Award-winning entrepreneur Evelyn O’Toole gets used to the limelight
Friday interview: Evelyn O’Toole, founder and chief executive of Complete Laboratory Solutions
Evelyn O’Toole: “If you can explain something quickly and simply to me, then chances are we’ll work together. If you meander too much, I get frustrated. I like simplicity.” Photograph: Aidan Crawley
“The fact that I’m only one of three winning female EY entrepreneurs out of 60 people shows that there remains an imbalance in society.” Photograph: Aidan Crawley
She may have just won two prestigious awards in the space of three days but Evelyn O’Toole is unlikely to lose the run of herself.
After all, this is an entrepreneur whose own father only discovered she had founded and was running a highly successful business in Connemara some years after it had begun operations.
“Someone down the local bumped into Dad and congratulated him on me doing well. So when he got home he happened to say he’d heard that I had my own company and was it true?” she says, laughing. “It is,” I said.
Despite her living in a small community, her father wasn’t the only one who was unaware of just how well O’Toole was doing.
“Most of my neighbours probably didn’t know if I was working for myself or somebody else and I wasn’t of a mind to say. I’ve never really suffered from an ego, so have never felt the urge to go about showing off about how great I am,” O’Toole says.
Whether she likes it or not, the businesswoman behind Complete Laboratory Solutions (CLS), the largest private-owned contract laboratory in Ireland, is having to get used to being in the public eye.
Last Thursday, O’Toole scooped the EY industry entrepreneur of the year award, the first female winner of the category. She is only the third woman to win across the programme alongside CPL’s Anne Heraty and Moya Doherty of Riverdance fame who was jointly awarded the overall prize with John McColgan in 2009.
Two days after winning at the EY awards, O’Toole was named Irish Tatler Business Woman of the Year at a packed event in Dublin. Add the fact she was also declared the overall winner of the Women Mean Business awards late last year and it becomes clear that this is very much her moment.
Established in 1994, CLS provides sampling, analysis and fully-trained micro and analytical analysts to clients in the food, environmental, medical device and pharmaceutical industries.
The company, whose customers include Allergan, Shell and SuperValu, is growing sales by more than 20 per cent a year. It employs about 140 people across two labs and is expecting turnover over €10 million in 2017, up from €7.2 million this year.
“The awards are substantial. I guess it shows that people rate me as a business person but, more importantly, they are great for our profile. The awards help bring our brand to a point where we no longer have to explain who we are and what we do. That is huge for us because we are an indigenous company out on the west of Ireland competing against some of the biggest multinationals in the world,” says O’Toole.
The businesswoman says she has also found the awards treadmill to be fascinating because it has forced her to review her career to date.
“As an entrepreneur, you’re constantly looking ahead, so it has been nice to take a step back and see just how far we have come,” she says.
And what a journey it has been. O’Toole set up CLS in the village of Ros Muc – roughly halfway between Galway city and Clifden – just a week after the laboratory she had been working in burnt down.
“I was returning home from a furniture auction with my parents in the car when we heard on the radio that the facility was on fire. Twenty of us lost our jobs immediately that day,” she says.
For someone who thought she’d found her dream job, it is the sort of setback that you’d have expected would be devastating, particularly for someone who had just turned 25.
A scientist by training, O’Toole couldn’t believe her luck when she had secured the job at the Carna lab two years earlier. From the village of Cushatrough, outside Clifden, she initially hitched the 45km to and from work each day till she earned enough to buy a car.
“Something just clicked for me when I started working in the lab. It was something I was really suited to and it was a relief, to be honest, because I’d always been quite an average student who tended to scrape by,” she said.
O’Toole got busy. Within a week of the fire she was meeting her former employer’s clients in a bid to convince them to let her take over their testing. Most of them had no idea who she was.
“Quite a few people had told me I was very good at what I did and I’d privately thought that I’d like to start up my own business at some point. But I’d have certainly liked to have gained more experience than I had,” she says.
“I kept things really simple, though. I went out and met people and looked them in the eye and promised I’d do a really good job of their testing if they gave me the opportunity. It worked ridiculously well. The first two guys I approached turned me down but everyone else I got in touch with took me on,” O’Toole adds.
