Inside Track: Helen Cahill of Cahill’s Farmhouse Cheese
The Cahills have been farming since in 1902 and exporting cheese for more than 20 years
Helen Cahill: “We came up with the idea of porter cheese which was simply mixing stout into the cheese and also with whiskey. We weren’t just regurgitating ideas, we were innovative.”
What sets your business apart from the competition?
About 70 per cent of our business is export; it’s quite a significant amount. And it’s not just a brand, it’s part of who we are. We are a quality producer and the recipes my mother had, we still use today. There is no cutting corners.
The cornerstone of our business is our provenance. We are farming here since 1902, making a wonderful, quality Irish product with locally-sourced ingredients and it’s that quality which has set us apart.
We came up with the idea of porter cheese which was simply mixing stout into the cheese and also with whiskey. We weren’t just regurgitating ideas, we were innovative.
What has been your biggest challenge?
Working in a small business is a challenge in itself. For me, when I finished my job as a solicitor, which was a very structured office-based job, and came home to work, I had to create my own working day and figure out that path myself. I started attending various food shows. I started to showcase the cheese and meet buyers and build relationships and that was a challenge. I was literally one girl and her cheese.
What has been your biggest success to date?
Exporting as a small Irish business is a wonderful success because you are competing against so many products out there on the market. We have been exporting to the United States now for more than 20 years. This year we will be exporting to more than eight countries as a result of our relationship with Lidl Ireland. We make a number of products for them. But Cahill’s cheese will now be in Austria, Switzerland, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Finland and Spain.
What piece of advice would you give to someone starting a business?
I met Feargal Quinn one day and he said I will give you three pieces of advice. The first was to crown your customer; keep them at the centre of your thoughts. The second – and every day you do this – you appreciate your staff. We have a team of 20 here and I can’t tell you how hard-working and loyal they are. And third, be innovative. We are small and we can make decisions quickly. Innovation has kept us going. It’s advice he gave me and it’s the best advice.
Who do you admire most in business and why?
Feargal Quinn! He was a pioneer in Irish food. I am like a flag flyer for him but I really always admired him. He just treated everyone with such respect and in business had such simple ideas for success. I can see why he has been so successful.
In your experience are banks lending to SMEs?
I think so. But the recession has affected everyone no doubt. We were lucky; we had longstanding relationships with businesses that really stuck by us and we worked through the recession. I think banks are taking more due diligence now and they are more mindful. I would hope that they are more mindful but they are lending money.
What is the biggest mistake you have made in business?
It can be hard for a small business because you are juggling a number of things and sometimes you can drop the ball and miss opportunities. For example, I could go up to a show and meet lots of people and someone will ask you to send samples out to them and follow up, and you will have met 20 people and mightn’t follow up. That has happened to me, I dropped the ball and could have had an opportunity with a buyer that I didn’t follow up on.
What is the most frustrating part of running a small business?
My husband would say the most frustrating thing about being married to someone who runs a small business is that you never ever leave it at work. I am constantly talking about cheese; I am going home and talking about it at the weekends, I am planning things. It’s all-consuming but for people around me I am sure I get quite tiresome. It’s cheese morning, noon and night in my house.
What is your business worth and would you sell it?
We are the second generation running the cheese business. Cheese put me through college. Like a good field, it doesn’t matter what it’s worth because we aren’t going to sell it.