Sunday 16 December 2018

Export market and expats going Wilde for award-winning water

Oscar Wilde Water

Oscar Wilde Water’s sales and marketing director Rory McLoughney and CEO John Hegarty at their plant in Co Tipperary. Photo: Caroline Quinn
Oscar Wilde Water’s sales and marketing director Rory McLoughney and CEO John Hegarty at their plant in Co Tipperary. Photo: Caroline Quinn

Alan O'Neill

Water is one of the most important natural resources of all and there is so much more we could learn about it. Wars have been fought over it, protest marches have been held in its honour and fortunes have been made by water entrepreneurs. Yet the idea of Irish consumers paying for bottled water was considered a big joke only 35 years ago.

In his colourful life, serial entrepreneur John Hegarty has designed high-end clothing and boxes for CDs and DVDs. But from his time spent in Dublin, the US west coast, west of Ireland and now Tipperary, he has always had a deep fascination with water. I have never come across anyone with so much knowledge of water as John. The mineral composition, the flavour, the source and the history all rolled off his tongue at ease. I was boggle-eyed by the time he took a breath.

Another passion he has is Oscar Wilde. "There is hardly a magazine anywhere in the world that doesn't have some quote from our greatest wit," said John. For 19 years, John has been churning his idea for creating a premium water branded 'Oscar Wilde' to the world stage.

While spending time in Mayo where Wilde holidayed as a child, John was plotting and planning. An 'ideas man' with a highly active brain, you can only be inspired by his activities.

The Water and the Wild(e)

John and his business partner Rory McLoughney launched Oscar Wilde water as a premium brand in 2013. Rory introduced the famous 'Powerball' to the Irish market and between him and John, they have years of experience in international brand development.

They are of the view that the bottled water market in Ireland is mainly about price and it's a race to the bottom. Theirs being a premium product, it probably has less potential here in the home market. From the beginning they had their eyes set on the international stage and that has been their focus ever since.

The brand has been received incredibly well wherever they go. Due to the obvious familiarity with the name, the diaspora in the US and elsewhere were won over very quickly.

Initially they contracted out the sourcing and bottling of the water to a local company in Mayo. The quality of the water in this facility is of a very high grade, which suited their premium aspiration. As time went on and the brand took off, they felt they needed more control of the full supply chain.

It's (not) a Long Way to Tipperary

There is an amazing water production facility near Thurles in Tipperary. Operated by C&C for years, the natural artesian well water has won 15 gold stars internationally. While the mineral composition is obviously slightly different to the Mayo well, it is a perfect match for the Oscar Wilde premium brand. As it happened, C&C had shut down the plant and consolidated its production nearby to Clonmel, with the loss of jobs.

Facilitated by TD Michael Lowry, a successful introduction was made between John, Rory and the C&C executives. C&C agreed to sell the plant and machinery to the new brand and Oscar Wilde water now has a permanent 'home'.

Not only that, C&C agreed to become a distributor for the brand. This is a great win-win for both parties.

A very inclusive future

If you're old enough to remember TV's The Odd Couple, you'll remember Felix and Oscar. That is how I see John and Rory. One is the yin to the other's yang.

While very different in style, they are as well matched as gin and tonic. And that brings me to their ambitions for the future: water is not the only product in their pipeline. They are also planning a range of premium tonic waters to add to the mix. With six flavours, they aim to capitalise on the explosion in the gin market.

They have a very impressive and inclusive business model for seeking investment. As with many of the US multinationals in Ireland, they are sharing the business with their employees. Most of the 20 recruits are ex-C&C employees and have invested their own money in the business. That makes them shareholders with a vested interest in the long-term success of the brand. Between them all they have 250 years of appropriate experience. A recent announcement heralded 100 new jobs in the plant in the coming years.

Scaling Up

While they have secured listings in premium establishments in Ireland, their main focus is on international development. C&C have invested heavily in recent times in the UK market, so partnering with them is already a huge boost. Additionally they are in negotiations with several international distributors, so moving from one shift to full production may happen sooner than expected.

John and Rory are keen fans of other Irish brand trailblazers like Guinness and Baileys. They have great conviction that the Oscar Wilde brand will be just as successful in time, relatively speaking.

If passion and grit count for anything, something tells me that this is one to watch.

Sunday Indo Business

Business Newsletter

Read the leading stories from the world of Business.

Also in Business