From engineering in Cork to making chocolate in Mexico

Rohan Barnett’s Ah Cacao company makes and sells chocolate in the beach resort town of Playa del Carmen

 Rohan Barnett (left) with an MBA colleague in front of an Ah Cacao store in Playa del Carmen

Rohan Barnett (left) with an MBA colleague in front of an Ah Cacao store in Playa del Carmen

 

Working Abroad Q&A: Each week, Irish Times Abroad meets an Irish person working in an interesting job overseas. This week, Rohan Barnett tells us how he went from an engineering degree in Co Cork to making chocolates in Mexico.

Where are you from?

West Cork. I grew up on a fairly remote farm about 15km from Dunmanway, the nearest big town, where I went to secondary school (by bicycle every day).

When did you leave Ireland, and what were your reasons for leaving?

I finished my degree in electronic engineering at Cork Institute of Technology (then Cork RTC) in 1995. There was a recession and I wasn’t having any luck with my pre-graduation job applications.

Then my best friend and classmate James Conway introduced me to a friend who had worked with Bobby Healy, now CTO of CarTrawler. Bobby, just 26 at the time, interviewed me in a Dublin train station for 30 minutes then offered me a job with his travel technology company that had a contract with American Express in Mexico City.

The pay, $3,000 a month after taxes and free accommodation, was out of this world to someone used to living on a VEC grant and a £2 an hour weekend carpentry job, and I hastily accepted, not knowing the first thing about Mexico.

Did you head to Mexico immediately?

Yes, I left Ireland pretty much straight after my final exams, around July 1995, and stayed initially for around a year, during which time I met Mónica, my future wife. In the following years I, then we, ended up living for short periods in many other places including Montreal, Brazil, Singapore, Australia, Dublin (which my wife loves), and France. Both our children were born in Cork, 12 and 14 years ago.

Where are you living now?

Playa del Carmen, Mexico. A fast-developing beach resort town in the Mexican Caribbean.

An Ah Cacao Chocolate Café in Mexico.
An Ah Cacao Chocolate Café in Mexico.

What took you there?

While studying for an MBA at INSEAD in France, in 2003, I had the crazy idea that it would be cool to create a chocolate company that offered chocolate not just as a sweet treat but as a complete experience, like fine wine, where the consumer is exposed to the origins of product, that it comes from cacao beans grown in tropical climates, that there are different varieties of cacao, that consuming cacao has many health benefits, that it has a cultural history dating from prehispanic times in Mexico, when it was revered as sacred and mystical (as well as being used as a unit of currency).

After the MBA I went to work in London for Wexas, a travel company, which was great but I couldn’t get the chocolate dreams out of my head. While in London I met up with some experts, like Chloé Doutre-Roussel, then Fortnum & Mason’s chocolate taster and Paul Ettinger from Caffè Nero, all of whom were extremely generous with their time and advice for an essentially clueless dreamer.

I decided I had to give it a go and in late 2003, we packed our bags and headed back to Mexico to start Ah Cacao, a Mexican chocolate company. After a whirlwind tour of the country, we decided to base ourselves in Playa del Carmen as we thought that its stream of international visitors would help us refine our concept into something that could work in developed countries all over the world. We’re still working on that.

What is your role and how is the company doing now?

I’m the proud general manager of Ah Cacao which has grown to a team of 80 hard-working chocolate addicts. We have a small factory and four Ah Cacao Chocolate Café stores in the area. It has meant working really, really hard, with no salary for a few years and a low salary for a few years after that. Fortunately things have worked out great in the long term.

Are there any particular challenges you face in your work in Mexico?

Yes. Number one is that it many suppliers are incredibly unreliable, especially in our particular area. From day one, it has been a constant struggle to find suppliers that deliver on time, have good consistent quality and don’t defraud us.

Building a good team has also been very difficult as Playa del Carmen was basically unpopulated 30 years ago and so almost everybody comes from somewhere else. This means that the moment someone has family problems, they’re on the next bus out of town and might never return.

Also, the government in Mexico makes it very hard to do business. A myriad of permissions and licences are required to operate a formal business in Mexico. You have to hire an expert to help you navigate everything and this expert often has a different interpretation of the law from the government inspectors. This means that we end up spending about six man-months a year just on government compliance issues and despite our best efforts we still end up paying thousands of dollars in fines every year.

What does your working day look like?

Most of my time is spent trying to improve things in Ah Cacao: better products, better image, better equipment, better training, more efficient operations. I mostly work from Ah Cacao’s solar powered factory, a few minutes walk from my house, wearing shorts and a short-sleeved shirt. And, yes, I eat lots of chocolate.

The Ah Cacao chocolate team in Mexico celebrating sending a large shipment of Kicao bars to Natural Grocers, a US chain.
The Ah Cacao chocolate team in Mexico celebrating sending a large shipment of Kicao bars to Natural Grocers, a US chain.

Do you think working abroad has offered you greater opportunities?

Definitely. Ireland is a now very different place to the country I left, and I don’t rule out returning one day, but I am very grateful for all the opportunities I’ve had to work abroad.

What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a career abroad?

Understand that people’s motivations and dreams can be very different in other parts of the world.

What is it like living in Mexico in terms of accommodation, transport, social life and so on?

Public transport is great (if a bit chaotic) in Mexico as the majority of the population depends on it. You can get to just about anywhere with a combination of buses and taxis. Uber in Mexico City, for example, is fantastic and very economical. The metro (underground) in Mexico City costs 25 cent per journey.

Accommodation is also plentiful, generally good, and relatively economical depending on the area. In Playa del Carmen, which is expensive, you can rent a very nice apartment for about €500 a month.

Where do you see your future?

Very difficult to say. My children will reach university age in a few years and they may end up studying in Ireland.

Is there anything you miss about living and working in Ireland?

Yes, mostly the people and the close friendships that have waned over the years.

If you work in an interesting job overseas and would like to share your experience, email abroad@iristimes.com with a little information about you and what you do.

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