Future Proof: Building an international profile from small beginnings
The recession forced Sabine Lenz into making decisions about her jewellery business
Sabine Lenz, jewellery designer and founder of Enibas in west Cork, whose work was presented to the Obama children by the Government. She is originally from Germany
The key to running a successful rural business is to spread the risk, according Sabine Lenz, a jewellery designer and entrepreneur whose career highlight came earlier this year when her Croí Álainn bracelets were chosen as a St Patrick’s Day gift from Enda Kenny to Malia and Sasha Obama.
“Because we are so rural, it’s just so unpredictable,” she says. “We have three parts to our business: retail, online and wholesale. Depending on how the climate was, we definitely have encouraged different parts of the business.
“When one part is going down we have built another part up.”
Lenz launched her company Enibas, which is “Sabine” backwards, in 1993 after her husband lost his job and encouraged her to pursue what had until then been a hobby, on a commercial basis.
Although Lenz came from a design background, having studied fashion design at college, a lack of business experience meant there was a lot of on- the-job training.
“I built it really from nothing because I wasn’t a trained goldsmith,” she says. “I had to learn as I went along; I had to do weekend courses. We started really small, from nothing with no money, and we built it slowly.”
First retail outlet
Lenz sold her first collection wholesale through the Kilkenny shop and it was several years before the company opened its first retail outlet in Schull, west Cork, to sell jewellery from other Irish and international designers as well as her own collections.
“It never occurred to me to have a retail shop because we were a wholesale business, but a shop came up and it happened a bit by accident; it wasn’t really planned out. Now it’s the biggest part of the business.”
A second retail site in Kinsale followed and Lenz had just taken the decision to launch an e-commerce site when the recession struck.
“Things became really scary. It was a time to review the business and see where we were going to take it. We had just committed to building the e-commerce site, which was obviously a big investment – in money terms and also in employing more staff and getting more stock. But we persevered with it.
“That was exactly the right step to take because we have to get business from where people weren’t hit as badly as here. In Schull, the season has got shorter all the time over the last few years. It’s great to rely not only on one source. In hindsight, it was a great decision that we did continue with that.”
Another key decision was to maintain the company’s focus on quality.
“It would have been easy to say, ‘Okay, people don’t have the money any more and we’re going to go downmarket’, but we just felt we wanted to stick to our guns in terms of the quality of the product and the choice that we offer.”
In hindsight, Lenz is glad of the company’s modest beginnings.
“We built the business slowly. It would have been better for us to open our retail shop sooner because it has proved very successful financially, but it’s a good thing to start a business with very little money. It forces you to focus and gets you streamlined.”
Over the years, she also has learnt to focus on her strengths, thanks to a mentor who taught her to delegate.
“She said: ‘You are a designer, you have to delegate work’. I started having people working at the bench with my designs. It helped me grow.”
Looking to future
Although her Croí Álainn collection, from which the Obamas’ bracelets came, is “becoming more successful all the time”, Lenz has turned her attention to the future.
She is currently turning the upstairs of the Schull store into a design studio.
“I’m working on a wedding and engagement range which I’ll introduce on the website and in the shop. I’ll do small and unusual designs in consultation with people in the studio. It will be an open-plan, beautiful space to let go and design.”
Lenz, who is originally from Germany, is also conscious that when it comes to business, a little bit of luck can go a long way.
“I came to Ireland as a student, hitching. My husband picked me up and gave me a lift, we fell in love and I ended up in Schull. Five minutes one way or the other, none of this would have happened.”