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The future is crystal clear: grab the bull by the horns

THIS time last year Waterford Crystal shut down -- and Derek Smith felt that his working life had come to an end.

He was a glassblower from the age of 15 -- and at age 45 he didn't know how to do anything else. Who would want to hire an unemployed glassblower during a recession? The answer came in March last year.

Another talented glassblower, Tony Hayes, 36, came up with the idea of pooling their collective skills to start another glass company in Co Waterford. It would produce coloured glass, lamps, chandeliers and decorative pieces.

Hayes approached Derek Smith, Richard Rowe, 56 -- a talented and experienced blower -- and Danny Murphy, 40. They had no experience of enterprise, having worked in Waterford Crystal all their lives. They had no money or a business plan. They went to Enterprise Ireland with nothing more than a handful of samples and a burning idea.

The State agency got them a business plan and a start-up grant. The mayor of Waterford and the city manager secured a building on the tourist trail in the city centre. A furnace is on order from the US and they hope to blowing their first coloured glass come spring. They already in talks to supply a "big name" American brand. By the time the new company gets off the ground, they will have spent €350,000.

It hasn't been easy. They have been working flat out to refine their ideas to make them workable in the marketplace. As Derek sees it, Tony Hayes spotted the opportunity and they took it. "We never saw the chance to work again. So we said we would give it a go. We sold the idea to Enterprise Ireland and they had faith in us," he said.

DURING the height of the Sex and the City craze, its fashion-icon star Sarah Jessica Parker swanned into a family tweed business in Donegal and spent €120 on a cape.

From a having a reputation as a fusty material appreciated only by tourists, the fine weaves spun by Donegal craftsmen attained instant fashion cachet and valuable publicity on the worldwide stage.

While the boom lasted, the company, Triona Design, in Ardara, Co Donegal, benefited from huge American interest in its range of coats, capes and evening wear. But the recession and fall in tourism numbers has inevitably impacted on the company.

Catriona Mulhern, who runs the business with her sister and her parents, says they are trying to beat the recession by going back to basics. "This is not a time for experimenting," she says. "It's about sticking to the classics. That's what we've learnt in the last few years."

While Jimmy Choo has experimented with Donegal tweed in a one-off boot for the Irish market, the people at Triona Design are sticking to what they know. Its classic capes in tweed and lambs' wool versions with matching caps are the staple of the collection.

The company, which has an online store along with a factory shop in Ardara, is one of the stops on the tour bus circuit. With the credit crunch and the falling value of the dollar, American tourists have fallen off. But European tourists are still coming.

The revamped website ensures continuing online sales in America. But France and the UK are growing markets, thanks to Abbey Tours which bring French and British tourists on coach tours of the region, including a stop-off at Triona Design. The French in particular seem to love the product.

"They really like tweed, they like the quality and they like the fashion classics, that people will have for a couple of years," said Catriona. "We find that recession or not, our market has changed a little. Our emphasis was so much on the US trade. We found we had to re-assess things. Our European market is growing and a local hotel here has taken in a lot of UK tourists."

They are trying to grow that market; and while orders are down, the new European customers have ensured that turnover has remained stable during the recession.

Sarah Jessica Parker's endorsement of the classic tweed cape helps enormously. The star and her actor husband, Matthew Broderick, have a holiday home in Kicar, Co Donegal. "When they hear that Sarah Jessica Parker bought this cape, they end up getting one for their daughter or whatever," said Catriona.

LAST year was an "annus horribilus" for many companies, with a record 1,406 firms going to wall. It was also the year that a small fish farm in west Cork produced the first harvest of abalone, an obscure shell-fish, for export to foreign markets.

The shell-fish are a prized delicacy particularly in Asia but stocks are dying out prompting international efforts to cultivate it across the world. Michael O'Neill, a fisherman for lobster and crab in Castletownbere, chose to go into the business five years ago. He was looking for a new line of work because of diminishing returns in the fishing industry.

"We live on the Beara peninsula and the opportunities to do different things don't come your way every day. You have to be thinking outside the box. We have fantastic water quality down here. I have the shellfish knowledge. Aquaculture seemed to be something worth looking at," he said.

Inspired by neighbouring fish farmers who were breeding abalone on a small scale, he did a feasibility study on the possibility of producing it for commercial export.

Bord Iascaigh Mhaire got behind the project. Licences and planning permissions were obtained. The business is intensive; the shell-fish are bred in water that is carefully monitored and filtered, they are fed on seaweed, and must be transported while alive. Some €3.5m later, the project came to fruition -- just as the downturn struck.

"The economic downturn slowed things up a little. We are still on the same course. London has definitely bounced back far faster than Ireland. Hopefully we've seen the worst of it."

So far so good, he says. The first batch of Castletownbere-bred abalone landed in London before Christmas, in a joint marketing drive with another Irish abalone producer, Abalone Chonamara Teo. Customers included Nobu, a Japanese restaurant loved by celebrities, where it features on the menu as a £8-a-piece starter.

More orders are expected for the Chinese New Year in February and the companies are in talks with potential customers in Tokyo. From producing one-and-a-half tonnes of the shell-fish last year, Mr O'Neill says his company, Tower Aqua Ltd, plans to produce 40,000 tonnes in four years' time.

Sunday Independent