Entrepreneur sees the light
WILD GEESE : Ian Carroll, Hong Kong Candle Company : After a difficult start, Ian Carroll’s candle business is burning brightly
CLIFFORD COONAN in Hong Kong
When the truck left his first 20-foot container-load of candles blocking the road in Hong Kong’s exclusive shopping precinct Lyndhurst Terrace, Dubliner Ian Carroll could have been excused for thinking he had chosen the wrong business.
“I was the only employee at that stage. I set up the shop, fitted it out, and now had to unload the container. The police told me to move the truck,” says Carroll of that less-than-auspicious day in November 2002 when he set up the Hong Kong Candle Company.
It was a tough beginning, but it was just before Christmas, a big season for candles, and soon everything turned out for the best and the company is now thriving, expanding even.
We meet in the shop, which is now altogether much calmer and filled with heady fragrances from the candles of vanilla and ginger.
The clientele are a mixture of mainland Chinese visitors, local Hong Kong Chinese and Western buyers. Mainland visitors are crucial to the health of the Hong Kong economy – last year, 46 million visited Hong Kong. Carroll also has a wine shop located underneath the escalators in Hong Kong’s Mid-Levels area.
Growing up, the Walkinstown man worked in various markets in Dublin at the weekend, and after he finished school, he moved to London.
“I sold stuff made in Hong Kong – plaques, digital watches, music players. Then a trade mission came up to Hong Kong in the mid-1980s and I went, ended up there for a few days. I’ve always thought of it as a fantastic place to do business,” says Carroll.
His wife, Liana Cafolla, was offered a European Commission posting in Brussels, where they lived for six years. There, he set up a hotel reservation website during the early days of the internet.
“I bought a book on how to build a website, and it did really well. I went around to hotels and said I could get extra business for them on the internet. Suddenly I got loads of reservations, from places like Cuba and Peru. Six per cent of the business from Cuba was coming through my website.
“It was a good business, but it got too big for me to manage. I should have hired staff but I got so overwhelmed, a friend here with a marketing business took it over. Then Expedia came along, that kind of thing, and it fizzled out.”
After moving to Hong Kong, Carroll was keen to do something else.
When Cafolla’s posting was up, they decided they wanted to stay in Hong Kong. His wife retrained as a journalist, and he was keen to follow his entrepreneurial instincts.
“We had lived in Brussels and seen shops selling candles that I hadn’t seen anywhere else. I had to establish my residency to work and live here before she finished her diplomatic thing. I set up the business beforehand,” he says.
He found candle suppliers in China using the Golden Pages, and eventually ordered that first shipment that stopped the traffic on Lyndhurst Terrace.
On buying out another candle shop from an associate, he inherited a premises which became the wine shop, although he admits he was no wine expert when he started off. The wine business in Hong Kong has taken off dramatically since duties were removed several years ago.
“I bought all the wine based on if I liked the look of the bottle. Then wine became a crazy business in Hong Kong. When I started, tax was 80 per cent of what you paid for it. There were 20 wine importers in Hong Kong at the time, and I was 15th biggest, but now there is probably 1,000,” he says.
“People here are very focused on what they want to do and the government make it very simple for you. You can set up a company in less than a day and you’re in business. A Hong Kong tax form is one piece of paper – how much did you make and give me 16 per cent of it. There is a culture of doing business here, it’s in people’s genes,” he says.
Wild Geese is a weekly interview in the Business supplement with Irish business leaders abroad. This article appears in the newspaper today, and in the Business section of the website here.