Two bad harvests and a global financial crash. These were some of the unlikely ingredients that have gone into KPMG Private Enterprise Late Late Show bursary winner The Handmade Soap company.
Founder Donagh Quigley was on his second career as a professional thatcher when the financial crash struck home in 2009. “I’ve always done stuff with my hands,” he explains. “I played a lot of traditional music in my 20s and that had run its course by the time I was 30 and I did a traineeship in thatching. I loved thatching and working outside with my hands with natural materials. I thought I’d be doing it forever, but then we had a few bad harvests in a row and the recession hit and that work dried up.”
The switch to soap had more than a hint of serendipity to it. “I’ve always suffered from dry skin and mass-produced soap seemed to make it worse. I bought some handmade soap in a market one day and it was great. I did my last thatching job in 2009 and I used the money from that to learn about soap making.”
That saw him travel to the UK to study with famed natural soap maker Melinda Coss and then to the US to learn from Marla Bosworth, who specialises in plant based, clean beauty products. “I educated myself on how to make soap,” he adds. “It’s one part cookery, one part chemistry, and one part alchemy. It’s quite scientific but there is room to play as well.”
From the smallest of beginnings, the business took off very quickly. “At the very end of 2009 we put our toe in the water and went to a couple of Christmas markets. It sold well and in January 2010 we went to the Showcase fair in the RDS where the retailers go to do their shopping. That was our first real venture into the commercial wholesale world. Carrig Donn gave us our first commercial order for 3,000 bars of soap.”
That was almost too big a big break for Quigley and his co-founder, his wife Gemma McGowan. “We only had capacity to make 60 bars a day, but we said sure we can do it and went away to figure out how. We were up until all hours of the night for weeks making soap to fulfil the order. We figured we were onto something and it was time to move the business out of the kitchen. We were living in Kells at the time and Coca-Cola was closing down its Drogheda plant. We got a couple of vats from them and set up a workshop in Kells village.”
It wasn’t long before the company grew out of those premises and for the past six years it’s been operating out of a former linen mill on the banks of the River Boyne in Slane. “We keep running out of space but we are lucky that it’s a big building so we can continue to expand here,” says Quigley.
Today, the company produces a range of premium skin care and self-care products which it sells through a range of leading Irish retailers and exports to the US, Germany, Switzerland and Scandinavia. The range includes hand washes, hand lotions, soaps, shower gels, candles, diffusers and other products which are all sustainably and ethically produced.
“All of our products have got the Eco Cert / Cosmos certification for natural cosmetics,” Quigley notes. “That is the leading accreditation body for clean beauty products in Europe.”
The product range has grown over the years but not all have been retained. “We had a few quite obscure products that didn’t really fit in,” he recalls. “We had a cult following among the farming community around lambing time for our carbolic soap, for example. We now have five core fragrances and we’re launching a new range which we are really excited about. The new product comes in a recycled glass bottle and the consumer gets refills in compostable packaging.”
That reflects the sustainability ethos which underpins the company which draws its electrical power from a water driven turbine. “We moved to using PCR plastics, (post-consumer recycled plastics) made from recycled PET drinks bottles, for packaging a few years ago. We think that’s the most environmentally responsible thing to do. One of our biggest problems in Ireland is our lack of recycling capacity and we use PCRs as an environmentally sustainable product.”
“We want to pioneer green technologies,” he adds. “We have a new deodorant coming out in a compostable package. We want to push the boundaries of how these things are produced and packaged.”
The highly innovative firm moved into the production of hand sanitisers within days of the original COVID-19 lockdown starting in March. “We had already been producing some sanitiser for our own use in cleaning the vats and wiping down surfaces and so on. We had the supply chain in place for that and we had to expertise and ability to do it, so we scaled up to supply the consumer market.”
That move had some very significant commercial benefits. “It brought about 30,000 new customers into our ecosystem. They came to us for the hand sanitiser and they started buying gift boxes from us after that. Sales are up 100 per cent this year. Last month we had 60 people working for us, it’s about 75 this month. It’s averaged out at about 60 over the last six months.”
That growth is based on success at home and abroad. “Over the last 18 months we’ve been working on cracking America,” he says. “There are two dominant retailers in our space over there, Ulta and Sephora. We linked up with Ulta 12 months ago and that’s been going very well. We have backed that up with other retailers across America. Here in Ireland our products are available from our website, thehandmadesoapcompany.ie. They are also available from Avoca, Arnotts, Brown Thomas, Kilkenny, and Carrig Donn as well around 150 to 200 other retailers around the country.”
Next on the list is a novel pop-up shop in Wicklow Street in Dublin, which opened on December 1st. “We are doing a bit of manufacturing on site,” says Quigley. “Imagine a bakery set up but for skin with lots of live action and aromas.”
The company will continue pushing the boundaries of sustainability, he concludes. “It was great to get the opportunity to go on the Late Late Show business special. The €15,000 bursary from KPMG Private Enterprise will be such a boost for my business and will help accelerate phase two of our green journey and support the launch of our new deodorant product.”
KPMG teamed up with RTÉ’s The Late Late Show for a 'Taking Care of Business' special, featuring stories from a number of Irish businesses about how they adapted following the COVID-19 crisis. Featured businesses were in with a chance to win a €15,000 bursary on air, and KPMG selected The Handmade Soap company for the inspiring way in which the business reacted to the crisis, and their unrelenting commitment to the green agenda.
KPMG Private Enterprise Partner, Olivia Lynch, says “Donagh’s story is a wonderful example of the resilience that Irish entrepreneurs are renowned for. SMEs are the backbone of our economy and it is remarkable that The Handmade Soap company now employs more people in Ireland than it did at the beginning of this year. We really admire how Donagh remained true to his people and ethos of sustainability and ethically produced products, despite the impossible trading environment so many businesses faced this year. We wish Donagh and The Handmade Soap company continued success with their next ventures and look forward to continuing to support his business.”
COVID-19 is challenging Irish entrepreneurs and also creating opportunities. To find out more about how KPMG Private Enterprise can help you with what’s next for your business, please get in touch. We’d be delighted to hear from you.