Peigín Crowley’s name may mean ‘little Peig’ but she’s always had big ideas — including launching her own successful spa range, Ground Wellbeing, which she started from her pretty dormer bungalow just outside Cork city
The Leaving Cert results are coming out on September 2 and the arguments are starting already: well-meaning parents urging their offspring to do the safer courses — the ones that will arm them with a respectable qualification — while the kids themselves are pushing back somewhat, wanting to follow their dream, even if it seems a bit intangible to the parent.
Cork-based entrepreneur Peigín Crowley had that exact problem when she finished school over 20 years ago. She wanted to get into the beauty business — a nebulous career to a parent in those days — while her father, a university professor, was totally against it. In fairness to him, he came up with a compromise: Peigín, who is the middle child between two brothers, would do an Arts degree, and if she graduated, he would pay for her beauty course.
“I think, for him, it was almost mortifying that, coming from an academic background, I would suddenly be in a beautician’s land, but what he didn’t get was that when you go to beauty college, you learn about everything — the lymphatic system, holistic therapies, reiki, Indian head massage, how the body aligns to heal itself. I was in love with all of that and the massage side of it, and the power of touch and how you can hold space for someone and mind someone,” says Peigín.
Luckily for both of them, it all worked out well. Peigín got her degree in English and geography from UCC, where her father, Willie Smyth, was the geography professor, and afterwards she did her course in the Bronwyn Conroy Beauty School. It has given her a fantastic career and, more recently, led to her setting up her own range, Ground Wellbeing, comprising spa treatments and wellness products.
One of the first things both Peigín and her father realised was that being a beauty expert — a bit like being a doctor or a nurse or an electrician — can be a passport to the world. “The beauty of massage and beauty therapy is that it’s very transferable: you can actually work anywhere,” Peigín notes.
Her first job after completing her beauty course was on a cruise ship and, over the course of the following three years, she travelled the world: Alaska, California, Mexico, Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand, Panama, Chile. It was ironic that she was now travelling more for work than her father, as a geographer, had ever done.
“We did amazing travel, and I’d send little gifts — wooden statues, face masks, quilts — to my dad and when I came home, I saw he had them all propped on a map. He’s a cultural geographer and so would have taught about different cultures around the world. And I remember he said to me with tears in his eyes, ‘Here you are, going to all the places I can only dream about and research,’ and suddenly there was an understanding that doing what you want will take you places, and that it was acceptable.”
As well as giving Peigín the opportunity to travel, the job taught her a huge amount about the beauty business. “Initially, I was doing massages and treatments — the guests were paying €100/€150 a pop for a treatment — and we were selling beauty products as well. I remember thinking, having never spent €100 on a massage for myself, here I am delivering it at a very high level to Americans with very high expectations.
“There were moments when I thought, ‘This is so expensive... what if they can’t pay their electricity bill?’” she says with a laugh, recalling her naivete. “It was such a five-star space to be in, lying on a bed and having a massage; it was an eye opener in terms of spas and the business side.”
While still only in her early 20s, Peigín was made manager of the spa on a superliner, in charge of a staff of 20, with a turnover of €5million, and she learned a huge amount about running a business.
“I was learning about HR and the management side, as well as sales and marketing — and at the same time, we had an absolute ball,” she recalls, adding that it was also very intense and involved a huge amount of responsibility. So after three years, she came home — but not without a plan for the next phase of her career.
“I was 24 at this stage and had done my travels, and I landed back in Ireland. We had worked with this beautiful aromatherapy brand onboard ship, Elemis, and I spoke to them and asked was there any chance I could bring their beauty brand into Ireland?”
Elemis agreed and Peigín launched the brand here in 2000. She worked with them for over 10 years and took the business from nought to over €2million. During that period, she spent a lot of time in the UK, which she enjoyed, although people did have difficulty with her name.
“I was called Peigín — little Peig — after my dad’s mum, Peig, even though I’m six foot, but I was small when I was a kid. In England, they couldn’t get their heads around it. I was called Pigeon and Penguin and Pelican... every bird name under the sun,” she laughs.
It was during that time that she met and married her husband, Shane, also from Cork, with whom she got together 20 years ago and married five years later.
