CEO Q&A: Sadie Chowen, The Burren Perfumery

Business, Interviews | Wed 21 Feb | Author – Business & Finance
Sadie Chowen, The Burren Perfumery

Sadie Chowen, The Burren Perfumery, highlights running a local business and taking on the large organisations in the perfume industry.

Q. What are your main priorities and goals in your role?

Quality of product, quality of customer experience, presentation of the brand. Today, everything a company does and says is visible to everyone everywhere. Everything you do, from the packaging to the paint on the door to the way your staff greet customers is an expression of your brand. The bar is very high for success for a small company competing against huge incumbents. I try to ensure that everything we do, we do to the best of our ability. Focus is important because when you’re small with limited resources, you need to apply them where they will make the most difference.

Q. What are your biggest challenges as CEO?

Being understood; specifically: having our business model understood. With many of the more established institutions, agencies and service firms we deal with there can be quite a fixed idea of how businesses should operate, should grow, etc. because the senior figures are experienced with traditional models. The retail world is changing very fast now, but when one questions the validity of traditional approaches that may have become out-moded, it’s like you’re preaching heresy.

Q. How do you keep your team/staff motivated?

Creating products that people seem to really enjoy and having that direct contact with our customers provides a lot of positive feedback that goes a long way towards motivating all of us here. I try to ensure that staffing levels allow everyone enough time to do their job well and not be under pressure. Giving people responsibility to make decisions and allowing them to make mistakes is important. Trust is better than rules.

Q. What are the challenges facing your industry going forward?

Retailing is undergoing major changes due to the impact of e-commerce. We’re a little behind the trend in Ireland/Europe but the impacts are already very visible in the US. In order to survive in markets dominated by behemoths like Amazon, small companies are going to have to be innovative in how they engage with their customers, how they present their brands and tell their stories. Seismic changes like this are challenging but also create new opportunities. At the same time as Amazon is moving to dominate ‘commodity’-type consumer goods, customers are looking for brands that have a personal story, that aren’t globalised and anonymous. When every capital city has the same stores with the same brands throughout the world, there is an opportunity to be unique by eschewing conventional growth strategies.

Q. What new trends are emerging in your industry?

There has been a substantial increase in consumer awareness of ingredients and formulations in the beauty sector in the last decade. Not all of it is well-informed and there is a certain amount of hype and misinformation, but people are reading labels and thinking about what they put on their skin. When we first made certified organic skincare products ten years ago, only a very few customers appreciated and understood the difference in quality. People are much more informed today and that’s great for the industry, though the large, global brands are moving to muddy the waters and co-opt the standards.

Q. Are there any major changes you would like to see in your sector?

Part of our revenues are coupled to the state of the tourism market in Ireland. I think there is a danger of too much focus on volume and not enough focus on revenue/quality. Ireland has fantastic resources (and great potential for development of new assets like greenways, walking trails, etc.) but there is a limit to the volume of tourists the country can support without compromising the quality of the experience. A shift of attention towards higher-end experiences and higher spending tourists would strengthen the sector and make it more sustainable.

Q. As an employer are you finding any skills gaps in the market?

It’s not so much that there are skills gaps; the challenge for us is more our rural location. The Irish countryside is being depopulated (because of a lack of jobs and career opportunities)

and that can make it hard to find candidates with certain skill sets. If companies like ours don’t persist in rural areas, there will be even less opportunity for people to remain in the countryside, and it will be harder for companies to justify not moving to an easier urban environment.

Q. How did your strategy develop in the context of the banking crisis and economic crisis?

We’ve always put a lot of effort into cash-flow projections and planning. In late 2008 we sat down and made plans based on 5, 10 and 15% revenue reduction scenarios. As it was, we grew in 2009 and continued to grow every year thereafter. We never had much debt exposure and generally reinvest any surplus cash back into the company, bootstrapping ourselves upwards. This certainly insulated us from the credit shock.

Q. How will Brexit affect you, or have you started to feel the effects already?

We source some ingredients and components in the UK, but we deal a lot with mainland Europe also. If Brexit makes trading with the UK more difficult, we will shift to EU-based suppliers. On the revenue side, the UK is a small but not insignificant part of our exports, however, even if it collapsed by say half, it wouldn’t seriously affect us. The situation has so many unknowns at present, there’s very little one can do as a small company to prepare until more concrete detail emerges.

Q. How do you define success and what drives you to succeed?

This is a question we have asked ourselves a lot in recent years as we looked at the future and thought about where we wanted to go. I realised that I wasn’t really motivated by growth, profitability or recognition (though all those things have come to us). What I really enjoy is making products I am proud of. Owning the whole process from manufacturing through to the final customer is empowering; it means one can make things better at each step of the way and I think that attention to detail is important to our success.

Q. What’s the best advice you’ve been given, or would give, in business?

Two things: always ask why and often say no. Always question assumptions, find your own understanding, look for new ways to do things. There should be a good, solid answer when you ask ‘why are we doing this thing?’. Secondly, you will always have limits to your time and resources; say no to distractions, say no to things that don’t move you in the direction you need to go. It can be very hard to do so, but some of our best decisions have been opportunities we turned down.

Q. What have been your highlights in business over the past year?

We’ve always been a bit reticent about putting ourselves forward, but in 2017 we decided to actively raise our brand awareness in Ireland. We launched in the Avoca chain, had great press coverage across the board, and I was surprised and delighted to win the IMAGE Creative Business Woman of the Year Award in November.

Q. What’s next for the company?

The last three years have been quite intense for us. We had a major redesign across all our products, which helped us to consolidate or perhaps distill our brand values and positioning. We also branched out into a number of new channels in Ireland and abroad. In 2018 we will be assessing the impact of these changes as well as considering other opportunities. We will also be investing time and resources in our core activities of direct- and web-based sales.

Q. What opportunities or plans for growth do you see in 2018?

The shift from traditional retail to online sales is gathering momentum. We’ve always had strong web sales, and the web grew 23% for us in 2017, but I still feel that is where the greatest potential for growth lies. We will be concentrating on this area in 2018.

Q. Where do you want your business/brand to be this time next year?

We’ve a number of new products that have been on the back burner for a while. I’d like to complete them. 2017 was an exceptional year for the company; if we could consolidate that and repeat the same level of growth, I would be very happy.

Creating products that people seem to really enjoy and having that direct contact with our customers provides a lot of positive feedback that goes a long way towards motivating all of us here.

The Burren Perfumery is a family company that is run at a small scale with local staff. Its aim is to be better than the best of the large brands in the quality of its products.