An indisposable income

A NEW LIFE: The contrast is huge, but the road from accountancy to cloth nappies has made Maebh Collins a contented woman, writes…

A NEW LIFE:The contrast is huge, but the road from accountancy to cloth nappies has made Maebh Collins a contented woman, writes Sheila Wayman

WHEN MAEBH Collins wanted to cut back on her hours as a chartered accountant so that she could have more time with her two young children, a move from her native Birmingham to Ireland seemed to be the answer.

"I was doing crazy hours, from seven in the morning to 10 at night." In addition, she says: "City-centre Birmingham is not a great place to raise children."

The daughter of two Irish emigrants, she and her English husband, Peter Knight, decided to follow her parents back to Ireland in 2002, in search of a more family-friendly existence.


They moved to Omeath in Co Louth, where they live at the opposite end of the village from her mother and father. She could commute to Belfast where she got a new job as a chartered accountant with KMPG.

Little did they know then that moving house would be only the first step in their journey to a totally new life. A business idea born of personal experience would transform their working lives too.

When she became pregnant with their third child, Collins started to look for the environmentally-friendly baby products she had used in England, such as cloth nappies.

"I was shocked to discover there was only one person in Ireland selling cloth nappies at that time. It's hard to imagine now, but nobody was doing these in Ireland five years ago."

More as a hobby than anything else, she set up The Natural Baby Resource and started to sell eco products through the internet. She also ran a stall in a couple of farmers' markets at the weekends, until the later stages of her pregnancy made that too exhausting.

However, the website really began to take-off. Although she returned part-time to KMPG for a few months after her maternity leave, in November 2005 she made the big leap into running her own business.

People thought she was "doo-lally", she says, to be giving up her well-paid, permanent job to sell nappies.

"It was a very big decision for us. As a chartered accountant, I was the main earner."

Knight, who had been a landscape gardener in Birmingham, was working as a labourer, tarmacking roads.

Collins had looked for funding for her start-up business, but nobody thought it was a good investment. "We put in €500 of our own money and worked our socks off."

A year later, Collins was pregnant with their fourth child, and the couple faced an even more momentous decision - whether or not Knight should give up his job and join her business, which is based in Jonesboro, Co Armagh, right on the border.

"We said we would give it six months." More than two years later, she can say it has worked out "fantastically well".

Knight works in the warehouse side of the business, while she is in the office. They stagger their working hours to suit the children, but meet for lunch and tea breaks.

"We only have a row at work once every two years," she laughs.

The downside of running her own business in the early years was no days off for holidays or sickness. After she gave birth to Feidhelm, now aged two, "Peter picked me up from Daisy Hill Hospital in Newry and I did an afternoon's work. We had no staff. Feidhelm came to work with me every day after that."

Having four children of her own helped her to source products. Initially she only sold things she had tried and liked herself. "It has to be good for baby, mother and the environment", is her ethos.

Some 95 per cent of the business is now cloth nappies. "When Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown introduced pay-by-weight bin charges, our sales went through the roof," she says.

Modern reusable nappies have come a long way from the days of terry cotton squares and giant safety pins.

"It's just like putting on a disposable: you open it, put it on the baby and close it with stretchy tabs," says Collins. "The only difference is you put it in the laundry bin instead of the rubbish bin."

The company has expanded far faster than she ever envisaged. The turnover was €30,000 in the first year; now it's €2 million a year and growing, with 11 staff employed. As well as the website, she opened a shop in Jonesboro in 2006 for drop-in customers.

The credit crunch is more likely to be a help than a hindrance. It has been estimated that using cloth nappies can save more than €1,000 per child over the two-and-a-half years before potty training. "And that is before pay-by-weight waste charges are taken into account," she points out.

Six years since their move from Birmingham, Collins says she is "much, much happier" working for herself. "There is very little stress involved and huge satisfaction in seeing what started as a tiny business growing into a successful company."

She would be content if it stayed at the size it is now - big enough to take the pressure off her, but not so hectic that it generates a whole new set of headaches.

They were able to take their four children, now ranging in age from 16 to two, on holiday abroad for the first time in five years this summer, leaving the staff to look after the business.

"They didn't call me," says Collins, "and I didn't call them."