Inside Track: Philip O’Connor, founder, Seymours Fine Foods
Artisan food producer takes the biscuit in west Cork
Philip O’Connor: “Running your own business is a 24/7 process and this has certainly impacted on my personal life. It’s a mix of regrets and elation when things go well.”
Seymours Fine Foods is an artisan biscuit company producing sweet and savoury shortbread biscuits in Bandon, West Cork.
What is special about your business?
We produce handmade biscuits using fresh butter from our nearby creamery. Our farm supplies the milk to make this butter, making our biscuits unique in this regard.
What sets your products apart in your sector?
The purity of our ingredients and our baking method. We mix, level the dough out, and cut by hand because we believe it produces a better biscuit.
What has been your biggest challenge?
Having invested in a new bakery in 2008, the subsequent downturn affected business severely. Keeping the ends meeting was very difficult. Thankfully, last year was a turning point and my belief in the business has been restored.
What has been your biggest success?
Probably surviving five years in business but also getting our product listed by Dean & De Luca, the gourmet food shop in New York, and breaking into the German market. We’re having our best year to date and I think we may be seeing the early signs of a recovery.
What key piece of advice would you give to someone starting a food business?
At the beginning, I co-shared production with an established bakery to test the market. Keeping the overheads as low as possible in the early days gives you flexibility to focus on the product and market introduction. Call and visit as many producers as possible, seeking information on production and suppliers. Food producers are a community with a willingness to give good guidance.
Who do you admire most in business and why?
I admired the way Willie Walsh turned around Aer Lingus a number of years ago. It was very impressive, especially in the face of intense competition and entrenched vested interests. But anybody who creates something from nothing and puts their reputation on the line earns my admiration.
What two things could the Government do to help SMEs in the current environment?
Get local authorities to review parking policy as town and city centre retailers are under enormous pressures from larger out of town shopping centres with free parking. Potential customers are scared away by parking charges and a fear of fines. Also, they could do something about the cost base of doing business in Ireland. It’s still a problem. Energy, insurance, banking and legal costs and unreasonable rates are undermining competitiveness big time.
In your experience are the banks lending to SMEs currently?
I’ve had only minor financing requirements in recent times and I’ve been happy with the way my bank assisted. However, stricter scrutiny is certainly the order of the day. You hear anecdotally that people can’t secure financing, but it could be because of a poor business plan.
What’s the biggest mistake you‘ve made in business?
Overestimating sales at the beginning, which resulted in my having too much money tied up in packaging. It took me more than two years to get through it. Nevertheless, mistakes are going to happen so you learn and adapt.
What is the most frustrating part of running a small business?
Not having enough time and the personal life sacrifices, especially for the first five years. Running your own business is a 24/7 process and this has certainly impacted on my personal life. It‘s a mix of regrets and elation when things go well.
What’s your business worth and would you sell it?
I’ve worked very hard so, to me, it’s worth a lot. With new products on the way, I feel the best is yet to come – so no offers considered just yet!
In conversation with Olive Keogh