The Kilkenny Group is Ireland’s largest emporium of Irish designed products, supporting Irish craft & design for over 5 decades.
Marian O’Gorman is CEO of the Kilkenny Group, one of Ireland’s leading retailing groups. Marian has worked in retail since the age of 16, when she began working with her father Christy Kelleher, founder of the Blarney Woollen Mills Group. Marian was heavily involved in the family business and in 1999, took over as CEO of the Kilkenny Group. Since then, Marian has grown the Kilkenny Group significantly and credits her late father for much of her business acumen. Marian is incredibly hands-on in her role, working closely with the buying team and company restaurants as well as mentoring managers and key members of staff. In 2013, Marian was named one of WXM’s Top 25 Most Influential Women and has worked closely throughout her career with the Crafts Council of Ireland, providing support and mentoring to up-and-coming designers.
The eldest of Marian O’Gorman’s 4 children, Gregory began working in the family business in 2003, initially working as store manager of the Galway branch and, shortly afterwards, stepping into the Group’s Marketing role in 2005. Gregory has been instrumental in the company’s brand development since 2005, building the brand from a niche craft store to one of Ireland’s leading retail groups. Gregory has grown the brand awareness at a great scale both nationally and internationally through his strategic advertising and PR campaigns. Since starting with the company, Gregory has been invaluable in developing the company’s growth strategy and store expansion and, in particular, has driven the company’s online and digital expansion. In the past 3 years Kilkenny’s online store kilkennyshop.com has undergone 3 redevelopments. This has been a fundamental element in Gregory’s objective to launch in the US market. This year, Gregory has taken over as Group Marketing Director, overseeing not only his traditional forte areas of Marketing and PR across the Group but also the Visual Merchandising and Group logistics. Gregory lives in Blarney with his wife Michelle and three children.
For over 50 years, the Kilkenny Group has been the leading supporter of Irish craft and design. Originating as part of the Blarney Woollen Mills Group in 1963 (founded by Marian’s late father Christy Kelleher), the family-run Kilkenny Group has been under the leadership of Marian O’Gorman since 1999, who took over as company CEO in that year. Since 1999, the Kilkenny Group has grown significantly under Marian’s leadership and today has 13 store locations nationwide. Going against the retail grain, Kilkenny expanded its store portfolio throughout the recession, opening 8 new store locations between 2007 and 2013. There are currently 11 Kilkenny Shops located around the country in Dublin (Nassau St, Stillorgan & Swords), Galway, Killarney, Cork (Cork city, Douglas & Shanagarry), Cashel Co. Tipperary, Trim Co. Meath and Newbridge Co Kildare, as well as two sister Christy’s stores (Killarney and Cobh, Co Cork), two in-store cafés and an online store, kilkennyshop.com. The continued online investment also increases the company’s exposure to and trade with international markets, namely the US. Website sales for the last financial year showed an increase of 51% year on year.
Turnover for year ending January 2014 reached a record high for the Group, totalling at €25.5m, while profitability for the year came to €971,000*, an increase of 86% on the year previous. The Kilkenny Group currently employs 230 people across the country and over the years has created and supported thousands of indirect jobs through its longstanding support of Irish craftsmen and designers, most of whom employ directly from their local community.
The Kilkenny Group is passionate about supporting Irish craft and design, showcasing indigenous design talent to both the Irish and international market and supporting Irish jobs. The Kilkenny Shop is home to Ireland’s finest selection of Irish craft, crystal, fashion, jewellery and homeware all under one roof.
– ENTREPRENEURIAL INSIGHT –
What vision/lightbulb moment prompted you to start-up in business?
Marian: I wouldn’t say I had a ‘lightbulb moment’ – retail has been in my blood since I was a child; my father (Christy Kelleher, founder of the Blarney Woollen Mills Group) was a great business man. I’ve always loved the buzz of selling and seeing customers being satisfied with their purchases – selling has always been what I love!
