Starting over: chocolate and pharma get two men back on feet

Published: 17 November 2017 By Olive Keogh

Starting over: chocolate and pharma get two men back on feet

An ex-carpenter sets up Brona chocolates and a furniture seller turns to purchasing

 

Brona’s Dan O’Connor: went on chocolate-making courses in France and Ireland and scraped €60,000 together to buy the chocolate machinery he needed.

Brona’s Dan O’Connor: went on chocolate-making courses in France and Ireland and scraped €60,000 together to buy the chocolate machinery he needed.

 

Dan O’Connor and Will O’Connor both lost their livelihoods during the recession. Getting back on their feet wasn’t easy but Dan has since exchanged construction for chocolate making while Will has reskilled and now works in biopharma.

Kerry-born Dan is a carpenter by trade who had more than 20 years’ experience building timber-framed houses when the recession struck. He struggled on initially, mainly because he didn’t want to let his workers go, but paying their salaries ate into his resources and he finally closed his construction business in 2011.

O’Connor had three very young children at the time and, to keep going financially, he rented a bar in Co Limerick in 2009 and opened a sweet shop in Tralee in 2010. While running the sweet shop, he noticed a demand for Irish-made artisan-style chocolate bars. Having failed to source any at the right price, he began thinking about making his own.

Chocolate-making courses

He went on chocolate-making courses in France and Ireland and scraped €60,000 together to buy the machinery he needed. He started production in the kitchen of his bar. Having established that there was a market for the product, he built a small production unit beside his home in Listowel.

He now employs one person full-time and divides his own time between making and packing the chocolate and travelling the country selling it.

O’Connor called the chocolate after his daughter Brona and the company now has in excess of 140 customers throughout Ireland. He is selling in both Kerry and Knock airports but has his sights firmly set on getting listed in Dublin and Cork as well. So far this year, sales are up 75 per cent on 2015 and the business is making money.

The Brona range is still confined to chocolate bars, although O’Connor has been trying out recipes for individual sweets and is going to expand his product line-up.

The chocolate bars come in 24 different flavours – from trendy salt and chilli to old-fashioned macaroon – and they sell at about €3-€4 each. The biggest seller is salted caramel, which incorporates Irish Atlantic sea salt from Castletownbere.

“We’re a mid-market chocolate in terms of price and seem to be hitting a sweet spot for people looking for a nice little treat,” O’Connor says. “I am enjoying the change of career. Construction takes a heavy toll on the body. And, having had to live hand to mouth while we were getting started, I’m very pleased that the business is growing nicely.

“I’m not out to conquer the world – I mean how big a turnover do you need to be content and be able to provide for your family?”

Will O’Connor had always wanted to join the Garda. However, he failed Irish in his Leaving Cert and that was that.

In 1996, he got a job with the family-owned furniture company, Queensway, based in Santry in north Dublin. O’Connor did well with the company, eventually becoming its purchasing manager. And had the recession not put Queensway out of business, O’Connor reckons he would still be working there.

Bitter end

“Queensway was a great company. They tried everything to survive and hung on until the bitter end but eventually it folded in 2011,” O’Connor says.

He then set up his own business, Dotty Furniture Bespoke Kitchen Dressers, which did well initially. But its pricing was wrong for a State in recession and it didn’t survive. Things then went from bad to worse for O’Connor with the loss of a close friend to suicide and the collapse of his marriage.

“I really didn’t know where to turn,” he says. “It was like being at Heuston Station with all these trains coming and going and you don’t know which one to choose.”

O’Connor applied non-stop for jobs to no avail. He then turned to reskilling and, based on his previous purchasing experience, began studying with the Irish Institute of Purchasing and Materials Management. He had also seen the hype about the growth in the biopharma sector and enrolled on a pharma-related Springboard course (offered free to job seekers) hoping this would open doors. It didn’t.

“I wrote 300 letters offering to work for free and I didn’t get one reply,” he says. “I couldn’t even get an interview because I had no experience. It was absolutely soul-destroying.”

Eventually O’Connor got an unpaid internship at Du Puy Synthes in 2013 but there was no permanent job at the end of it. He then spent a year with healthcare company Fannin.

Capital expenditure

The turning point came in February last year when he got an interview with Leo Pharma. O’Connor has thrived with the company and was recently promoted to global category manager for capital expenditure, MRO (maintenance, repair and operations) and energy.

He is now studying for his Six Sigma black belt in lean manufacturing.

“I am very focused on developing my career and would like to start an MBA in 2017,” he says. “I came late to professional education but I’ve taken to it like a duck to water. I’m very disciplined and get up at 6am to study and study during my lunchtimes.

“What I went through knocked the stuffing out of me and it’s been a huge challenge keeping everything together, especially with three kids. I think education gives you confidence and it says to an employer that you are capable of commitment and perseverance.

“My advice to anyone in a similar situation to mine is to keep knocking on doors. Eventually you will find a way in.”

 

Previously published in The Irish Times.

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