myer in Australia.

David now serves as MD while Mark looks after product design and branding and Orla remains active in the business on a half time basis. Together, they have grown the company 35pc annually over the last five years and are on target to do the same again this year.

"We have come a long way since we started and our vision now is to grow the company to become the market leader in luxury home fragrance worldwide," says David.

Related: Use our calculator to estimate your small business loan repayments

Anyone who has ever picked up something from the Max Benjamin range cannot but be impressed with the quality of the product and the packaging that goes with it.

Having met the founders and the team behind the brand, it's easy to see why their love for what they do, together with their absolute attention to detail is paying off in spades. This is an Irish brand that is really going places.


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