US a target for packaging group over 100 years in business

EY Entrepreneur of the Year finalist Vicki O’Toole, JJ O’Toole Ltd

Vicki O’Toole joined the business, which had been in her husband’s family, at a turbulent time. The 2002 plastic-bag tax was heavily impacting business. She turned things around by sourcing new suppliers and products.

Now the company, which was established in 1914, supplies packaging to clients including Selfridges, Brown Thomas, Fenwick, Kilkenny Group and Dunnes Stores.

From luxury paper bags to compostable coffee cups, JJ O'Toole is a one-stop shop for all things packaging. The Raheen, Limerick, business and its leader have been picking up plenty of awards for their wares. The company that has "survived wars, recessions and the plastic-bag tax" is now in its third generation. Vicki joined the business having been a stay at home mum.

Having secured a raft of clients both in Ireland and Britain, JJ O'Toole is looking to dip its toes in markets further afield, including mainland Europe and North and South America.


With that, the company is planning to grow its offering, particularly to extend its eco-friendly packaging range.

What is your greatest business achievement to date?

Changing roles from stay-at-home mum to learning a business from scratch and being catapulted to managing director in a very short period of time. I was stepping into very large shoes of three male generations who went before me, so it was a great personal relief to see the company reach its 100th birthday on my watch and in excellent health.

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

My “back to the wall” period would have been an emotional one. When my husband suddenly passed away in 2010, I immediately considered not returning to work, possibly selling the company and staying at home to care for my children. I couldn’t see how I could manage both. However, a month later, I returned to the office. Initially, it was very difficult but I had wonderful support from my family, colleagues, suppliers and neighbours. Looking back now, I know it was the right decision.

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

Winning our first Selfridges tender. I remember venturing into Selfridges on Oxford Street for the first time just after my eldest child was born 31 years ago. I was overwhelmed by the sheer size and scale of the store. Little did I know that one day I would be working in my husband’s family business supplying this incredible company with their iconic yellow packaging.

Have you started to feel the effects of the economic upturn within your sector/industry?

Yes, particularly in the last six months. There is more of an emphasis on retailers increasing their brand awareness, which, in turn, has presented opportunities for our company by creating new packaging concepts and designs. The online business is growing quickly and, as a result, so is our ecommerce packaging.

What is the hardest thing you have ever done in business?

I would say that it was deciding to go into the company in the first place and learning everything from scratch with no former training. Change is not always welcomed and it can be a difficult process. The onus was on me to ensure that my colleagues were comfortable with the changes and understood the reasons for them.

What is the most common mistake you see entrepreneurs make?

Trying to grow their business too quickly. JJ OToole Ltd is 104 years old and we are still learning. Rome wasn’t built in a day – tread slowly and grow gradually.

Peter Hamilton

Peter Hamilton

Peter Hamilton is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in business