EY Entrepreneur of the Year finalist: Evelyn O’Toole, Complete Laboratory Solutions

Clifden native put Connemara on the map with thriving contract lab business

There aren’t that many entrepreneurs who could establish a thriving business in the Gaeltacht, but Clifden native Evelyn O’Toole, who set up Complete Laboratory Solutions (CLS) in the village Ros Muc in Co Galway in 1994 is one of them.

CLS is the largest privately owned contract laboratory in Ireland. It provides sampling, analysis and fully trained micro and analytical analysts to clients in the food, environmental, medical device and pharmaceutical industries.

The company, whose first clients were in the local fishing industry, has expanded in recent years, doubling its facility for food and environment testing in 2007 after an acquisition. It now operates two laboratories in Co Galway.

CLS currently operates throughout Ireland, the UK, and Europe, and in parts of America.

What lightbulb moment prompted you to start up in business?

One Saturday in 1994, I was made redundant when my then employers’ company building burnt down. I was out of a job but not out of work and within a week I was out looking for new contracts from prospective clients.

What was your “back-to-the-wall” moment and how did you overcome it?

It was in 2003 when the industry began consolidating. We lost two of our largest clients to competitors and effectively lost 43 per cent of our turnover. I overcame it be diversifying into other industries – medical and pharmaceutical – and my priorities shifted to become more sustainable.

What moment/deal would you cite as the “game changer” or turning point for the company?

It was in 2007 when we won the largest baseline water project tendered by the State. At the same time we successfully secured two large pharmaceutical contracts. Both of these had a significant impact on CLS as a company.

To what extent does your business trade internationally and what are your plans?

At present 7 per cent of the company’s sales are international, covering the UK, America and mainland Europe. This has developed from clients we have provided routine analysis for who have sister companies aboard looking for similar services. Going forward, I see our growth area internationally for supplying contract research support on a project-by-project basis.

Where would you like your business to be in three years?

I would like to see revenue grow by 75 per cent and have 25 per cent of our revenue coming from high-value international research contracts. I’d also seek to develop a support structure and representation in the UK and Europe. From an internal perspective, I want to ensure that CLS has an exclusive network of laboratory analysts so that they can get support and progress their careers within the company, ensuring Ireland has the best and are leading the way in the industry.

How are international political developments such as the Brexit vote likely to impact on your business?

Currently we have allowed for a contingency for fluctuations in UK currency on behalf of our long-term retained UK clients. What I see as a potential upside to Brexit is that I would hope that some reference bodies within our industry would relocate to Ireland and that we can become part of their support team requirements.

Who has been the greatest influence on your career or who do you admire most in business?

I admire and respect all entrepreneurs and in particular Pat McDonagh from Supermacs. He is someone that has courage, honesty and I admire him greatly for investing in high standards and leading the way for others in his industry.