Kira and Mark Walton, VOYA
Mark Walton speaks to Niamh Mac Sweeney about the renewed vigour and momentum at VOYA following its recent win at the Business & Finance Awards.
The strongest brands are those with a compelling story, those that create an appealing image and those that provide an alternative narrative. One of Ireland’s most recognisable and highly regarded brands is VOYA. It’s journey and evolution has been carefully considered by its creators, and it shows.
All across Ireland, and indeed internationally, VOYA is a strong and instantly recognisable Irish beauty and skincare brand. Brothers Neil and Mark Walton, along with Mark’s wife, Kira – who were inspired by the surrounding natural beauty and age-old traditions – have grown VOYA out of a successful family-run seaweed baths business in Strandhill, Co. Sligo, on the wild Atlantic coast.
As the popularity of the Walton’s Seaweed Baths grew, the Walton’s saw an opportunity to recreate and replicate the experience for people to use at home.
At VOYA, beauty and skincare treatments are created with integrity, sustainablity and in full harmony with nature. Based on its hand-harvested seaweed, which is certified organic, combined with a deep knowledge of the local traditions of seaweed baths and seaweed treatments, the VOYA range is the first genuinely organic seaweed-based cosmetic products in the world.
After many years of extensive research and development, the Walton’s perfected the complex method of preserving seaweed naturally. However, this was only the beginning of their voyage, as they then set about creating a full range of seaweed-based organic products.
Once the range was established another challenge awaited the brothers – the brand. “As a consumer product, brand awareness is vital to our success,” Mark Walton says. “What’s crucial is determining the message for each market. There are some universals and many overlaps, but the weight we attach to each one varies on the market.”
While Walton appreciates the importance of getting products to market, he does warn of other impending challenges. “There are many attractive things about the cosmetic business and many people enter it without realising the cost of getting their message out there.
“Many brands make the mistake of defining success as getting a product on the shelf, when really success is staying on the shelf – that’s crucial and in order to do so requires a lot of spend and constant reinvention. In fact, this is the biggest spend to the company.”
The team behind VOYA however, do not shy away from challenges and like many entrepreneurs starting, maintaining and growing a business, they have embraced a steep learning curve and learned many lessons along the way.
In the beauty and cosmetic business, stringent EU regulation posses a unique set of challenges that aren’t present in other industries. “We invest heavily in internal and external technical resources for quality assurances, from safety assessments and derma testing to stability and compatibility testing.
“It’s a very substantial body of work, so we have our own internal personal, we use eternal labs for best practice and also bring in consultants regularly to health check us.”
Walton agrees that when building a company from the ground up, it’s essential to have a handle on the many important day-to-day elements of running a business. “Recruitment and HR has been a steep learning curve,” he concedes. “Global variations in business practices, the sales pipeline and the length of time it can take to deliver new business are where we have learned the most.”
Many brands make the mistake of defining success as getting a product on the shelf, when really success is staying on the shelf
Soon VOYA will be available across a large chain of spas in the US and Walton was surprised by the length of time it has taken to realise this idea, particularly as the Waltons initially approached the spa more than four years ago.
“Kira and I have learned to realise the difference in mind-sets required for entrepreneurs and management trying to scale a business,” He says. “For example, we are very good at identifying opportunities and getting products to market quickly, capitalising on that and generating returns. However, we are now a large company internationally traded, profitable and quickly growing – that’s a different business; it’s not a start-up, we are building a management team around that which will facilitate VOYA’s continued growth.
“The challenge is realising that maybe you are not the best person to run every part of the business, which is hard when you eat and sleep your company.”
Given that the indigenous cosmetics industry is quite small with a greater tendency towards importing cosmetics, does Walton think this places VOYA at an advantage or disadvantage?
“Both really,” he says. “The disadvantages are that recruiting can be hard as there is limited industry knowledge in the manufacturing side of things. The advantage is that the domestic market is not as crowded with indigenous brands as other countries, though that’s changing.”
Although Walton attributes VOYA’s success to the exceptional support they have received here, he also points out that ultimately that success was always going to be defined by international growth. “Our international success has an impact on our success in Ireland. I hate to say it, but we still do look abroad when defining quality, and it did make a difference in Ireland when we could ‘name drop’ some of our international clients.
Given the strengthen of VOYA’s branding, does Walton have any advise for those looking to devise a brand for their own business?
“Know your strengths,” he says. “We have worked with some very talented companies in Ireland over the years who really helped, like Dynamo design agency for packaging and brand and RDC Communication for marketing and PR. Ultimately, no one knows your brand better than you and you need to have confidence in that.
“When we started, the proposition of organic or natural cosmetics was unheard of and we were told we were nuts and wasting our time.