“We would have hung around together as kids and had a few flirts. He was always a nice friend but became more than that after I came back from cruising.”
The couple have two girls, Anna Louise, who is 13, and Isabella, aged 10. Just after the birth of her second child, Peigín moved from Elemis to Estée Lauder, and then in 2013 took redundancy to catch her breath with the kids, and became a freelance spa consultant.
In 2015, she won the contract to do the spa at Adare Manor. “It was a Crème de la Mer spa. We designed the footprint, the customer journey, the treatment rooms, the relaxation room, as well as designing the treatment menu, deciding the brands they would use, hiring and training the team.
“I worked with the architect and the interior designers; it was a great experience. I still work for them — we do a private label and some aromatherapy oils. Being an aromatherapist, I’m always blending oils.”
Peigín has also worked with The Merrion on its spa design, as well as Mount Juliet and the Cliff House Hotel. She began to work further afield, too, and travelled a lot to Goa in India. Then Covid-19 hit.
“All my spas were closed and no one needed private labels — and my diary that’s normally mental was emptying.”
So, she embraced the silence for a while and it led not only to positives around her family dynamics, but also to her new business. “Everything went quiet. So much of my ego had been wrapped up in my travelling and my important clients; now I had this chance to nest with my family and get back to basics.
“In the quietness of it all, I remember thinking, ‘What if spas and salons never open again?’” she says, aghast at the thought. “So much of the work is about touch. I realised I have to future-proof.”
Having worked with so many spas and salons on their private labels, helping to develop their products, Peigín knew she could create her own range. She also knew that Brown Thomas would be the ideal outlet for it — fortunately, she already had a good relationship with the company as she had done wellness workshops with the department store, and so she approached them.
Brown Thomas agreed, as long as the products would be exclusive to them for six months and that she would have Christmas gift sets for them by November. This was May 2020, and so Peigín set about making the products from home. “My mum was in our bubble — she became head of bath salts.”
Despite a “hiccup” in the middle of it when she had to get an ovary removed, Peigín delivered exactly what had been promised.
She says she couldn’t have done it without the support of certain people, including Shane. “I said to Shane in May, ‘I have to spend €30,000 of our savings to get this brand off the ground. Are you happy with that?’ He’s very quiet but funny. He said, ‘Go for it.’ I said, ‘Is that it? Should I pitch it to you?’ He said, ‘No, it’s like you’re asking me for another baby and if I said I won’t give it to you, you’ll go to someone else to get it, so I’d better support you.’” She also got loans from her brother and her mother, Karin, who is half-German and half-Welsh, and very artistic.
Peigín launched with 21 products and eight gift sets, and they were a huge success. “I remember walking into BT and seeing the stock and thinking, ‘Oh my god, can you believe this is happening?’”
Peigín herself was part of the retail team, which was invaluable, as it gave her direct contact with the consumers. There was such support from the public — Peigín modestly puts it down to the fact that people wanted to support Irish, and her brand fulfilled that urge. They also loved the fact that the products have Irish names.
“I love Irish so I came up with Irish names: Talamh for grounding and balance; Codladh for sleep; Cúram for care and comfort; Beo for uplifting and energising. People took to this. And with my name, Peigín, people were coming up the escalator and talking to me in Irish. I was like, ‘I have to stop you there. While I have a huge grá for Irish, I only got a pass in the Leaving — please don’t do this to me!’”
When the six months were up, she was able to expand and as spas reopened, many approached her. Mount Juliet, Hayfield Manor, The K Club and The Shelbourne are now stocking Ground Wellbeing, as well as the Rosewood in Hong Kong and St Barth.
Now that Peigín’s expanding the range, the business has been moved from the house — which is just outside Cork city — and the family have their home back again.
They moved there in 2004 and always regarded it as a starter home, but they loved their area so much, they just expanded in any direction they could. So, as well as a kitchen/living/dining room downstairs, they now have an extra living room and three bedrooms, one of which is ensuite.
The furnishings and light fittings are mainly from DFS and Laura Ashley, and the colour palette is all soft whites and other muted tones.
All in all, it’s an ideal background for reflection — and coming up with great ideas... like Ground Wellbeing.