For the latest in our series of editorials focusing on Irish Women in Business, we’re talking to Alison Banton, the founder of luxury candle and body product company Brooke & Shoals.
Established in 2010, Brooke & Shoals Irish Organics is an Irish-owned company creating a luxurious range of scented candles, home fragrance reed-diffusers and organic body products. Everything is made in Ireland. In 2004 Alison set up her first Brooke & Shoals retail shop in Greystones in Co. Wicklow selling gifts, jewellery and candles and it was here that she started selling her own candle range before she scaled the business up in 2010 to sell to other retailer around the country.
Here, Alison talks to Her.ie about finding inspiration in childhood memories, the importance of hard work, and investment in the homestead.
What prompted you to become interested in fragrance and candles
For me, candles have always been a wonderful way to disseminate beautiful aromas. Their welcoming glow enhances a room and their fragrance sets the ambiance. I have had a passion for fragrance which goes back to my childhood. As a child I used to pick petals in my great-aunt Mollie’s circular rose garden as I was fascinated by their smell. Mollie used to say that ‘the babbling brook and whispering shoals’ would help her turn the rose petals I picked, into perfume. But overnight, Mollie would add real perfume to the watery petal mixture, fooling me into believing I had created the beautiful fragrance! My great-aunt and the mysterious brook and shoals awakened my interest in perfumes, so I added an ‘e’ and turned it into a name that has wonderful fragrance memories for me!
I also spent time at the Grasse Institute of Perfumery in France, studying the creation of accords and fragrance blending to gain inspiration for my fragrances. I undertook courses in natural cosmetics and candle making so that I could understand all the processes involved and start making them myself. Initially I made all the candles and sold them in my own shop in Greystones but now that we have grown much bigger and are supplying over 100 stockists, I oversee the manufacturing and product development to ensure we continue to create high quality products.
Was it difficult to start a business and grow it?
Starting you own business is never easy, especially in the recession that we have experienced over the last few years. It takes more than just hard work, it takes dedication and commitment and huge stamina. But if you are passionate about what you do, like I am, this drives you on. Running your own business is definitely not for the faint-hearted but I firmly believe that if you start in a recession and you can make the business work, then you are really well positioned for profitable growth when the economy recovers.
How does your brand stand out in a crowded market?
At Brooke & Shoals Irish Organics, our philosophy is simple, all our candles and body products must smell wonderful and must contain natural, organic and eco-friendly ingredients. Our range is made with great care and attention in Ireland. Our customers appreciate our dedication to quality, commitment to nature and addiction to fragrance!
Over the last three years the brand has really come together and is now very credible and has a great retail offering. Our candles come in two different sizes and nine different fragrances and our fragranced reed diffusers come in four different scents.
Our body product range is made with certified organic seaweed extracts known for their antioxidant properties, as well as skin-loving ingredients like organic shea butter and organic cocoa butter. It includes hand cream, body moisturiser and bath/body wash, along with pure natural handmade soap. All products are free from artificial fragrance, parabens and artificial colour, leaving skin feeling enriched and completely nurtured.
What is the appeal of a luxury candle?
With a luxury candle it’s all about the quality of the fragrance. I have created our collection to appeal to many different fragrance pallets. The scents evoke different moods and ambiances. Some of the fragrance blends are designed to promote feelings that are relaxing, calming, and other blends encourage feeling that are invigorating and uplifting and so on.
People feel indulged and pampered with a luxury candle and love to get them as a gift. Because our candles are made from natural wax blended with the maximum amount of fragrance and essential oils, the quality is superb, the aroma is wonderful and they are kind to the environment, so they make really lovely gifts. Our packaging is very design-led and premium looking, so this adds to the appeal.
Do you think there is still a demand for hand-made products?
I think there is a demand now more than ever for quality, hand-made and Irish-made products. People understand the level of work and care that goes into handmade products and realise how special they are for this reason. I feel that the growth of cheap mass market goods has flooded the market but it has also created a niche demand for the complete opposite of this. So high quality Irish products like our candles, that are handmade and have a genuine story behind them, are appealing to people who want something different and special. Customers are making the conscious decision to support Irish manufacturers as they know that this is how we will combat unemployment in Ireland. We are very proud to be an Irish company producing natural and organic products which are made with great care in Ireland.
Where are your customers based
Our range is currently stocked in over 100 stores throughout Ireland and also on all the Aer Lingus flights in the In-Flight shopping catalogue, so the reach of our brand is now nationwide.
As well as being stocked in independent retailers, we are also currently rolling out our range in all the Meadows & Byrne stores and the Carraic Donn shops around the country. We continue to have a very dedicated customer base in Greystones in County Wicklow, where it all started and where still have our own Brooke & Shoals gift shop.
Recently we have also gained customers using social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest which allow us to stay connected to both our customers and our stockists.
What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of starting out in the business?
Starting your own business is not something to be taken lightly. It is a much harder option than working in the corporate world, where I came from. You have to be prepared to put very long hours and get paid very little in the beginning. When you have staff, you also have to be prepared to be the last person to be paid. So it’s hard going, but it is also very rewarding and when you see your own products being sold in high-profile retail environments like Aer Lingus, you get a real sense of achievement. It’s exciting and challenging and frustrating and fabulous all at the same time. So I would advise people to think long and hard about it, but if they feel that they have the right idea and a huge amount of energy, then I would say “ go for it”. I don’t think I could ever work for anyone else again, I love being my own boss.
What is your focus for the immediate future?
We are constantly developing new products and fragrances to expand our range. Later this year we will be launching two new fragrances to add to our collection of candles and reed diffuser, and we are very excited about that. With over 100 stockists around Ireland now, this year we are focusing our efforts on expanding into Europe. In January we exhibited at a trade fair in Paris. We got lots of interest from all over Europe and we secured agents to represent our brand in France.
With the economic outlook looking much for positive in Ireland and globally for 2014 I am confident this will be a good year for Brooke & Shoals!
For more on Brooke & Shoals, visit the website here.