In the Chocolate Garden of Ireland

Jim and Mary Healy own the Chocolate Garden of Ireland.

After working with entrepreneurs on a consultancy basis, in 2001 Jim and Mary Healy set up in business for themselves, trading as Wicklow Fine Foods and selling waffles at farmers markets. Today the business has two brands: Chocolate Garden of Ireland, whose production peaks in winter, and Tipperary Ice Cream, sales of which peak in summer. They employ 18 people at their production and visitor centre on the Carlow/Wicklow border.

Your business?

We are makers of outstanding handmade chocolates, confectionery, ice cream and sorbet. We supply products into fine food and speciality outlets both in Ireland and abroad. 

Your greatest achievement so far?

Winning ‘best chocolate’ in both the 2012 and 2014 in Blas na hÉireann (Irish Food Awards) –  it’s nice to get recognition for products that taste awesome. Completing new purpose-built premises during the recession and moving forward on a solid footing with sustainable employment in a rural area.  Also, the fact that our products are exported to UK, France, Poland, Finland, Sweden and Dubai.

The lowest moment?

When we moved in 2009, in the throes of the recession, we had our lowest monthly sales in years. There was a bit of head scratching as to whether we had done the right thing. Looking back now, the business would not still be in existence if we hadn’t made the move and all the business changes that went with it.


“Remember, have some fun – success is a journey, not a destination”


How have you coped with setbacks?

In life and in business, you’ve got to expect the unexpected; things don’t always go smoothly or according to plan. Change is a constant. Whenever a setback happens, just refocus on the desired outcome and the actions required to get there, from whatever situation you find yourself in. There’s no point in looking backwards and complaining, you need to pick yourself up and move on. Later, there will be time to look back and draw lessons to avoid similar setbacks in the future.

Do you take risks?

Educated risk is preferable insofar as you can know what ‘might’ happen. However, sometimes you just have a sense of ‘go for it’ and feel it is the right thing to do, and that is what you do. I suppose that’s what being an entrepreneur is about. Obviously, you talk to customers and look at the competition to assess where the market is at; you then have to decide where you wish to pitch yourself in all of that, what investment is required and if you can make money after all the costs have been covered. 

We know many businesses that have huge turnovers but haven’t had profitability for years; turnover is vanity, profit is sanity – we haven’t chosen to go the high-volume production route to date. If we went that route, as with so many others, we’d probably seek outside investors to spread the risk – does that make us risk-averse or simply prudent?

Who is inspirational and why?

Michael O’Leary, CEO of Ryanair, not for customer service, although that is improving, but for sheer focus, grit and determination in pursuing a strategy and building a world-class business. The energy and drive he brings to the business is phenomenal. He always comes out fighting and uses every PR opportunity to his advantage. Also, we were doing a Christmas gift delivery to Ryanair a couple of years ago and Michael helped to carry the products into their offices in Dublin Airport.

How to switch off from the business?

Spending time with our kids is always a great way to chill-out, as is walking in nature. Being married to your business partner creates its own challenges – trying to keep work during working hours mainly – but it is great to share a similar focus.

What would you do differently if you were starting today?

We would probably make all the same mistakes again. It is by these mistakes we have learned. But we’d probably have looked at the market and looked for gaps first. Instead, we started out by buying equipment that made a particular product that we liked, and then we diversified within ‘confectionery’ as a category. That is quite a mature market and not an easy one in which to create something entirely new with strong market pull. While we love what we do, it’s challenging to be really different in the market. But we have created a customer following and loyalty by having a visitor centre which attracts people to come to us and identify with our brand.

The lessons have you learned that others could apply?

If you’re not the cheapest, then you’ve got to have a good point of difference – dare to be different, don’t be deterred. A strong business promotor with a mediocre product will go further than a weak promotor with a fabulous product. 

Remember always to work ‘on’ your business, not just in it. Don’t be afraid to say ‘No’ – a sure recipe for failure is to try to be all things to all people. You don’t know everything, so listen to you team as they often have the solution. Put a value on all inputs to the business, including your time. If you’re not being paid a wage within a reasonable time after starting the business, that is not a business, it’s a hobby.

If there was one piece of business advice you’d like to give to another business owner, what would that be?

A business must have systems, processes, standards and consistency, provide value to the customer and create wealth for its stakeholders. It should become independent of the key people who started it – these should be ‘roles’ that potentially could be carried out by another person.  Know your end game – is it a job for life you want or a saleable asset? And remember, have some fun – success is a journey, not a destination.