Future Proof: Burren Perfumery and Sadie Chowen
Decision was made to leave the wholesale market and focus on direct-to-consumer sales
Sadie Chowen: “I felt that the products from the perfumery should be able to compete alongside the best that Paris, New York and London had to offer”
The Burren Perfumery was founded in 1972 but bought by Sadie Chowen in 2001. Her husband, Ralph Doyle, joined the business in 2005. Chowen had a very clear vision for the Burren Perfumery, having been brought up in the southwest of France and coming from a design background.
“I felt that the products from the perfumery should be able to compete alongside the best that Paris, New York and London had to offer. I wanted to create items that I’d buy and use myself – nature-inspired, perfumes, authentic natural and organic cosmetics, soaps and candles in contemporary design.”
Patagonia in the US was a business model that inspired in terms of sustainability and ethics.
“We made a decision to leave the wholesale market around 2007 and concentrate our resources on direct-to-consumer and e-commerce sales. To the best of my knowledge we’re the only company in this space developing and manufacturing our own products but not selling through conventional channels. This makes it difficult to measure ourselves against others.”
At the end of 2008, as the recession began to bite, Chowen sat down and projected forward three scenarios for cashflow projections – 5 per cent down, 10 per cent down and 15 per cent down. Having always maintained detailed cashflow projections, they had confidence in their figures and were prepared to act early to scale back as required.
“In 2009 we fell 4 per cent but we’d cut costs and the revenue we lost was the least profitable part of our business. From then on we were back to growth. Apart from one anomalous year we’ve had some growth every year since we started, but the turning point was probably 2010, after which we’ve had double-digit growth each year.
“Up to that revenue and costs had grown in lock-step. But after that fixed costs started to fall as a percentage of turnover, and we became steadily more profitable as we grew.”
Chowen credits prudence as part of the company’s survival. “We never borrowed heavily and have always funded expansion from surplus cash-flow, reinvesting in staff, infrastructure, product development, packaging and design. Our customer base is loyal, and we invest time and money to look after them.”
The lifetime value of online customers is high, and web sales represent nearly a quarter of the company’s revenue, which protects a little from seasonality. Growing from 10 products to more than 120, the company developed a certified organic skincare range in 2008, and this now provides roughly one-third of revenue.
With much focus today on high growth start-ups, Chowen recognises that the vast majority of commerce transacted in the world is by more mature businesses. Outside of the technology sector only a small part of that is truly susceptible to disruption by start-ups.
“If you can find or create a niche, be profitable without relying on someone else to pay the bills, you will learn a lot, and you will have control both of your business and your future. Focus on cashflow, profitability and looking after your customers.
“There is very little you can buy today where you can actually see it being made and talk to those making it. Most people enjoy that experience, and the fact that we are not a brand available in every shop on every high street in Europe or the US, that we’re a unique experience, gives them in turn a story they own, that they can take away and retell.”
Under the hood Burren Perfumery has good fundamentals too in finance, processes, systems and technology. They launched in Avoca nationwide in August last year, and have contributed to the Create 2017: Irish Design popup in Brown Thomas.
Back when Chowen bought the business, Irish tourism suffered two hammer blows – foot-and-mouth disease and then 9/11. She likens Brexit to a similar scenario.
“We have some goods and services we source in the UK, but mostly we deal with mainland Europe and we will find new suppliers there as needed. As a direct-to-consumer brand we’re not heavily reliant on any single market or customer, so while we might see some small impact on revenue we will make it up elsewhere I’m sure.”
Staff numbers have grown from two to 32. “In the early days there was a lot of everyone doing a bit of everything. As we’ve scaled it has allowed us to hire more specialists and bring in experienced people.
“Being able to delegate has also allowed the directors of the company space to think and act strategically, which has been important in evolving our direction and brand ethos.”
Chowen would like to see the Burren Perfumery brand go further afield and become an international ambassador for Ireland and a household name for those that enjoy high quality products made in a sustainable way.
“Our staff are of key importance to us, and we would like to continue to offer jobs which employees enjoy and can grow in, as well as contributing to the local community. Our environmental responsibilities are a key part of our vision, and we continually implement ways to minimise our environmental footprint.”
That includes its Tearooms, which are open during the summer months and allow customers to experience the boutique nature of the business in the products natural setting.