It’s rare to hear business partners talking about fitting meetings in during school trips abroad and the disadvantages of sitting beside each other on the school bus, but for Kate (18) and Annie (16) Madden this level of planning is just part and parcel of being young entrepreneurs.
The Summerhill, Co Meath sisters are behind the FenuHealth brand of equine feed products and this year marks their third in business having built a successful enterprise out of a project entered in the BT Young Scientist competition in 2015.
"You can try it, Boris Johnson did," Annie says as she offers a taste of the product in our meeting near the RDS on the Dublin Horse Show launch day.
Meant for horses, the product range is fit for human consumption, although I kindly decline. The blend of herbs and spices was first devised to help one of the sisters’ own horses eat but they soon established that it could help deal with gastric ulcers in the animals.
FenuHealth produces powdered supplements that are sprinkled on top of equine feed, and mixes a range of natural ingredients to help reduce the acidity and quantity of gastric juices in a horse’s digestive system.
“Our product is 100 per cent natural and it can be fed as the horse is going out to the track, whereas a lot of the others could have a three-, four- or five-day weaning-off period because they contain prohibited substances,” Kate explains.
And the weaning-off period required by some of their competitors’ products means ulcers could return within 48 hours. The FenuHealth product helps mitigate that risk.
While the sisters are confident of the science behind the product range, they have commissioned independent research to back up their claims. The research comes with an eye-watering price tag in excess of €100,000 – which the two sisters are funding – but they’re unfazed.
While they won’t disclose turnover or profit, on the advice of a board of mentors, their plan to spend a six-figure sum on research indicates that FenuHealth must be doing all right. “It’s doing fairly nicely,” Annie says, diplomatically.
Growth in the year to date is running at 52 per cent while its wage bill is set to rise from €250,000 for full year 2017 to €450,000 by the end of this year.
While Kate plans to go to university in September, having completed her Leaving Cert this year, up to now the pair have managed to run the business while in full-time secondary education. Kate is hoping to go to University College Cork so this will be the first year the sisters no longer live together. How will that feel?
“Dreadful,” Annie says. “Kate will take on more of a role than me for the next two years,” she says, noting that she’s about to start fifth year in school.
“I think it’ll still be okay because of the way it’s set up. The orders come through the phone, everything is on the email,” Kate explains.
Not that the sisters are joined at the hip.
“We don’t sit beside each other on the bus [into school],” Annie says.
“No, we need our space on the bus,” Kate adds.
Their school appears to have been understanding of their business endeavours and this year, on a school trip to the US, Annie will squeeze in a few meetings in Washington DC. Kate did the same when she was in fifth year.
“They let you go shopping but I went for meetings,” Kate says.
"Annie is doing all the travelling this year," she adds, noting that she's going to Kentucky before the end of the year for business and Dubai at the beginning of 2019.
The age gap appears to have worked in their favour with Annie taking on a more substantial role while Kate dealt with the Leaving Cert. This year the dynamic will switch.
Throughout their school years the sisters have managed to build a business that now sells into 15 countries and employs nine people. At various points throughout our interview they applaud different staff members and their “great team”.
“We work with them, it’s not like they’re working for us,” Annie says of the employer/employee relationship. More recently they recruited their younger sister Claire to help out with design as they gear up to sell in retail outlets.
“You wouldn’t be buying it online if you didn’t hear about it, but if it’s in the shops, it’s more convenient,” Kate says.
Nonetheless, ecommerce has been good to them and Kate cites one occasion when they spent money on a Facebook advertisement in advance of a show in Tattersalls. The €4 they spent on an ad to appear to Facebook users in a one-mile radius around the event yielded a return of €4,000, and on their website they use a payment system from other Young Scientist graduates, the Collison brothers' Stripe.
But they’re keen to expand their reach, and retail provides the next growth platform.
With their fast-paced growth, the sisters have to keep track of geopolitical developments, with Brexit a particular hurdle to overcome. They’re not overly concerned and may have a better understanding of Brexit than the aforementioned former UK foreign secretary.
By March 2019, they'll have established a UK distribution centre and an office outside of London to maintain a presence in the country. Their UK manufacturer, meanwhile, is establishing an additional base in mainland Europe, so they'll be covered on both fronts.
These developments will add to their presence in both Germany and Qatar, the two locations that effectively caused the business to exist in the first place.
After competing in the Young Scientist competition an article appeared in The Irish Times, with the result that they got a call from a number "with numerous digits after it".