“Granted it was an element of our personal beliefs, though it happened to coincide with a large movement, which has outstripped conventional cosmetics over the years. The key thing for us was that the brand needed to be Irish, though not in a twee way. It had to be organic, contemporary (internationally) and luxurious (high quality).”
According to Walton: “We are often told we must do great in certain markets because we are Irish, but to be honest for most people in the world it has little or no relevance, so the quality of your product and strength of your brand is key.”
Given that VOYA has been exporting since year one, Walton has been through it all – the highs and the lows. Although exporting is not for the faint hearted, there is support, help and advice for all businesses looking to export.
“A lot of businesses complain about exporting but their head’s not in the game,” Walton says. “You need to assume you are competing with someone as if you lived in the same town as that customer. Too often I hear people complaining, ‘he rang me yesterday and wanted me in the States for a meeting in two days’. The fact that you live in Sligo and not in Austin is your problem; if you want to compete and win business from local companies selling to your customers you need to offer the same level of service as them.
He adds: “Most people will be reasonable, they know the geography, but ultimately it’s your problem, so decide if you’re in the game or not, and get on the plane.
R&D represents a large portion of VOYA’s turnover, but this is money well spent according to Walton. “People often describe us as punching above our weight but I think it’s really that we produce an excellent product and we devote a lot of energy to that.”
Walton also argues: “There are a lot of easy paths you can take in product development, but that’s the same path as everyone else. So we try not to do that. It drives my team nuts sometimes but I think this way of thinking has stood us well. We always say: ‘Is there a better way to make a difference and do something bold’?
Sometimes we get it wrong, and if we do, we own it [the mistake], we communicate to our customers and we fix it quickly. A lot of times they don’t see the issue, but the communication is reassuring.”
Not one to rest on the back of global success, Walton explains that there are currently in the region of 30 products in development.
“These are scheduled for launch in the next two to three which makes my eyes water just thinking about that,” he jokes.
Equally, there is more going on at VOYA than just product development. “We are moving to our fourth manufacturing location in five years; we are setting up offices in the US, the Middle East and Asia; and we are strengthening our management structure by adding aggressively to the team. We are launching three new ranges of facial products in the year and Kira and I are exploring new applications for seaweed outside of cosmetics completely.”
When pitching for large international tenders, we find these awards really make a difference
In December 2014, VOYA won the Business & Finance Enterprise of the Year Award, which according to Walton will be immeasurable when it comes to recognition, exposure and generating awareness. “It’s a hugely prestigious award, and at the risk of sounding arrogant, we also like to be challenged, so for the business entering the awards was a good health check.”
Sponsored by AIB, the Enterprise of the Year Award Ken Burke, head of Business Banking, AIB says VOYA impressed the panel with their determination, resilience and commitment to their company and the people in their business.
“This is a family-run business formed in 2007. They have won dozens of awards globally for their diverse range of over 100 products. Indeed, over 15% of their turnover is devoted to new product development.”
According to Burke, the team behind VOYA has demonstrated huge commitment and dedication. “Their mantra when abroad developing export markets is ‘never get on a return flight without making enough money to cover the airfare’. They’re now selling products and services in almost 40 countries and their penetration of very difficult foreign markets from an Irish base particularly impressed the judges.”
Burke also noted that their international saleability is impressive, as is their no-holds-barred belief that they can grow the business to €50m turnover within this decade.
“Consistently they have had double and triple digit growth from inception, and 2015 will see them launch offices in North America and the Middle East which is a fantastic achievement,” Burke highlights.
According to Burke, the Enterprise of the Year Award is hugely important to fledging businesses. “This is an award that publicly recognises the achievements and development of indigenous SME fast growth enterprises that trade locally and/or internationally and are in business for less than 12 years. These enterprises have demonstrated innovative concept and vision and have achieved domestic and international market share and commercial success. They have displayed clear potential and capability for sustainable growth,” he says.
Walton agrees that the awards are a great platform for the company. “It puts you on the radar and I’ve certainly noticed a number of approaches from investment partners in the most unlikely places. Equally, when pitching for large international tenders, we find these awards really make a difference. It doesn’t guarantee anything, but it buys you admission to the show,” he concludes.
Mark Walton’s tips for emerging entrepreneurs
• Profit can come from surprising places so have products in your portfolio that offer a comprehensive solution to your customers.
• In the hotel and spa market, you need to be competitive, which forces you into supplying products with fairly slim margins.
• Be creative in identifying how you will realise your profits and do this early on. Some of our products make very little margin, but they deliver a suite of sales which gives us a healthy aggregate.
• Don’t shy away from cross marketing and look at complimentary markets. For example, we are increasing brand awareness due to placement of our products in airlines.
• Surround yourself with brilliant people; I might even say better people than you.