Cleaning up in a new market
The effects of the economic downturn on Donagh Quigley's thatching business led him and his wife Gemma McGowan to look for another direction in business in 2009. This saw them successfully establish the Handmade Soap Company in Kells, Co Meath.
"The gaps in between thatching jobs were growing and I found myself out of work for weeks at a time, so it was imperative that I found something new," Quigley recalls. "I had always made stuff with my hands and I wanted to continue with that, as well as get into something scalable. We also wanted to have a go at creating a brand."
The idea for soap came as a result of a road trip in Australia in January 2009. The couple visited a market in the rainforest in the Atherton Highlands and discovered a vibrant cottage industry in the production of handmade soaps, something rarely seen in Ireland at the time.
"It was amazing soap and very good quality. I have quite sensitive skin and found it great, but the packaging left a lot to be desired. It was a sort of a lightbulb moment for us."
On returning home he set about learning all he could about soap-making.
"You can determine how well a bar lathers, how big the bubbles are, how firm the bar, and the therapeutic effects of the soap by the different types and ratios of oils you use."
Cooking, chemistry and alchemy
Quigley took courses in the US to study the intricate workings of soap production and trained in the UK with "soap guru" Melinda Coss. He also practised and experimented at home in the evenings while working as a thatcher. "They say it's about three things - cooking, chemistry and alchemy. We've been lucky to get them right. By December 2009, after enormous amounts of trial and error, we had a product we were very happy with. Our first outing into sales was the Christmas Craft fair in the Naul, Co Dublin. We had no idea what to expect, but we sold out by lunchtime."
Sales took off during 2010, and the company extended its range considerably. "We have grown at between 130 per cent and 140 per cent every year and are now exporting to Japan, Sweden and the UK." says Quigley. " We have five full-time people and a further four part-time staff working for us now and that will probably grow when we start exporting to the US next year."
He can't speak highly enough of the financial support they received from Bank of Ireland.
"They have been great from the word go. I don't know how I would have reacted if someone had come in and thrown eight bars of soap down on my desk and said he wanted money. But they backed us. Our first loan was for plant and equipment and we have got several others since. During the past year we got support on three separate occasions. The numbers had to stand up, of course. On a personal level, they have shouted for us all the way.