Monday 10 December 2018

Talented duo combine their skills to hit the sweet spot

Sue Dempsey and Fiona Craul tell Sean Gallagher how they set up their own specialised product sourcing company

Sean Gallagher with Sue Dempsey and Fiona Craul from Sweetspot. Photo: David Conachy
Sean Gallagher with Sue Dempsey and Fiona Craul from Sweetspot. Photo: David Conachy
Sean Gallagher

Sean Gallagher

Kildare businesswomen Sue Dempsey and Fiona Craul make it easy for clients to source products from international factories by offering a fully-managed service that includes everything from initial product design to identifying the most suitable manufacturers.

“We manage all aspects of quality control, importation and final delivery,” explains Fiona when I met them in their office in Naas town centre.

Around their office are samples of products they have sourced for clients, these include everything from flags and cooler bags to lunch boxes, branded pint-sized glasses, make-up brushes and wash bags, plus a variety of ranges of high-visibility vests, mugs, pens, key rings and power banks for mobile phones.

The company’s target market includes global brands with operations in Ireland such as Aldi, Lidl, PayPal, Jameson Whiskey, Molson Canadian, Coors Light and Coca-Cola. Their Irish businesses are drawn largely from the fast-moving consumer goods sector, and include names such as the Kerry Group, Flahavan’s, Keelings, Green Isle, Bellamianta, Pomp & Co, Vodafone and Eir as well as AIB and Dublin Bus.

“Most of the products we source for customers are bespoke and used either for promotional or retail purposes such as in-store promotions, on pack offers and gifts that come free with purchases,” explains Sue. “These may be used as a tool to drive sales of a particular product range, help the launch of a new product or tie in with a particular time of the year such as Christmas or Valentine’s Day.”

Most of the factories they work with are located across Europe, Turkey and China. They have also opened an office in the Chinese province of Fujian where, apart from sourcing products there, they offer consultancy support to clients who just need help navigating the Chinese market.

Neither Sue nor Fiona ever set out to be in this particular business, but by combining their collective experience and matching this to a gap they identified in the market, they found their niche.

Fiona grew up in Manor Kilbride, Co Wicklow, where her father works as an accountant and her mother runs a garden which is open to the public. 

“Growing up in such an entrepreneurial environment gave me the distinct advantage of not being afraid to do my own thing,” insists Fiona.

Having qualified with a MSc in work and organisational psychology from Dublin City University, she got a job in a specialist importing company where her role involved sourcing, sales and distribution of gifts used as part of incentive or loyalty schemes. Most of the gifts were sourced in the Far East and after having responsibility for looking after the company’s office in China, she eventually moved there for six months.

Sue grew up in Naas. Having completed a diploma in management studies, she got a job in one of the country’s regulatory bodies, now part of ComReg. From there, she moved to the LED Group, where she was later promoted to Irish exports manager. It was here — working across Asia, Europe and South Africa — that she gained valuable experience in all aspects of exporting. She took the opportunity to complete a diploma in international selling in conjunction with Enterprise Ireland — something that has benefited her greatly since.

“We had been friends for a long time before going into business together and often talked about our shared ambition to one day set up our own businesses,” says Sue. “And because Fiona was involved in importing and I was involved in exporting, it seemed to make sense that if we combined our experiences and expertise, we could achieve more together than separately.”

Fiona says that the pair spoke about joining forces for over a year, trying to decide on the best direction to take.

“We felt that there was room for a business that enabled companies to work directly with international factories, but only if we could offer a full end-to-end solution, including the ability to create bespoke branded products for their customers,” says Fiona.

And so in 2012, they set up Sweetspot, but where does the name come from?

Sue explains: “Talking to Fiona about what we might call the business, I remembered an old college lecturer telling our class that if we could find our sweet spot customer, then we’d make a fortune. So that’s the name we chose. But we’re still waiting for the fortune part.”

Fiona left her job first while Sue continued to work three days a week in order to help with cash flow. “While we were two commercially-astute individuals, setting up a business from scratch was a different ball game. Juggling finances in particular was something we have had to learn and learn quickly,” admits Fiona.

Soon after, they smartly decided to target marketing and PR companies who represented multiple brands — enabling access to a strong pipeline of prospective clients.

Can they remember their first big contract?

“Yes, it involved sourcing ceramic bowls as a give-away for a large indigenous food brand” says Fiona. “It was a huge success, and the overall campaign went so well that it won a marketing award.”

The duo recently joined Going For Growth, the female enterprise-development programme, which has given them access to an experienced mentor and they are now working on breaking into the Northern Ireland market. And while they are aware of the impending challenges of dealing with currency fluctuations as well as the fallout of Brexit, not even these issues can dampen their enthusiasm.

Looking back, are they happy that they traded their secure jobs for the world of self-employment?

“Yes, we love it. And while it can be demanding, it also brings with it more freedom and greater flexibility,” says Sue. “There really is nothing more rewarding than winning a new client and then delivering a solution that’s goes beyond their expectations.”

Having won the SFA Outstanding Small Business Award for 2017, it looks like this formidable duo from Naas might actually have found their sweet spot.

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