Wednesday 21 February 2018

The West Kerry chocolate factory breaking the mould

Colm Healy bought a small chocolate factory in 2004 and has overcome huge challenges on the road to sweet success, writes Joanna Kiernan

Chocolate maker Colm Healy with a selection from his Skelligs Chocolate range
Chocolate maker Colm Healy with a selection from his Skelligs Chocolate range
Joanna Kiernan

Joanna Kiernan

Skelligs Chocolate may be into its second decade in business, but it has been one hell of a journey for current owner Colm Healy, who bought the factory's founders out in 2004.

"There were two starting points really," he explains. "Udaras na Gaeltachta had a remit years ago to help build craft units around the country in remote Gaeltacht areas to give people employment. So there was a place here, and the previous owners, Michael and Amanda McGowan, started the business initially in 1996."

"I'd been living in Australia and in Asia for the previous five years and then I came back to Ireland," Colm, who is originally from Raheny, Co Dublin, adds. "My sister lives in Cahersiveen, which is only 15 minutes drive from the factory, I was down visiting her and I was looking for something to do."

At this point Colm, who has a background in IT and had worked for himself for years, was looking for a new challenge. He considered purchasing a pub and B&B in the area, but it being the first year of the smoking ban in Ireland, he decided to wait and see how it would affect the industry.

"My sister said that she thought the chocolate factory could be for sale so I went down, I had a look around and thought, why not?" he says with a laugh.

One month later, Colm was the proud owner of his very own chocolate factory.

"I have worked for myself at this stage for about 25 years or more, so I am a big believer that if you look at any business in general, there are two aspects: there is the product or service and there is the running of that business. Within reason I could run any business I reckon, and so I was comfortable taking it over and I had that bit of self-belief," he says.

"It had been running for eight years at that stage and I think that the previous owners had probably reached a natural plateau for themselves. They had brought it to a stage where it had developed to the extent of their capabilities and they were looking for a new direction, so it suited both parties."

So how much did Colm's chocolate factory set him back?

"I paid more than I should have, but less than its worth," he laughs.

Colm took over Skelligs Chocolate as an operational business with six staff members.

"We had great staff, a fabulous location and brilliant potential," he remembers. "I had no experience of running a chocolate factory, I had no experience of even running a food business. So that first year was spent learning about everything from the ground up. I went on chocolate-making courses and I learned every aspect of the business."

"I am a big believer in the three Ps: people, process and product. The people were good, and the product was good too. What we needed to refine was the process - how we made it, how we sold it and how we marketed it," Colm adds.

"I concentrated on improving sales to existing customers, finding new customers and making sure that what we did on site was as good as it could be - and this was all fine until 2010."

In May of 2010, the Skelligs Chocolate factory underwent significant extension and renovation work to the tune of €50,000 - but disaster struck that November, when the newly revamped premises burned to the ground.

"It was a bit traumatic," he admits. "I was in New York with my now wife when it happened; we had bought an engagement ring there - and if I'd had the phone call about the fire before we got that ring, she'd still be waiting for it.

"People say that it's like a loss and having gone through it I can only agree. It was heartbreaking and being so far away and not able to do anything was very frustrating for me."

Two days after the fire, Colm returned home to survey the damage.

"We arrived down to a smouldering shell," he says. "It was surreal. The important thing from our perspective was that nobody had been injured or had been on site. Then the insurance people came in and there were no issues there. Once I got over the shock, I realised that the building had burned down, not the business."

The phoenix-like rise of Skelligs Chocolate from the ashes of this major setback was a huge challenge for Colm, his family and the staff. However, the outpouring of goodwill which followed the event spurred him into action.

"At that time the only thing holding me to this location was the factory, which was destroyed," he explains. "I could have gone somewhere else after that, but I was really blown away by the support we received from locals and competitors; everybody really rallied around. So we did a lot of research and a lot of soul-searching and we decided that where we were was the home of Skelligs Chocolate."

Colm set himself the challenge of restoring Skelligs Chocolate to its original home within a year of the fire.

"We decided that we would be back on site and fully operational within a year, so that involved buying equipment, renting a temporary location in Cahersiveen, and dealing with architects, planners and builders," he says.

As if that wasn't enough, Colm and his wife Nickie also got married.

"Getting married was the easy part," Colm laughs. "We were back on site with a week to spare and I couldn't have done it without the team around me. From November 2011, it was like a new start-up again, but we took the positive out of the situation and it gave us the opportunity to start again with a blank sheet.

"We were able to work on the business, not in the business, and we saw the potential for really improving the tourist element to it. So I suppose one of the big things we did during that time was that we redefined what we were."

He continues: "We thought that we were a chocolate manufacturing facility - but we realised that we were a food tourism business and that is a mindset as much as anything else. We make our money on site. We are an open plan chocolate factory; you can come in and see and smell the chocolate and staff will give you tasters and explain how it all works."

As well as continuing to develop the company's business with retail partners, Skelligs Chocolate has now become a popular tourist destination.

"We don't do tours and we don't charge," Colm explains. "We are a working chocolate factory that welcomes visitors."

On their busiest day this summer Skelligs Chocolate welcomed approximately 1,100 such visitors.

"We get a lot of families and there is a marketing element to it as well," Colm says. "If people have been down to the factory and they go home and see Skelligs Chocolate in the stores, they have the comfort of knowing when they purchase that they were actually in the factory and saw it being made.

"What is really fortunate for us too is that people have that feeling of discovery when they walk through the door - after finding this chocolate factory in a very remote location - so they are in a positive mood already.

"We don't make cheap chocolate," Colm adds. "We make what we believe is good value chocolate using the best ingredients and people appreciate that too."

The company now employs over 20 people and its range is available nationwide. However, chocolate lovers may also purchase products online and the company regularly ships to overseas fans.

Skelligs Chocolate is now a nominated 'signature experience' on the Wild Atlantic Way and the surge in tourism for the area following the filming for Star Wars has also boosted the factory's trade and profile.

"I love what we do and I couldn't have done any of it without my wife, Nickie, and our two chief tasters, Luke, who is four, and Ella, who is 10," Colm says.

"We are an actual working chocolate factory with the only open plan chocolate production facility in Ireland and we welcome visitors from February through to December."

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