‘Banks seem increasingly difficult to communicate with one to one’

Inside Track: Studio Donegal believes artisan products will survive Brexit challenge

Studio Donegal in Kilcar, dedicated to the preservation of hand-woven tweed, produces a range of garments for men and women as well as accessories, throws and cushions. The business, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, has a team of 13 people engaged in hand-weaving, sewing, packing and dispatch, accounts, shop assisting and social media as well as several other roles. In this small business the ability to multitask is paramount. Managing director Tristan Donaghy runs the business with his wife, Anne, having taken over from his parents.

What sets your business apart from the competition?
We are a "rustic" business, in that we are a working mill – hand-weaving 100 per cent of our cloth and offering visitors an authentic experience. We don't do "demonstrations" as we are hand-weaving all the time for our production, which visitors are welcome to see. We work hard to produce creative and original designs, and the process of hand-weaving allows us to do this, as we can do small production runs without excessive costs.

What was the best piece of business advice you've ever received?
Keep your head down and mind your own business.

What's the biggest mistake you've made in business?
Not factoring in the volatility of the raw silk market and failing to take account of price increases for a customer in New York a few years ago – it hurt.

And your major success to date?
Keeping the business going for 40 years. This obviously is not all down to me as this is a family-owned and -operated business, passed down to me by my parents, Kevin and Wendy, who are now enjoying a well-earned retirement.

Who do you most admire in business and why?
Andrew Eadie in Kerry Woollen Mills, for his depth of knowledge in woollen textiles and his advice in starting our own small wool-spinning production.

Based on your experience in the downturn, are the banks in Ireland open for business to SMEs?
As an established business prior to the downturn, we had a good relationship with our bank, which was of enormous benefit to us at the time. However, of late the banks seem to be increasingly difficult to communicate with on a one-to-one basis, with reductions in front-line staff and more and more automation.

What one piece of advice would you give the Government to help stimulate the economy?
Decrease VAT. In manufacturing, value is added by adding labour, therefore VAT is a tax on labour which results in increased costs for labour-intensive industries. By lowering VAT, we would increase competitiveness and increase employment, making up the shortfall in VAT by the reduction in unemployment benefit and an increase in the numbers paying income tax. It is often said that a nation's wealth is its people at work.

What's been the biggest challenge you have had to face?
Having the courage to continue to invest in the company in the early years despite incurring heavy losses as we strove to build our brand and reputation.

How do you see the short-term future for your business?
Positive. Increasingly we are seeing a more discerning customer who is seeking out the genuine hand-crafted, Irish-made article. Despite our rural location, we are also seeing an increase in the number of visitors who view us as a destination and are prepared to leave the beaten track to come to see us. We remain optimistic that, despite any changes Brexit or other factors may bring, there will always be a demand for genuine, artisan, quality goods such as ours.

What's your business worth and would you sell it?
Priceless. Our main value is in the skills of our team of craftspeople. Without them we wouldn't have a business. Seriously, though, it would be extremely difficult to put a monetary value on the business. We are not money-driven, our raison d'être is the preservation of the craft of hand-weaving, although obviously we need profit to survive and invest in the long-term future of the business. In terms of selling it, I'm not sure anyone would want to buy it, even if we did want to sell, which is not on the agenda at the moment anyway. But I suppose if the right offer came along we would have to consider it.