There's plenty of good growth prospects in the green economy
Inside Track Q&A: John Heally, founder, Absolutely Organic
What is special about your business?
Absolutely Organic is the oldest surviving organic food home delivery service in Dublin.
We started in a neighbour’s garage in Dublin 15 years ago. Everything we sell is certified organic and we are certified and inspected annually.
We have stayed true to our core values of trust, quality and customer focus and have continued to support local organic growers when others have walked away from these great people. We offer the biggest range of organic food items (over 600) with free delivery around greater Dublin.
What has been your major success to date?
Reaching 15 years in business! Quite a few people have tried to offer a home delivery service and/or organic food service and have failed.
What has been your biggest challenge?
Handling the downturn. Sales dropped in 2009/2010 and we had to adjust and let loyal staff go.
That was the worst time ever. However everyone has rallied around – including suppliers – and we have come out of it with a really loyal, motivated team and good prospects for the future.
What key piece of advice would you give to someone starting a business?
It may sound like a great idea for a business, but is there really a business in your idea?
Get a decent mentor and learn to listen. Use, but don’t abuse, all your contacts.
Understand the numbers and be aware that you will have to adapt your original idea over time without losing the essence of it.
Who do you admire most in business and why?
The organic growers of Ireland because they work tirelessly combining economic activity with social responsibility while most of the rest of Irish society sleepwalks past the issues of real food quality and sustainability.
What do you think the Government should be doing to stimulate the economy?
There are two economies in Ireland. The inward investment economy (IT, pharma, medical devices and bioengineeering) and the domestic economy.
We are performing really well in the first, but the domestic economy needs a major impetus because that is where most jobs are needed.
The Government needs to develop a policy to proactively support specific segments that can deliver both larger numbers of medium and lower skilled jobs while securing long term growth.
For example, organic agriculture and artisanal food processing geared for exports, green technologies – including in construction and health and exercise-based products that will reduce obesity. They should have nothing to do with GMO (genetically modified organisms) technology.
Secondly, we need to have financial incentives, similar to the IDA’s incentives for foreign investment, focused in support of the above policy to include working capital, development loans and equity participation linked to support of relevant government organisations, e.g. training, mentoring, etc.
The concept of a national development bank or similar is also worthwhile.
What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made in business?
Not being focused enough on the figures in the downturn.
What’s your business worth and would you sell it?
Clichéd, but it’s worth whatever somebody is willing to pay. Currently, we’re not trying to find out. I have always believed that small business owners have to be willing to give up some equity if circumstances require it. I did so in 2010 and am very happy with the results. I intend to keep strengthening the Absolutely Organic brand and let’s see what emerges over the next 15 years.
In your experience how receptive are the banks to SMEs currently?
A bit more than in the recent past, but I find it appalling that they are still looking for personal guarantees even though they are charging higher fees and very high margins – well above their borrowing rates. The bank’s risk is in the margin, it shouldn’t have to be copper-fastened by personal guarantees. Personal guarantees are a false premise for lending – as we’ve seen all across the financial collapse.
In conversation with Olive Keogh