‘Dad made us plan as if it was a 1931 crash. I really resented it at the time’

Inside Track: Sarah Furno, Cashel Farmhouse Cheesemakers

Sarah Furno: ‘Our own team have been really loyal to us. We’re trying to work through this together’

Sarah Furno: ‘Our own team have been really loyal to us. We’re trying to work through this together’

 

Cashel Farmhouse Cheesemakers is a Tipperary family business producing specialty cheese, including the well-known Cashel Blue cheese, since the early 1980s. With 60 per cent of its sales accounted for by exports, the company is developing new ways of selling produce during these restricting times.

Sarah Furno and her team recently created the Cashel Food Box, a range of products from Tipperary food producers available for delivery throughout Ireland.

What distinguishes your business from that of your competitors?
Our ability to supply and our really good quality-assurance record. Provenance, quality and our professionalism are important to us – the market has confidence in us.

What has been the biggest challenge you’ve had to face in business?
Blue cheese is not a particularly popular type of product – only 10 per cent of people like blue cheese so we’re 60 per cent export-led, and it’s about developing export markets and routes to market.

We are now working with other producers, so I can sell a bundle of Irish speciality cheese to an export market. It is the speciality nature of our product that is the challenge.

What’s been your major success to date?
First, and foremost, the brand recognition of Cashel Blue internationally. We work directly in the North American market, Australia, France, Germany, Netherlands and the UK. We sell indirectly to the likes of the Japanese market.

[During the lockdown] we have only 5 per cent of our UK market and the US are not buying but, interestingly, Canada still is.

What do you think that the Government could do to help SMEs?
We’d know lots of small, independent businesses in Ireland and there are lots of cases where their whole team have left them during this coronavirus crisis because it was more money in their pocket, and it was an easier life to pull their €350. Some businesses have gone, not because the owner was not trying but they just don’t have the resources in terms of human resources to keep it going.

Our own team have been really loyal to us. We’re trying to work through this together.

Do you think that the banks are open for business?
I actually can’t comment on that because I haven’t had any contact with our banks yet.

What is the biggest mistake you’ve made in business?
I think being highly naive. There are positives and negatives to it. I underestimated the cost of new product development, back in 2012, and the return on investment. We work in an environment where everyone is talking about what’s new, and journalists ask, what have you done that’s new?

Luckily, I haven’t ever gone too far off tangent, but new product development is actually for the vain in many respects. Eighty-five per cent of product development projects fail. Is that a good return on your on your savings, or your capital? It’s a sad thing to say, but I learned the hard way – you can be pressurised by a trend.

Who do you admire in business and why?
I tend to admire other family businesses because it’s a totally different dynamic. I do admire the Allen family of Ballymaloe because they are three generations. They’re supportive, but independent of each other, in terms of structure and everyone having their own sort of sense of achievement, but maintaining a unified image of quality and provenance. I think they’ve done a remarkable job.

What is the best piece of business advice that you’ve ever received?
We did a big business expansion, a €6 million project, which was huge for small business in 2008. My father made us make a business plan whereby if we, as a family, lost everything, we wouldn’t leave any debt behind us to anybody else.

He made us plan as if it was a 1931 crash and I really resented him at the time for it because I thought, ‘you’re such a pessimist.’ But I think that’s made us a much stronger business – that family philosophy is probably the best advice.

How do you see the short-term future of your business?
I think that it’s going to be really, really rocky, especially personnel management, because I’m so invested in my team. It takes a long time to develop the skillset to produce speciality cheese like we do. I’m just desperate not to lose them.

We’ve an amazing manufacturing environment so we are looking at how we could repurpose our structure.

What is your business worth and would you sell it?
On an emotional level the business is worth an incalculable amount. We’ve had offers to buy us out over the years. We’ve no interest in selling it but it’s lovely to be put in that position where you’re asked that question – it makes you evaluate all these points.

The actual premises are worth, in their own right, about €8 million, so a very conservative value on the businesses is probably about €13 million.