HuntOffice.ie, based in Newcastle West Co Limerick, was founded by brothers Séamus and John Hunt in 1999. They saw an opportunity to start an office supplies company that would focus on the lack of service in rural areas and offer next-day delivery to businesses in the southwest.
“Although we were both in good jobs at the time – John in the photocopying business and I was in retail – we wanted to work together. We borrowed £10,000 each and began working in a shed out of our grandmother’s cottage. It was difficult because we were starting from scratch and had to buy our stock with cash. But the local community was very good to us,” Séamus Hunt says.
The support of the local community is, in part, due to the prominence of the Hunts' father. Seamus Hunt snr is heavily involved in his local community: he is a member of the local pipe band, former mayor of Newcastle West, a member of the Community Council and a member of the Saint Vincent de Paul. This helped raise awareness of the Hunt Office brand, which needed to compete with bigger office suppliers with "deeper pockets" for advertising.
When the recession hit, margins were squeezed. To weather the storm, the Hunts cut costs wherever they could: wages were cut by 10 per cent and delivery and packaging costs were brought down. They also fought for better terms with their suppliers.
“But timing is everything in business, and we were lucky we had our web store set-up by the time the recession hit. Although we always had an interest in technology – the original name of the company was Hunt Office Technology – broadband wasn’t always available in the area. So it was a matter of waiting until the right moment when it made sense. Too early and it wasn’t possible; too late would have been too expensive.”
The brothers have invested more than €300,000 in the last year alone in custom web systems, and the site now houses more than 80,000 office items, devices and furniture.
The web store put their business on a nationwide level and demanded a change in their business strategy. “Our aim was to have the best Irish online marketplace for business supplies in Ireland.”
They changed their original business plan, which revolved around their vans and drivers serving the local community and used couriers more often. They worked late, learning about different techniques and tricks that could help their business, and using this knowledge, trained their existing staff, including former drivers, in customer service, website content, SEO and Google Adwords.
“We trained ourselves out of a hunger to learn. Some people were friends and family, and we knew they were good people. The four or five people we had to let go, we eventually hired back again and some are now in managerial positions in the company.”
HuntOffice.ie, which has doubled its workforce since 2013, predicts turnover of €8 million this year, up from €3 million in 2012. The business now supplies stationery to companies such as Google, TV3, RTÉ and transport firm Eddie Stobart.
“Not all our business is done online. Clients such as Aldi require more than a ‘desktop delivery’ and need more of a hands-on approach, so we offer visits to the client to discuss their requirements as well.”
Although the Hunts say they “never got carried away” during the good times, they have emerged from the recession as a better and stronger company.
“What we had to do during the recession wasn’t a nice process, but it was a healthy one,” Séamus says.
When asked about the importance of their local beginnings and the difficulty of running an SME in rural Ireland, they say there is a lot to consider. “There are pros and cons to a business based in a rural area, but it was brilliant for us. We had massive support from local people and businesses. But it is difficult to attract new talent because it means relocation and a lot of people aren’t happy to do that. The cost of labour is less expensive, but the cost of living is also a lot lower.”
The company, which has offices and showrooms in Newcastle West and Dublin, is looking to expand again in Ireland and the UK in the next year and possibly further afield in the future. Not bad for a business that began by focusing on the local.