FutureProof: Mileeven Fine Foods - how innovation led to exports
For Sarah Gough joining the family business meant being interviewed by mum and dad
Sarah Gough of Mileeven Fine Foods. Photograph: Dylan Vaughan
Éilis Gough kept bees as a hobby and started the business, Mileeven Fine Foods, in her kitchen in Piltown, Co Kilkenny. Producing honey, organic preserves and specialist food such as Christmas puddings, Mileeven is now run by Gough and her daughter Sarah.
Product innovation has always been key to the success of Mileeven. In the early days, the business struck a partnership with two key Irish brands: Jameson Whiskey and Irish Mist. This opened up export markets, particularly in France and the United States within a couple of years of starting the business in 1988.
“Sometimes the nice thing about being new in an industry is that your level of naivety can lead you to opportunity that otherwise you might be too scared to go after,” says Sarah, who acts as sales and marketing manager for the brand. “It was a matter of mum asking and then a lot of paperwork to get things over the line.
“It probably wouldn’t happen now, but has it stood to the brand and those products still do very well for us 28 years later.”
Mileeven has always pitched itself at the higher end of the market. Recent trends towards health foods and increased consumer interest in the origin of food products has also bolstered business for the brand, which is stocked by premium retailers such as Harrods in the UK and Dean & Deluca in the US.
For such retailers, the look of the product is as important as the taste, Sarah says. For Harrods, the company designed specialist products such as honey with gold leaf and honey with rose petals.
“In stores like that, you’re not buying food as a commodity to make dinner, you’re buying food to give as a gift item so the presentation is key,” she says.
The export market has always proved strong for the business, which last year signed a deal that sees its Sarah’s Wonderful Honey range stocked on the shelves of 477 Sainsbury’s outlets across the UK. Exports now make up between 30 and 40 per cent of the business, which now employs 13 people, and exports to 16 countries.
Sarah conceived her Sarah’s Wonderful Honey range of nine honeys for the export market when she joined the business in 2007.
“We all know what happened in 2008,” she says. “Food retail in Ireland was very tight and as a relatively small family business it was getting tougher to compete. So we decided to look to other markets. Thankfully honey is a product that is known worldwide so we had a product that could travel internationally. But to have any success, we needed to do something different.”
The company invested €100,000 in the range and that allowed Mileeven to look abroad, “to develop in less price-sensitive markets. It is a premium product, yes, but it allowed us to look at export markets in Hong Kong or South Korea which were far removed from what was happening in Europe”.
Sarah’s Wonderful Honey range hit the shelves in Sainsbury’s the day before the Brexit vote was decided. “I think if we were meeting buyers now, it would be a very different conversation,” says Gough.
“You have to do something different. We are up against companies owned by Unilever or ones that are turning over in excess of €80 million, so you’d be naive or stupid to think you can compete with them in terms of price.”
While Gough has worked with her mother’s company for a decade now, it was by no means a given that she would. She jokes that she had no desire to enter the family business. She did a degree in international business at Carlow IT and a masters in marketing at DCU before the position of general manager became vacant at Mileeven.
“When you’ve grown up with something perhaps you need to reject it for a while. But at the same time it’s the thing you know best,” she says. “I had to be interviewed by my own mother and father and was on trial. It was in no way a given that I’d get the job. The interview was more about drawing up a plan and seeing whether we could work together as mother and daughter.”
Sarah has strong views on how different generations in a family business should conduct themselves. “I think that a member of the younger generation coming into a business has to appreciate the knowledge and hard work that the previous generation has put into the business.
“Similarly, the older generation has to allow the younger generation some level of freedom to have an input into product development or managerial structures or whatever it is, because if they feel their hands are tied it will lead to arguments.”
For Mileeven, being an Irish brand is hugely advantageous when pursuing markets abroad.
“If you go to a trade show and people hear you are from Ireland, it changes everything. People want to taste the product, they are engaged with it and that is a huge advantage.”
She credits Bord Bia for their work on the international stage helping to promote Irish products.
For Éilis, the success of Mileeven is more than she ever imagined when she started in 1988. “I started the business with one product, Pure Irish Honey which we produced and sold ourselves,” she says. “It was a hobby really. I never thought that it would flourish and grow into such a business.
“I wasn’t a business graduate or an investor with a master plan. I just felt we had a really good product I thought I could sell.”