“The ones you’re not supposed to answer,” Annie says. “I answered it anyway and it was one of these big companies saying ‘great idea, I’ll be in touch’,” Kate explains.
They travelled to Germany three months later to a trade show, although they had no business at that stage. Aged just 15 and 13 at the time, their father accompanied them to the three-day fair.
“The first day nobody took us seriously at all,” Kate says, but by the third day, “there were queues”. As a result of the trade fair they met “two men from Qatar” who ordered 1,000 units of their first product.
“We told them this isn’t up and going yet. They were like, ‘it’s fine, send it to us when it’s ready’,” Kate said of the first transaction.
“They’re still one of our biggest customers,” Annie adds.
Within three months, the first products were shipped and their range has grown substantially since then, now encompassing eight different products. So where did this interest in horses come from?
“Our grandad has been breeding national hunt horses for 60 years,” Kate says, adding that they’ve had horses at home since they were young. Both of them ride horses as do their two siblings and their parents have an interest in horses, too.
“They used to ride. They both can ride but mom has a wonky hip and dad, I don’t even know,” Kate explains. “His horse is very old,” Annie chimes in.
Their mother is a physiotherapist and their father a teacher and both seem to have encouraged the sisters with their business idea.
“They’re supportive and everything but at the same time when I was doing the Leaving Cert they said study is a priority. If I had to go to a meeting, that was my break,” Kate says.
When there are business rows, the parents don’t get involved but their younger sister Claire generally solves any tiffs that arise.
Kate is hoping to use the opportunity of university to develop the company having chosen a course that explores the interaction of food and business.
“When there’s product development [as part of the course], I’ll be able to advance what I’ve done so I’ll be able to use my practical study time in business as well,” she says.
Annie is quick to point out that business doesn’t take up their entire lives.
“We have a life outside of the business as well. We still have friends, I hope,” she says.
While Kate’s future appears marked out, Annie is less clear on her plans – although that’s understandable for a 16-year-old.
“I’ll give myself two years to decide what to do,” she says before explaining that she’d like to study in the US.
Why the US?
“I think it’s to get as far away from me as possible,” Kate interjects.
"I'd like to go to one of the Ivy League schools," Annie says.
“She has it all planned out,” Kate quips in response.
While studies and business dominate this interview, both have other interests. Annie has been training for a tetrathlon (riding, shooting, swimming, and running) on a team which Kate recently joined to help out.
Kate, meanwhile, has an interest in hunting and, depending on her Leaving Cert results, plans to bring her horse to Cork to take part in the hunting scene there, stabling the animal with her grandad.
Additionally, the pair are keen to establish a junior chamber of commerce for Ireland, the UK, and America.
“We know all the young entrepreneurs in Ireland and the UK and you meet them everywhere so we presume it’s a similar group in America,” Annie says.
In July, the sisters attended a garden party in the British ambassador's residence in Dublin where they floated the idea of a junior chamber with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, who were "really supportive". They're developing strong links with the British royals having last year met Prince Charles and Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, on two occasions.
“We’ve been in touch since and they’ve been great, so hopefully we’ll develop more connections,” Annie says.
Up to now the Maddens been good at developing connections, with the late Dr Pearse Lyons and Dr Owen Brennan of agri-tech company Devenish Nutrition among their key advisors. For example, at the beginning they were unsure if the product should be in powder form or in capsules. When Dr Lyons came in, he cut their costs in half "just by experience".
“Because they’re [Devenish] so big and developed they told us they were going to help us because, when they were small, they needed bigger companies to help them so they see it as a return,” Kate says.
Dr Brennan is on FenuHealth’s advisory council, which advises Kate and Annie on their decisions. In the past, they’ve advised on things such as sponsorship and regulation in new markets.
“If you didn’t do what they said you’d nearly be fooling yourself,” Kate explains of their relationship with the council.
“At the same time, we don’t take every piece of advice they give because you have to take some risks,” Annie adds.
The young businesswomen are no strangers to risks, having built a successful enterprise that now challenges the established names in the sector. Their plan, according to Kate, is to increase their employee numbers tenfold over the next decade, while also growing their footprint globally.
“There’s no reason why we can’t be 90 people in 150 countries. Once you get market share, word of mouth does a lot.”
Names: Kate (18) and Annie (16) Madden
Job: Founders of FenuHealth
Live: Co Meath
Something you might expect: Both sisters have a fondness for horses with Annie training for a tetrathlon and Kate interested in hunting over the winter months.
Something that might surprise: The sisters came second in the BT Young Scientist competition. "It just shows you don't have to win the Young Scientist to get something out of it," Kate says.