How did you secure your first investment?
Marian: For my first investment, I (along with my siblings) re-mortgaged my house in order to help my father buy the Blarney Mill building which had gone up for sale; this gave me £5,000 to invest in the family business.
What was your “back-to-the-wall” moment and how did you overcome it?
Marian: Most retailers might say the recession but my ‘back to the wall’ moment came much earlier in 2001. At the time, we had only 4 stores in the Kilkenny Group and were much more reliant on the tourist trade. A number of things went against us in 2001 – tourism was seriously struggling because of the Foot & Mouth Disease outbreak, SARS outbreak and the September 11th attacks. Along with this, we had inherited significant costs from the Kilkenny takeover of the Blarney Woollen Mills in 1999. But, I had massive determination to make Kilkenny survive and we put a survival plan in place – we reduced our fixed and variable costs, including relocating our head office to Killarney and downsizing our warehouse. I drove to and from Killarney every day for work.
What moment/deal would you cite as the “game changer” or turning point for the company?
Greg: I think this would be branching out into Shopping Centres, opening our stores in Trim and Stillorgan in 2011. This gave us much more confidence in the domestic market and allowed us to see the value the brand had with Irish consumers.
Marian: 2011 was also the first time the company made a profit so it was definitely a big year for us.
Were there any interesting or unusual circumstances surrounding the inception of the company or its evolution?
Marian: Kilkenny was originally set up by the government to support the struggling Irish craft & design industry, with two outlets located on Nassau St and in Kilkenny City. I suppose interestingly, the government decided to sell these premises to two separate private companies instead of as a pair. However, we have always stayed true to this original ethos – our aim is always to support and grow the Irish craft and design industry and nurture Irish talent.
What are the biggest challenges you face now?
Marian: Recruitment. We put a lot of effort into finding the right staff at the Kilkenny Group – it’s important for us to find great people for Kilkenny so we put a lot of time and effort into the recruitment stage of any role, at any level.
Greg: The economy is still a little difficult for retail – while it is improving, there are still many issues that consumers face, which we in turn then experience as retailers. There are so many additional taxes on pay that people still have less disposable income.
What is your biggest business achievement to date?
Marian: Growing the Kilkenny Group to the brand and scale that it is today, despite the difficulties we faced over the years. I’m also very proud of the staff we have working with us – we invest a lot in staff training and development and because of this, we have a great staff-retention rate.
Greg: For me, it would have to be taking the recession head-on and actually using it as an opportunity to grow our business; while many retailers were closing down shop, we were actually opening new stores! I think Kilkenny has shown how resilient we can be and all the hard work has paid off.
What were the best & the worst pieces of advice you received when starting out?
Marian: The best piece of advice I got was to ‘run the company as if you’re going to sell it’. We cut costs, made more profit and the company has thrived. On the contrary, someone also told me to ‘shut down the company, you won’t make any money’ – and here we are today!
Greg: I can safely say the best advice I got was to double your ad spend during a recession to distance yourself from the crowd and capitalise on market share – which we did! I think this was an important part in the company’s success and expansion through the recessionary years; we opened 8 new stores between 2007 and 2013.
What top tips would you give entrepreneurs starting out today?
Greg: Research your product or idea, know what your competitors are doing, have a business plan and most importantly believe in your business!
Marian: Recruit the best people you possibly can and work, work, work – you will be working around the clock but once the business starts to take off or do well, nothing beats that feeling!
Were there any early signs that you would eventually follow an entrepreneurial path?
Marian: As a child, I used to go door to door selling to neighbours – GAA tickets, sweets you name it! I would always try to out-sell my brothers and sisters – that was where my buzz for selling came from. My father was an incredible salesman so retail and selling was always in my blood; it’s something I was always going to be involved in.
