Sunday, April 24, 2011
The Sunday Times
Rosie Sheehan admits she never had any desire to be her own boss. But when the native New Yorker landed in Dungarvan, Co Waterford in 2000, she didn't have much choice. "There weren't too many jobs round here at the time," she said. Instead Sheehan, who is aged 44, opened a coffee shop. It tanked. Just one year after opening the venture into which she and her Irish husband Des sank their life savings (Euro 40,000) she was left with an empty unit and an emptier bank account.
She had come to Ireland because her sister had married a Waterford man and moved there, "and I missed her". When she got here, what she missed most about New York were the bagels. "I just couldn't get them here so when I opened the coffee shop we specialised in bagels, and while the business wasn't a success, the bagels were," said Sheehan. "When the coffee shop closed, we had no means of survival but we still had our bagel machine."
She began bringing samples to cafes and restaurants in Dublin and Broadway Bagels was born, with Sheehan delivering herself from her car boot. By 2004, when she launched a frozen bagel range, she appointed a specialist distributor with frozen transport. Launching what is now her core product was hard. "Supermarket buyers were reluctant at first, because there was no product category for frozen bagels," she said. "In any case, as a small company with only two products at the time, we needed a distributor to get supermarket listings."
It was a decision she was to rue years later. In the meantime however, sales were rising like freshly baked bread, thanks in no small part to a star turn on TV. "RTE asked us to do a programme called The Mentor, a forerunner of Dragons Den, with people like Jay Bourke giving advice to young businesses." Such was the reaction to her appearance that stocks sold out the following week and buyers' initial reservations dissipated. The mentoring was helpful too. "One of the things suggested was that I move my office out of the house, which proved my saving grace for me. I had a problem switching off, was always checking emails and working 24/7 and I would have burnt out," she recalled.
By 2006 the business had started exporting to the UK. Indeed bagels had become so popular that rival brands were proliferating. "By 2007 we had to relaunch as Rosie's Broadway Bagels, because there were too many New York sounding names around and we wanted to differentiate ourselves," she said. She developed new varieties, including cinnamon and raisin for the sweet toothed and plain lunchbox sized ones for kids. In recent years she has broadened out the product range out further still, leveraging the brand's American heritage to create new snack food products including bagel based pizza and, more recently, cookie dough.
In 2009 however, the firm hit an almighty speed bump. "It was our annus horribilis. Our distributor was sold and the new owner, which deals in very big brands, did a category review of all its brands and delisted a number, including ourselves." Having worked so hard to build up her trade it was, she said, "soul destroying". It also wiped out 40% of her turnover. Only from this distance can she see it as 'a blessing in disguise'. "The fact is that although we were selling to all the big supermarket, I had never met a buyer. When you deal with distributors, you never do. When the distributor delisted us I had to go out and start meeting them, pitching to them and developing relationships with them." It was hard work, but over the following months she was one by one relisted by all the supermarkets she had lost.
"It was incredibly hard. Supermarket orders tend to be self generated from sales history but in some cases our delisting had wiped out our sales history. Luckily I had loads of letters and emails I could show them from their customers wondering where my bagels had gone." These days she outsources delivery to a third party and the savings she makes from no longer having a distributor's margin she spends on marketing and promotions.
Turnover has recovered to in excess of Euro 500,000 and the business is "highly profitable", she said. It currently produces 40, 000 to 50,000 bagels a week, a figure on track to 'grow dramatically' this year on the back of a new emphasis on exports. "Last year we started selling to Italy, France and Spain. In particular, we've been working closely with Bord Bia to win a number of contracts in France, to the point that we already sell more bagels into the French market than we do to food service in Ireland, so it's very substantial," she said.
Despite her success, it's only relatively recently that Sheehan, who has 14 employees, has begun to feel like an entrepreneur. "It has grown on me, but what I really want to be is a writer," she laughed. She also wishes she had a little more business nous starting out. "I remember someone asking whether or not I had done a feasibility study, and I had no idea what that was," she said. "To be honest, I think I could have saved myself a lot of heartache along the way if I'd been a little better equipped businesswise. Then again, if I knew more at the time I probably would never have done it." There is one thing she would do differently however. "I would never put all my eggs in one (distributor's) basket again."