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Hungry for a healthy business

The Irish Times – Friday, November 25, 2011Illustration by DAVID ROONEY


CASE STUDY: ANNA POWER, CLARE O’NEILL and Maeve Murphy met at the University of Limerick where they were students in the mid-1990s. All three graduated in business studies and took a year out to travel the world together before finding jobs in the US, Ireland and France respectively. Anna went into the IT industry in a marketing role, Clare went into finance in the pharmaceuticals industry in Ireland and Maeve joined a large French clothing chain as a trainee manager.

At the height of the Celtic Tiger boom both Anna and Maeve came back to Ireland to lucrative jobs. Clare was already married by then with two small children and on a career break. Maeve’s French partner followed her back to Ireland and they now have a young son. Anna married in 2009 and the company she was working for went out of business while she was on maternity leave. She has been taking time out with her daughter and wants a change of career direction when she returns to the workforce.

Maeve’s firm has recently announced that it needs more redundancies and extensive redeployment among those who remain. Her whole department is effectively being relocated to India and given her experience she is hugely disappointed by the calibre of the alternative jobs on offer.

Clare is also facing an uncertain future in terms of her career. Since taking her break, her company has reorganised its Irish operation to cope with the recession and while Clare knew it was unlikely she would ever get her old job back on her return, she has now discovered that her old role has been merged with another position to create additional responsibilities.

Clare is not fazed by the extra workload. The problem is that it will involve a lot of travel. If she takes the job Clare will be out of the country for several days each week and while the challenge of the position is attractive, she does not want to miss out on her boys growing up.

All three now feel as if they have hit a wall with their careers. What they want are interesting, challenging jobs with organisations that are family friendly. What they are discovering is that such jobs are scarcer than hen’s teeth.

On a glum night out Maeve and Anna were opining about the unfairness of it all when Clare quietly pointed out that if they pooled their not inconsiderable experience in finance, retail and marketing, they should surely be able to come up an idea for a business of their own. Her suggestion was initially met with shocked silence but by the time the friends were leaving the restaurant they had agreed that they would meet a week later and lay their ideas on the table.

Of the half dozen or so ideas that were floated, the one that seemed to strike a chord with all three was Clare’s proposal to produce healthy treats and snack foods for children. With four young children between them they knew all about trying to find treat foods that were not high in the ingredients that health professionals everywhere are warning parents to keep their kids away from such as sugar, fat and salt. Clare pointed out that while there were such products on the market they were generally imported and expensive, which put them out of the reach of many household budgets.

Clare’s vision was of a product that ticked the health concern boxes but was also reasonably priced. She was already making snacks for her kids using fresh fruits and juices and she took the view that this was a product that could be scaled up to commercial production and based around fruits that were readily available in Ireland such as apples and soft fruits rather than exotic fruits that would be expensive to buy in.

On paper the idea looks good and all three are increasingly excited about the notion of working together. But they are also nervous about the risk involved, especially Anna and Maeve. On the one hand, they believe that they make a strong team and could make a go of things. But they are anxious not to let their hearts rule their heads and keep probing and questioning Clare’s optimistic assumptions about costs and sales prospects.

Clare’s argument is that her idea allows them to start small and scale up. It allows them the flexibility to juggle family commitments with building a business and while their children are young is a good time to get it off the ground with a view to developing it more aggressively as the children get older. She believes there is scope to develop a range of products and having spoken to Bord Bia she says there is potential to export them to Holland, Germany and Scandinavia where a demand for such products already exists.

For Anna and Maeve the big question is how do you evaluate an idea to be really sure it will fly? They also worry that it might not be possible to make the product as cost effectively as Clare hopes, which would immediately reduce their market size. Furthermore they question whether now is a good time to launch a new food product and, as none of the three have professional food sector experience, they wonder if this is a potentially fatal skills gap?

While Clare is the one driving the idea she too has her concerns, not so much about the product but about how the “threesome” might work out in business. In her experience partnerships can be fraught with problems, so having three strong personalities in the mix might be too flammable a combination. She wants to structure the business in a way that will protect the friendships but wonders if it is actually possible to do this in practice and if it would be a mistake to try to nail down a formal structure so early in the start-up process.

She is also uneasy about the money aspect of the venture. Anna has her redundancy money to invest and Maeve will have hers, whereas Clare is much more strapped for cash as she has not been in paid employment for several years. It would be more of a struggle for her to raise her share of what she thinks might be needed and she is well aware that small businesses often falter due to under-capitalisation.

More recently Maeve has shown signs of getting cold feet about taking the redundancy package on offer. With a hefty mortgage to pay as well as two car loans and a niggling worry that in the current climate anything is possible, she is seriously wondering if the timing is right to get involved in starting a business.

The others acknowledge that as the only one with a job Maeve has the most to lose, but they also point out that she is unhappy at work and that they all share the need to be financially secure which is a very strong motivation to succeed. At this point Maeve seems paralysed by the fear of handing in her notice and Clare and Anna feel time is ticking away. They don’t want to cut Maeve out but they want to forge ahead and feel that if she is not as committed to the venture as they are, the project would be better off without her.

Can the three friends work together on this?

Read the experts’ advice 

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