Drinks company finds its bottle for innovation


A long-established Galway company has energised its approach to new products from the factory floor

COMPANIES ARE constantly told that innovation is the lifeblood of business success and while many are willing to embrace the concept, they don’t always know where to start. Getting into the innovation mindset can also be difficult for long-established companies that have been doing much the same thing for years.

This was the challenge faced by Joseph Owens, managing director of the 50-year-old Galway-based drinks manufacturer, Clada Group. “I’d describe us as having been reactive in terms of product innovation,” he says. “There were people within the company who had the innovation brief, but they were thinly spread. When things got busy the new ideas tended to get shoved onto the back boiler.

“We were not coming out with new products as often as we would have liked and that was something I wanted to address. Clada was trading successfully but many of our products were in the mature phase of their life cycle and I felt we didn’t have sufficient new products coming on stream to give us growth for the future.”

Owens was ripe to push innovation right to the top of his company’s agenda and by happy coincidence a flyer for an InterTradeIreland innovation seminar dropped onto his desk at the right moment. He went along and was inspired by what he heard. With practical guidance from InterTradeIreland his company has since branched out into nutritional drinks and has three new products almost ready for launch. With a focus and determination driven from the top by Owens, this was achieved in less than a year.

Owens took part in a pilot of InterTradeIreland’s new Challenge programme which is designed to help companies get a foot on the innovation ladder “It was exactly what we needed,” he says. “We received very practical help and mentoring and were taught how to be systematic about the innovation process. It soon became clear that we needed a rolling flow of new ideas in order to have products constantly in a growth phase to balance those at maturity and even on the decline.”

The Owens family established Clada in 1962 to produce soft drinks. It now provides contract bottling services and produces its own brand of soft drinks and cordials as well as flagship product Galway Water. Clada employs 50 people and most of its sales are within the 32 counties with some to the UK. With the new products, this may change as they have export potential.

Owens says he took a number of valuable lessons from the programme. “You don’t need a long product development cycle, you need to go through ideas as fast as you can, identify the killer threats and quickly count that idea in or out,” he says. “The mantra is fail fast, fail cheap, which means not wasting time, energy or money on something with an impossibly high hurdle in the way. Spend as little as possible to challenge the idea and see if it will succeed or fail.”

Owens formalised the innovation process at Clada by bringing 25 people together for a day-long innovation workshop. This included staff, customers, suppliers and the firm’s external marketing consultants. Owens says suppliers and customers were very enthusiastic about being involved and he was keen to tap into their ideas and expertise.

The group brainstormed, shared and challenged each other’s ideas and by the end of the day well over a hundred ideas had surfaced, 78 of which were deemed good enough to go on a “may have potential” list. “Time will tell how many of these come to fruition but we took the top 10, ranked them and are working our way through them,” Owens says.

The company plans to repeat this workshop annually to drum up fresh ideas but it has also established an innovation team of five people from different disciplines to keep the momentum going. This group meets every two weeks. “It’s more about time than money and we have made a commitment to it regardless of what else is going on,” he says.

“This programme radically altered our approach to innovation. It created a shared sense of innovation within the company and provided a structure to get everyone involved. New ideas were generated at every level and there was buy in from the company as a whole to bring these forward and transform our business outlook. It also equipped us with the practical tools to deliver these ideas, making it less daunting to embrace innovation and breaking down some of the ‘fear factor’, which can surround this process.”

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