Irish brand gets a taste of eastern promise

Having re-branded to capitalise on its Irish identity, a Co Louth chocolate company is developing its export trade to Dubai, China and Japan and hopes to surpass last year’s 30% growth in turnover, writes Trish Dromey

Selling Easter eggs for the first time this year, Louth company Ferdia Fine Foods is hatching ambitious plans to develop exports.

It recently changed its brand name from Danucci to Ferdia — and is now toying with the idea of producing chocolate warriors.

Developing exports of premium quality chocolates to Dubai, China and Japan, the company has changed its product name in order to create an identifiably Irish brand.

“People thought Danucci were Italian and export customers were looking for something Irish,’’ explains Ferdia chief executive John O’Mahony, adding that the name Ferdia, borrowed from the legendary Irish warrior who fought Cúchulainn, is also expected to boost sales to tourists in Ireland.

Danucci chocolates was the survivor of the original company of the same name, which went into liquidation as a consequence of recession in 2010. It was bought in Jul 2010 by Australian investment company Helsinki Capital Corporation (part-owned by Louth man Noel Kerr) and re-established as Ferdia Fine Foods.

Danucci had been producing chocolates made with Valrhona chocolate for the premium end of the market since 2004. Continuing the business at the 10,000sq ft space at Currabeg Business Park in Ardee, Ferdia retained the staff, including the chocolatier, and continued supplying many of the existing customers around Ireland.

Given the difficulties in selling a luxury product in a depressed market, Ferdia almost immediately set its sights on Britain and other export markets.

A key element in developing exports was the appointment of a sales manager based in Britain in 2011.

Since then, Bord Bia has assisted Ferdia with export strategy and helped it organise attendance at a number of international food fairs

Mr O’Mahony says that over the last three years in the region of €1.5m has been invested in upgrading facilities and carrying out R&D. During this time, staff numbers have increased from six to 17 and turnover has doubled.

Ferdia now sells to over 100 outlets around Ireland, including fine food shops, Spar and Mace outlets, some petrol stations, as well as through ‘eflorist’ shops.

Exports now account for 60% of trade and Britain is its largest market.

“In the UK we supply a number of high-end independent food stores, selling through two distributors as well as eflorist, which also supplies our chocolates in four or five countries in Europe,” says Mr O’Mahony.

Ferdia also sells to Dean and Deluca stores in Kuwait and Qatar, as well as to some gourmet stores in Moscow.

Already selling to gourmet grocery store Milk and Honey in Dubai, Mr O’Mahony sees significant scope for Middle East growth.

“We recently attended the Gulf Food Fair in Dubai and are working with a distributor and aim to get in to a chain of 50 stores, which would be very significant,” says Mr O’Mahony, explaining that the company has already begun producing alcohol-free chocolates for this market

In recent times Ferdia has also been pursuing opportunities in both the Chinese and Japanese markets. It connected with a Japanese distributor at a food show in Britain and came in contact with Chinese buyers at a Bord Bia Marketplace event in Dublin.

“One Chinese customer has taken its first two deliveries and we are expecting larger orders in the future. China has developed a middle class and a taste for high quality chocolates,” says Mr O’Mahony, adding that the company is also negotiating with a distributor in Japan.

Following the re-branding in early March, Ferdia is now aiming to increase exports from 60% to 70% or even 80% this year.

Sales in Ireland have been static as a result of recession, but the company is hoping that the re-branding will lead to growth and started selling Easter eggs here for the first time this year.

It out-sourced production of the eggs, in order to test the market for high-quality eggs.

“We need to be able to supply a complete range to customers and we have found that customers who buy eggs will also buy chocolates,’’ says Mr O’Mahony, who expected Ferdia to sell up to 1,000 eggs and bunnies this Easter.

The company is also looking into the marketing opportunities presented by the Gathering and is thinking of making chocolate warriors in time for Christmas.

The company has very ambitious plans for future growth. In 2012, due to the growth in exports, it achieved a 30% growth in turnover.

“This year we are targeting growth of 40% but will be happy with 30%. It won’t be easy but it is achievable,’’ says Mr O’Mahony, who believes Ferdia can maintain this level of growth for the next three years.

He sees significant opportunities in recession-free countries where consumers can still afford luxury items.

Bord Bia has identified the Middle East, where chocolate sales are growing by 7% a year, and China, where chocolate sales are growing by 13%, as key markets. Mr O’Mahony sees scope for growth in these countries and says there may even be possibilities to export Easter eggs.

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