Italian solutions to Irish problems by design
WILD GEESE Kate Macklin, founder Italian Solutions - Parma, Italy:With a career that has taken her from food to furniture, Kate Macklin has enjoyed creating a business while living on the continent
FROM HORSE riding in France to importing Irish beef into Italy and exporting Italian furniture across the globe, Kate Macklin’s horizons have always been broader than Ireland.
When she studied agricultural science at UCD in the early 1980s, a choice driven by her love of horses, Macklin was just one of a handful of women on the course.
With the job market little better then than now, she seized the opportunity on graduation to travel, heading to France to ride horses and learn the language.
“I saw myself needing languages; I just always saw myself in an international environment at some stage,” recalls the Monaghan native.
After she returned to Ireland, those language skills stood her in good stead when An Bord Bia hired her to look after its Spanish, Italian and Portuguese markets from its Paris office, before transferring her to Milan where her role was to increase imports of Irish beef. The country has been her home ever since.
“In the early 1980s, Irish beef was very strong in England and in British supermarkets but there was very little going on in supermarkets in Italy. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, my main aim was to get Irish beef into the top supermarket groups over here.”.
Macklin says it was an exciting time as she launched the Quality Irish Beef mark with the help of opera star Luciano Pavarotti.
“The Quality Mark meant being able to sell Irish beef at a fairly premium price. Before that, it was all going into the wholesale business and wasn’t really branded,” she says. “Developing a brand for it got it some recognition and onto Italian supermarket shelves.”
Macklin spent five years with An Bord Bia before she and her husband, also a Bord Bia employee, set up a beef import business with Dawn Meats, part of the Queally group. The couple moved to Italy’s ham and cheese heartland of Parma.
Living in a world food capital, though, how easy was it to convince them about Irish beef?
“They are very into food quality and they are very fussy about it, but they have a deficit in beef,” she says. “They are the biggest net importers of beef in Europe and Ireland is the biggest net exporter, so we were able to marry those two things and grow a thriving business there.”
Customers included suppliers of top-end restaurants, supermarkets and wholesalers to whom they also sold Irish smoked salmon. Selling Irish farmhouse cheese proved more problematic.
“We found that a lot more difficult because of the amount of cheeses the Italians have themselves . . . even though we had some excellent suppliers.”
Macklin had long fallen in love with the Italian obsession with la bella figura, an approach to life that emphasises beauty, a good image and aesthetics. “You only have to look at their shoes or their hair to see how precise they are about attention to detail. They are very precise about the look of things; it’s part of what they are in every aspect of their lives.”
Macklin, who has long been interested in design and architecture, spotted an opportunity in 2005 to begin an Italian furniture design and export business called Italian Solutions.
She started by sourcing pieces from small Italian, often family- run businesses, but she now works with Spanish and Austrian firms too. “We can furnish your property from top to bottom, from the chandeliers to the beds to the rugs to the door handles if you want,” she says.
While business in Ireland has plateaued, the British and, surprisingly, the Greek markets are thriving. She is currently kitting out a swish tennis club in Athens. “We have two people working with us in Greece and they have great contacts with very wealthy people who are looking for high-end furniture. Despite the odds, Greece has become one of our most important markets.”
Asia is also proving full of possibility; current design projects include a trendy nightclub in China, a gallery in Hong Kong and a rooftop bar in Singapore. When visiting architects’ offices in Hong Kong, she noticed that there are lots of Irish architects working there.
“Rather than sitting at home and moaning, they’ve gone off to Asia where things are happening. It’s great to see that.”
While it was always her plan to return to Ireland, Macklin has realised in the past few years that she’s happy to say put in Italy.
“My children sound Irish, they look Irish, they support Irish rugby and, hopefully, they will go to university in Ireland, but I think we are happy to stay where we are.”
Graduates facing tough times at home should pick up a rucksack and go, she says.
“Experience life in different countries. Learn a language. There are lots of opportunities abroad. Nobody owes you a living. Get up and go and make it happen rather than waiting for somebody to hand you a job. That’s always been my attitude.”