A trip to the Deep South got the intricate machinations of the mind of Pat McNamee working overtime in the early 1990s — today the Cork native is a man whose ingenious clothes washing invention is sold in millions of supermarkets throughout 60 countries, writes Pádraig Hoare.
Colour Catcher solved the conundrum faced by mums and dads every time they went to do a wash — how to stop the likes of a crisp white t-shirt turning into an odd-looking pink one.
Put simply, the product stops colours from running in the wash. The science behind it is far more complicated. Most importantly, consumers firmly believe in it.
Each year, a plant in Little Island produces enough sheets of Colour Catcher to go around the world five times.
It is sold in over 60 countries worldwide and according to data, more than 20m sheets and sachets of Colour Catcher were used in Ireland alone in 2012.
With a background in chemistry and marketing from UCC and CIT, Mr McNamee started work with famed Cork firm Punch Industries in 1977 as a chemist, eventually becoming technical
director. One of Cork’s most historic companies, it has since gone through two private equity cycles and eventually was acquired by German consumer goods giant Henkel.
Mr McNamee, who lives in Rochestown, is now a divisional head of research and development at Henkel, and head of research and development for laundry sheets.
Back in the 1990s, Punch Industries was best-known for its shoe-care business, but was always open to new ideas, according to Mr McNamee.
“The board at the time said to sniff around and see if there are any ideas we could develop. They didn’t want to be totally reliant on shoe-care and wanted to spread the wings a bit. They gave me carte blanche to have a look around and see if there were any other concepts we could latch onto.
“I am basically curious by nature and I tend to look at a lot of different patents. What I found was that in the US, the cotton industry was under severe pressure and prices were being driven down. The two main problems the cotton industry had was the amount of die that cotton used pick up — in those days, it used to be about 90%. So the other 10% went down the drain. Basically, there was a big issue from the point of view of cost of the die being used, and the environmental issue because of what was ending up in the river,” he said.
On one of his trips to the US, Mr McNamee diverted down to observe the cotton industry in the Deep South.
“That kind of sparked the idea in my head. I came back to Ireland and I headed to Finland where they take pulp and make non-woven products. I tinkered around there for a while and we ordered non-woven material, brought it back to Cork and started playing with it in the lab. After six months, we had something we thought was suitable.
“We couldn’t make any product because we had no machinery so I phoned a company in West Cork and borrowed their machines, made a couple of rolls, and test marketed it in Ireland. Within two weeks it sold out, so we ordered more material. We made 10 rolls and that sold out fast. Then it just took off from there,” he said.
In the late 1990s, a French company executive was in holiday in Ireland when he spotted Colour Catcher in a supermarket. He bought it, tried it out and from there, Colour Catcher went international.
“Within a couple of weeks, we were supplying to France. Nearly a billion sheets are used now,” he said.
While credited with the ingenious invention, Mr McNamee said it was the team in Little Island that deserves the plaudits, as well as the Punch organisation.
“We have 30 people in the plant. We are always looking forward to develop more. With Henkel on board, there is huge potential. It is truly global. We are always looking to improve. The talent pool we have here is second to none. There is no question about it that we can compete with anyone in the world when it comes to our graduates and our talent.
“The Punch organisation deserve huge credit. At the time, from the marketing and sales guys to the
managing director, they negotiated all these contracts and were a big part of the success.
“The Punch family who invested took a risk — they could have said no because it was unproven, because it was a lot of money.
“They could have decided not to but they backed the horse. The family was always very innovative, it has always been in their blood. There are generations of experience there,” he said.
Such innovation is not easy to finance, according to Mr McNamee.
“From an investor point of view, tax breaks would be of huge benefit to try and reduce the risk as much as possible for investors. There is enough cash out there, it’s about enticing it in. Everyone benefits — the investor, the consumer, employees. It’s a win-win.”