Right said Ted, tradition and tech come together to bag top award
A grandad's spirit inspired a meeting of tradition and tech in Co Westmeath
Ted Carberry was a 42-year-old saddler in Mountmellick, Co Laois, sole supporter of his wife and 11 children when he had a brain aneurysm. He lost his memory and the use of his right-hand side, a potential disaster for a family in 1940s Ireland. He lost his memory, he forgot who he was and what he did and his family had to reintroduce themselves to him. But Ted Carberry just made some changes. He regained his memory, he learned to do everything with his left hand and he made smaller leather goods.
Today in Mullingar his legacy lives on in an award-winning high-end leather goods business run by his grandson and called, in honour of its inspiration, My Name is Ted. This year they won the inaugural Local Enterprise Showcase Award for emerging Irish design businesses.
Brendan McEvoy remembers his grandfather. "I would have been eight years of age when he passed away but my parents are still in the family home so my grandfather lived with us and he was a big part of my early life. He was right-handed and he lost the use of his right-hand side so he started making leather goods with his left hand and his mouth. A couple of years ago we found some of his work, his bags and wallets and his diary which he kept at the time. He was documenting his road to recovery through a nurse in St Vincent's [hospital] and he was writing to her to remember what he did and how he did it.
"In 1957 he was saying 'Dear Sister, I'm not much use for writing with my left hand but even so I am going to try,' and he documents his journey from Mountmellick to Dublin where he was going for speech therapy.
"Throughout the diary he documents different things: 'Dear Sister, today I am going to advise you on how I make a leather satchel or a cartridge belt for hunting', and stuff like this."
Neither Brendan nor his Polish-born wife, Kasia, had any background in leather work but they were taken with the idea of restarting the business, "We decided it would be phenomenal to bring the business back into the family and, not only that, but to incorporate the fact that he swapped over from right to left-handed. In the logo there is an arrow on the E, crossing over from right to left and on our website, on the heritage page, there is one of the pages from his diary. Also we decided not only to come up with a range of products inspired by his designs but to make them cross-functional, like he was. So all of the bags have something you wouldn't expect from that type of product, for example signature briefcases cross over for a backpack to be cyclist friendly, that type of thing, and they all have a tech element," Brendan explains.
Brendan and Kasia began the journey of refining their ideas about product and market at the Craft Council of Ireland. "Mary Whelan in the Craft Council spent hours on end and she pointed me to certain people in Ireland who were making leather goods. I visited or spoke to every single person in this country and tried to start understanding how you would go about this. That led to where to get leather and what leather and what's good. Like everyone I thought "genuine leather" was the way to go but it is actually the third cut down: "full grade" is the premium leather. That led me to Italy to different conferences and then I realised you have to have somebody to make them but before you can get somebody to make them you need to have a designer who can bring your design into a technical format so that the artisan can actually make patterns and then in turn make bags. So I just went on a journey and stayed really patient."
Brendan was also doing a full-time job as corporate acquisition manager with Three Ireland. "I've spent over 15 years in the telecoms industry and that kind of complemented what we're doing. Every bag has a tech element because we wanted to make them really accessible for the changing times so they come with a smart pocket and a power bank to charge while on the move. It's to enable people to have everything they need on a daily basis with a product that will last and pass from generation to generation."
The research for My Name is Ted was done then on evenings, weekends and annual leave. "I was just enthralled with it to be honest because the inspiration was my grandfather but now it needed to become something tangible. The product needed to stand up on its own."
The research also clarified their target market. "We saw there was a huge gap in the market combining luxury and tech. We decided not to do something that would be a fad, we wanted to maintain some of the traditional values but we wanted it to be instantly recognisable as lifelong business and lifestyle items that people become attached to. Their journey could start as small as a wallet and that they keep having faith in the business to grow the product portfolio that they have from it." The idea was hatched in December of 2013 and in January of 2015 they saw their first bag, "People in the industry told me it was probably about six months to a year ahead of what is possible. I kept setting the timeline of what we needed to achieve by when and our designer is from Florence and she has worked with some of the biggest names, from Vivienne Westwood to Lacoste, and she, and everybody, was saying I was crazy, it's just not possible to make this industry move at that pace.
"Italy is considered the Mecca of the leather industry so some Irish lad cannot tell the Italians what to do when it comes to leather goods. But I tried to use my business acumen to empower people to see things differently and people could see the passion of why we started in the first place." And this without speaking any Italian: "I speak enough to get in through reception, then my very next question when I get to who I need to is, 'Do you speak English?'
"We funded the business ourselves in the beginning then we went to Enterprise Ireland. It takes time for them to understand this mad fella with a PowerPoint but they gave us advice and feasibility funding, website funding and my wife has done courses.
"Once you've got your idea and think it's going to work I would say genuinely speak with them. The process is very black and white and without the support of Enterprise Ireland we would definitely be much further back. You can't be everything and do everything in your own business, you need to be multifunctional and they gave us that support."
Brendan still works his day job. Kasia, who studied law and worked in the marketing division of Ryanair, works full time in the business. The company is going from strength to strength and they are working to find "the absolute sweet spot" in marketing their product. "Google Adwords works well, paid ads on Facebook and other platforms less so. Social media influencers can work really well if you pick the right one. We did a campaign with a Snapchat person and got more orders in an hour than in a normal week."
Hard work and totally worth it. "The night that the first bag was delivered was one of the best experiences of my whole life. It felt phenomenal to continue on from my grandfather," he says. Success inevitably breeds imitation but Brendan is far from worried.
"The day that I see a knocked-off My Name is Ted bag on Henry Street I will have a big grin."
Sunday Indo Business