After a lifetime spent at the coalface of retail, CEO of Kilkenny Design Group Marian O’Gorman underlines the unique challenges posed by Covid-19.
“I have worked through many recessions, and have come out the other side,” she says. “But the health and safety of our Kilkenny staff, customers, and suppliers is my number one priority.”
This recession is different, with many of the impacts outside of normal control: “For us, some of the main challenges include our retail and restaurants closing for a three-month period, no tourists visiting this year, and putting new work practices in place to ensure our staff and loyal customers are safe.
"Like many, we have had to adapt with pace, and being agile is key. We have had to relook at all our costs, knowing cash is king and make some tough decisions to ensure we are there for the future.”
Successfully rising to the challenges also allowed capitalising on growth opportunities like scaling up the group’s e-commerce operations to deliver a +200% growth in online, and launching a new channel in telesales.
The campaign’s butterfly motif illustrates how a small and relatively insignificant action creates a much bigger impact elsewhere. The main sponsor Visa is supported by all of the major trade associations, including Retail Excellence, Chambers Ireland, and the Small Firms Association.
SMEs employ 65% of the national workforce, with retail alone representing 280,000 jobs. “Kilkenny Design is very proud to be the creator behind the Champion Green movement, a drive to encourage people to do business locally, and for businesses and organisations to up their support for local suppliers too. We all need to get behind Irish brands and businesses, and use local services, for the sake of jobs and national prosperity," says Marian.
Every adult spending €20 extra in small businesses each week for the next three months would amount to an injection of over €875m into the local economy.
“This type of sustained behaviour change is what will help make the desired long-term impact, and help save local businesses and local jobs,” she adds.
The 2018 acquisition of the Kilkenny Design Centre in Kilkenny city reunited the original Kilkenny Design workshop group, established in 1963 as a Government initiative to develop Irish craft makers into entrepreneurs and create sustainable design jobs.
Marian’s family owned Blarney Woollen Mills, with her late father, Christy Kelleher, buying Dublin's Kilkenny store on Nassau Street.
Following a Blarney Woollen Mills demerger in 1999, Marian became CEO of The Kilkenny Group, acquiring the Nassau Street store. a sweater shop in Killarney — later branded as a Kilkenny store — and two outlets in Killarney and Cobh trading under the brand name Christy's.
The group has grown to include 16 stores, two cafes, and an online site, employing 300 with sales of €30m approx.
“Strong iconic quality brands like Kilkenny design are so important in today’s marketplace, and our customers tell us that all the time.
"We represent over 250 Irish designers and makers who represent the best of Irish talent, and we play a key role in keeping this talent alive and thriving.
Customers are looking for quality, sustainable products and gifts that have meaning and will last.
"Kilkenny champions Irish design and craft, and are always looking for the next best talent. We support Irish designers and makers whose livelihood depends on Irish people buying their creations now more than ever. Our ambition is to grow our international sales of craft and design through our newly revitalised kilkennyshop.com,” she adds.
Looking to the retail of tomorrow, Marian sees a future around omni-channel retailing, where all channels will work together, and complement each other.
“We know customers are moving from one channel to another, looking for a consistent and seamless experience," she says. "It has been said there has been a decade of change in online in six months, and now that customers are enjoying the benefits of online, the growth in this area will be here to stay.”
Bricks and mortar stores will always have a role, as people still enjoy the art of physical shopping, yet going forward retailers will need to step up in building enjoyable and entertaining retail experiences. Marian says they are investing in new and innovative areas as well such as VR (virtual reality) and AR (augmented reality).
Having left school at 16 to work alongside her father, Marian credits him for much of her business acumen. Working in Blarney Woollen Mills for over 28 years, eight of which as CEO, she enjoys developing Ireland's wider craft sector, currently supporting ‘Going for Growth’, the Enterprise Ireland initiative mentoring female entrepreneurs. She was named one of the country’s Top 25 most influential women and a 2014 EY entrepreneur of the year finalist.
“I believe my entrepreneurial flair came from my father, he started selling to tourists in a small thatch cottage outside of Blarney Castle. I was 16 when I joined him, he taught me how to sell and how to care for customers.
"My father would tell me to go the extra mile for customers and I did. People used to tell to me, ‘you could sell sand in a dessert’, and they were right. When customers came in to buy an Aran sweater, they walked out with three or four sweaters, one for each member of their family. That was the buzz.”
One of the key lessons she learned was being honest with customers, and building a commercial trust: “A second lesson was that our staff are very important to us and the success of our business and creating a learning environment for them to develop their skills was a key ingredient.”
Having apprenticed at her father’s side and then progressed through decades of commercial and social change, Marian’s journey through the ranks to the heights of CEO has given a wide vision of the retail industry.
“We have great people who have worked up through the ranks in Kilkenny design, and their practical experience in dealing with customers, and their understanding of the business, has been key to our success,” she says.
“As our business, like others, is evolving to meet the needs of our customers we have recruited experienced new skills, in areas like IT, e-commerce, and marketing — expertise which has really helped our business step forward into new areas of growth.”
Citing the international success of designers such as Simone Rocha, Chupi, and Orla Kiely, she also highlights young designers like Gill & Jill, Jando, Pearl Reddington, and Copperfish as names to watch on the global stage. “Our buyers mentor and encourage new designers to bring their quality and designs to the standard that meets the eye of the Irish consumers and we celebrate when they become successful. Buying Irish design and craft this Christmas will help our designers emerge out of the pandemic and be there in the future.”