1 August 2009 Edition
Grasping the opportunity
Opportunities never come in straight lines. That was certainly the case with Higher Ground, a new RTÉ series. Paul McCarthy, Teagasc Rural Business Specialist, and I have worked on a number of initiatives together.
We both have a huge interest in promoting the potential people have to develop their ideas into successful businesses. Three years ago, we began the JFC National Innovation Awards to reward and highlight the ones who have taken the brave step. Over 200 people have entered the competition, and it continues to go from strength to strength.
The entrants' progress got us thinking that it would be interesting to follow them further. The problems that they all faced were very similar; others could learn from their success. We pitched the idea of Higher Ground to Evan Chamberlain, Good Company Productions (the company behind Feirm Factor).
Evan did trojan work to get RTÉ to commission the idea. He thought, with all our experience and knowledge, we were the best people to present the programme and help the businesses. The show will hopefully highlight some of the challenges small rural business face and identify how problems can be overcome.
It was challenging and rewarding to work with the eight participants who were passionate and committed to making their business work. These people show that it comes down to the person driving the business to ensure success.
We first met Brian Phelan last January, when he entered the JFC innovation awards. He was bursting with enthusiasm about his business idea to sell duck eggs. ''I always remember having duck eggs when we visited my Granny's farm in Glenfin, Co Donegal,'' Brian told us. One day he had a longing for a duck egg, but just could not find any to buy.
After talking to others, he realised that many people fondly remembered their first duck egg, but never saw them in the shops to buy. It was his 'eureka' moment as he saw a potential business opportunity.
A farmers' son, originally from Laois, Brian did a business degree in University of Limerick. He ended up in Monaghan, where he set up his own property management company, which is still running successfully. In the back of his mind, he probably saw duck eggs as a way of insulating himself against the recession that was starting to emerge, especially in the property sector.
Brian had bought 20 ducks from a farmer in Offaly and raised them to lay. When they began laying, he sold the eggs in farmers' markets, and to butchers and fruit and veg shops. The feed-back was so encouraging, it convinced him to take the next step. ''Of course, some of my friends thought I was mad and all the bad duck egg jokes quickly emerged,'' said Brian. In the JFC interview, he was just delighted that someone else could see that it was a good idea. We gave him a special Young Entrepreneur award. It was obvious that he had good business skills, real passion and was willing to take a risk to get a new business off the ground.
making the effort
Brian Phelan has many challenges to make a success out of Glenfin ducks eggs. His positive attitude, along with his determination and work ethic, will go a long way to ensuring it will happen. Convinced of his business idea, he first scoured Ireland for information and found very little. He turned to one of the best producers in Britain to learn. Not having the money to build, he leased out an old free range poultry farm and converted it for the 650 ducklings, soon realising they were like little babies requiring round the clock care. He was getting up at 1am and 4am to check them - it was the first taste of the length you have to go to make your own business succeed.
He also soon realised that rearing the ducks was the easy part. The biggest challenge is distributing and selling them.
Brian has ambitions to turn Glenfin into a national brand and become one of the largest duck egg producers in the country. He knew the importance of getting packaging and branding right, investing all his saving, and took out a small loan for the business.
The duck egg market in Ireland has certainly not been developed like hen eggs. Regulations are nowhere near as tight, and there are no large producers. When you can find duck eggs they are mostly from farms with small numbers selling sporadically into local butcher shop.
However, the duck egg and hen egg business have similarities. The biggest one is that margins are tight, especially if you are building your business model on wholesaling duck eggs to retailers.
Distribution was always going to be Brian's biggest challenge. He got the University of Limerick to carry out a marketing plan which pointed him to butchers and specialty food shops. With his get up and go attitude, he got into his car when the ducks started laying and called into butchers and speciality food ships around Dublin.
Soon, he had 50 shops taking Glenfin duck eggs. It was important for him to get to know the shop owners and build a relationship at the start.
However, the cost of distribution, working out at over 50c per half dozen, was unsustainable. Not only that, it was a huge drain on his time and energy. To cut costs, he plans to deliver to shops every second week, and is also looking at working with existing distributors.
The next big challenge is growing his market. Being involved in the show will generate a greater demand for duck eggs.
He is at a cross roads as to buy-in more ducks himself, or employ other farmers to produce the duck eggs on contract for him. He will have to make a decision on this in the weeks ahead.