She also approached Údarás na Gaeltachta who offered her two employment grants totalling €5,000 a piece and a room free of charge for a year. With that she was in business. The company’s first clients were in the local fishing industry, but it has expanded significantly in recent years, doubling its facility for food and environment testing in 2007 after acquiring a rival called Neptune.
It hasn’t all been plain sailing, of course. When the sector began consolidating in 2003, CLS lost two of its largest clients to competitors, leading to a 43 per cent decline in turnover.
But O’Toole used that experience to diversify further into the medical devices and pharmaceutical sectors, establishing a second laboratory in Galway city.
“There haven’t really been any showstoppers, even in terms of finance because the bank always gave us what we needed.
“Looking back, I think we would have grown faster if we had invested in a sales team earlier. I don’t know if things would have been easier if we hadn’t have been based in Connemara. The commitment to the region was a bit of a hard sell because it was unusual and many people doubted whether it would work, but I never for one moment doubted that it wouldn’t be successful,” she says.
One key aspect for the company has been retaining clients. It may have proven tough enough to get them in the early days but CLS has a good track record in terms of keeping them.
“We did a survey a few years ago and established that we had a 99.3 per cent retention rate and that 78 per cent of our clients were reference only, which are figures I’m very happy with,” says O’Toole.
“Our clients tell us we have the best analysts in the country. Some of them have tried to replicate our model but it hasn’t worked for any of them,” she adds.
The businesswoman says she is a calm person, something she believes is critical for entrepreneurs. She is also an optimist.
“Even back in the day, people probably had this image of a poor 25-year-old woman stuck by herself in the middle of Connemara, trying to fix a big problem by setting up CLS – but it never felt like that at the time. It was actually quite blissful because it was so exciting,” she says.
“The bit I struggled with the most wasn’t really about the work but was in not liking the limelight. People might be surprised by this because I can appear quite comfortable now, but it is something I have grown into over time.”
O’Toole is very much of the “do what you do best and outsource the rest” school of management, bolstering herself with a strong management team, which includes her brother Colin. The team has been with her since CLS’s earliest days. She says she gives them a lot of leeway.
“Anything I could automate I did. Delegating responsibilities was something that was always very easy for me because I’m a very poor manager in roles that I don’t enjoy. The business wouldn’t have survived long if I hadn’t found people who can look after the areas in which I don’t have any interest,” she says.
Ever the scientist, O’Toole adds she is very much a straight-talker, one who gets frustrated by others who can’t express themselves succinctly.
“If you can explain something quickly and simply to me, then chances are we’ll work together. If you meander too much, I get frustrated. I like simplicity.”
She admits this might be somewhat challenging for her colleagues on occasion but she adds that, in 23 years of being in business, she is only aware of one person who might not answer the phone if she were to call.
Currently, just 7 per cent of CLS’s revenue comes from outside Ireland, something O’Toole is keen to rectify. She sees a lot of potential from Brexit for the company and is also looking to the US, with the possibility of an acquisition at some point there.
“Half of the world’s medical devices are sold into the US so there are huge opportunities for us, but to get real value I think we need to have a presence there,” she says.
While she doesn’t get much downtime, the businesswoman enjoys life away from work.
“I’m generally good at switching off. I do yoga for three hours every Thursday, and sprinting. I have a large group of friends so I enjoy socialising a lot. I also love nature and being alone sometimes. I’m generally very laid-back outside work, which can surprise people.”
While O’Toole prefers to be seen solely as an entrepreneur, rather than as a ‘female entrepreneur’, she says it is difficult to avoid mention of her gender.
“The fact that I’m only one of three winning female EY entrepreneurs out of 60 people shows that there remains an imbalance in society. But I do think things are changing and we will soon witness a rise in the number of women coming through the ranks,” she says.
“I’ve never had an issue with anything gender-related in the workplace. I have never felt unfortunate to be a female in business and have never been intimidated,” she adds.
And what about the future?
“CLS will be bigger and with a lot more international sales. I’m really excited about what comes next,” says O’Toole.
Name: Evelyn O’Toole
Position: Founder and chief executive of Complete Laboratory Solutions (CLS), the largest privately-owned contract laboratory in Ireland
From: Cushatrough, Co Galway Lives: Galway City
Something you might expect: “I’m comfortable with responsibility. It is my space.”
Something you might not expect: Evelyn was very much a tomboy when younger. She also says she is someone who never worries, no matter how heavy the pressure.