Greg: At the age of 12 I decided to start my own goldfish business! I bought 20 goldfish and bred them; I also bought a stock of fish bowls and fish food. I sold goldfish ‘packages’ for about £20 at the time and my Dad would drive me around to the local pet stores to do my sales. I didn’t sell many mind you but the business initiative was certainly there!
Has anyone acted as a mentor to you?
Marian: I have had a number of mentors over the years, each of whom have thought me different skills and supported me at various points in my career.
Greg: I suppose I would have to say my mother (Marian) – she has always been a great support for me in my career, even before I started working with Kilkenny 11 years ago. I’ve certainly learned from the best!
Has your “Irish-ness” contributed to your success?
Greg: Absolutely, it’s critical to what we do! The Kilkenny brand is synonymous with supporting Irish and our indigenous craft and design; “Irishness” is what the brand represents.
Marian: “Irishness” has certainly helped us grow with the overseas market – there’s a huge respect for Ireland around the world; wherever you travel, people want to know you because you’re Irish!
How do you generate new ideas to stay ahead of the curve?
Marian: Kilkenny works very closely with our suppliers (Irish designers) to coach designers to make new products and designs, often times that are exclusive to Kilkenny. We give them feedback from customers which helps them create products that customers want and that will sell – it also makes sure we’re one step ahead of the competition.
Greg: We hold monthly executive meetings which are really brainstorming sessions for the company with the Board. We have a lot of staff input to generate new innovations and we collaborate closely with store managers – it’s important to hear from the people on the ‘frontline’ who are listening to customers first hand.
When making a new hire, what key characteristics do you look for?
Marian: Personality is very important – the Kilkenny Group is a close-knit team so we need people who can instantly fit in with the team.
Greg: We look for passion, determination to succeed and grow, enthusiasm – these are all things that have helped Kilkenny grow to the brand it is today! Staff need to be hardworking and willing to put in the effort to succeed and help us grow the brand.
Have you started to feel the effects of the economic upturn within your sector/industry?
Greg: There has certainly been a more positive outlook in over the past year. Our average transaction value has increased almost to what it was pre-recession which is very reassuring for the remainder of the year ahead.
What do you believe it takes to be a successful entrepreneur?
Marian: If I had to sum it up in two words I would simply say hard-work and determination.
Greg: You really need to have passion and belief behind your business, whatever sector it may be and on whatever scale, big or small, you’re operating on. Given the technology advancements and in particular the significance of social media today, you need to constantly be innovative and look for new and creative ways to bring your product to market.
If you were to invest in a sector, what would you consider the next “big thing”?
Greg: Technology is changing and evolving so rapidly. It would be a very exciting and challenging sector to be involved in at the minute.
What do you believe is your company’s competitive advantage?
Marian: The Kilkenny Group has an incredibly strong team behind it and I think this has been so important to our success. Unlike some companies, particularly in the retail sector, we invest heavily in our staff and training programmes. I love getting the best out of people and helping them to reach their full potential. We have a very loyal team of staff because of this and a strong staff retention rate.
Greg: The “Irishness” is another big strength of the company – we strive to support Irish designers and I believe the company is authentic in what we do; we can stand over every product we sell in our stores or on our website and we don’t try to be something we’re not.
What sacrifices have you had to make to get your business where it is today?
Marian: I’m a workaholic so for many years I worked around the clock, 7 days a week. I raised 4 children with my husband and I can say that my only regret is that I didn’t get to spend enough time with my family in the early days of Kilkenny because I was working so hard on the business. I’ve also taken numerous salary cuts over the years when needed.
Greg: At present, I am splitting my time between Dublin and Cork, spending 2-3 days in Dublin a week. My wife and 3 young kids live in Cork so I suppose, like Marian, my biggest sacrifice at the minute is having to be away from home so often.
How do you recharge your batteries?
Marian: I love to travel but on a day-to-day basis, my downtime is watching soaps and walking.
Greg: Exercise, either hitting the gym or playing Squash.