Fiona Uyema, creator of the award-winning Fused brand, shares her life and business lessons.
Fiona runs the award-winning Fused brand alone with her husband Gilmar. The business has grown every year for the past five years and generating net profits for the past three years.
The range now includes over 20 products now all based on Fiona’s own recipes that are sold in retailers across Ireland and exported to the UK, Iceland, Germany, Singapore and New Zealand.
“I was motivated to make Asian food better and inspired by the bold flavours of the Far East”
What sets them apart from other Asian sauces is the commitment to 100% natural ingredients and no refined sugars.
Tell us about your background, what journey did you take to arrive at where you are?
I originally studied International Marketing and Japanese at DCU. After living and working in Japan for several years, I returned to Ireland and started working in a tax role helping Japanese companies manage their tax compliance in the EU. I went on to complete the Irish Tax Exams and become a qualified tax consultant. I was using my Japanese language skill set and insight into Japanese business culture to assist Japanese companies with a presence in Europe to manage their tax affairs.
However, during my time in Asia and Japan in particular I had fallen in love with the region and varied cuisines, as well as my now husband Gilmar, who is of Okinawan heritage. Home in Ireland, I started a small food blog and before I knew it I had a cookbook deal, was hosting cookery demos at food festivals, appearing regularly in the media and on national TV – I’m now a regular guest chef on Ireland AM.
“Our goal is to have Fused by Fiona products stocked in every kitchen in Ireland and beyond”
In 2015, together with Gilmar, I launched Fused by Fiona Uyema, a range of Asian cooking essentials. Still based on my original recipes, the range has expanded from the original range of unique flavoured and naturally fermented soy sauces to over 20 products, including stir fry sauces, curry pastes, and ready chopped ingredients and other store cupboard essentials. We’re now a multi-award-winning brand that’s stocked in major retailers all across Ireland, the UK, Iceland, New Zealand Singapore and on Amazon UK & EU.
Why are you doing what you are doing? What need are you meeting? What’s your USP?
After years of living and travelling in Asia, the idea for Fused was sparked when I returned home to Ireland and noticed that many of the Asian-inspired sauces on supermarket shelves contained unnecessary additives and refined sugars.
I was motivated to make Asian food better and inspired by the bold flavours of the Far East.
Fused by Fiona Uyema products deliver maximum flavour yet are designed to make mealtimes simple and healthy. They are game-changing storecupboard staples that you can truly trust. All our products are made with 100% natural ingredients and contain no refined sugars, msg or anything artificial.
How did you fund and start the business and what are your growth plans?
Since the business has grown steadily over the last seven years we have funded the business ourselves through loans. We are 100% shareholders in Fused. We have also received great support from our local Kildare LEO office since the business was founded.
“As an entrepreneur, there is a challenge every day. I used to worry that they kept coming – until someone reassured me that this is normal entrepreneur life”
Our goal is to have Fused by Fiona products stocked in every kitchen in Ireland and beyond. We’ve already expanded into the UK, Iceland and New Zealand and Singapore. Fused products are also available on amazon.co.uk. There’s no limit to where we want to take Fused – making healthy and delicious cooking easy for more and more people along the way.
What are your key skills and qualities that set you apart?
All Fused products are made according to my unique recipes. My experiences and understanding of Asian food and ingredients has allowed me to create original recipes that tick all the boxes: natural ingredients, no refined sugars and delicious flavour. I’m constantly learning more about Asian cuisines and so there’s endless inspiration to develop the Fused range even further.
What (or whom) has helped you most along the way? Who was your greatest mentor/inspiration?
I work with my husband and he has been incredibly supportive throughout the entire Fused journey. He is constantly calm, a great sounding board and brings so much to the Fused business with over 20 years of experience in the FMCG industry.
“I thought we’d get our product into stores really quickly – not realising it can take 18 months to get something on a supermarket shelf, and that’s if everything goes smoothly”
He has mentored me through so much, particularly when I lacked confidence at the beginning due to a fear of public speaking. He kept telling me: ‘You can.’
What was the greatest piece of business advice you ever received?
As an entrepreneur, there is a challenge every day. I used to worry that they kept coming – until someone reassured me that this is normal entrepreneur life. Embrace those challenges and don’t expect a day to pass without one.
What circumstances/qualities/events can mark the difference between success or failure in life or business?
I believe that in life and business you need to surround yourself with good people and work on building positive relationships. To reach new heights of success in all areas of life, you must surround yourself with people who inspire you, challenge you and who you can learn from.
My commitment to building relationships has been a critical factor in the business’s growth. We outsource a lot of our business, but whether they are employees, suppliers, or customers, if you constantly respect people and their opinions, they appreciate that and do their best for you.
What was the most challenging aspect of either starting or growing the business?
I loved preparing food and creating recipes however at the start of the business I had no retail experience so I was quite naive in believing it would all scale up quicker than it did. I thought we’d get our product into stores really quickly – not realising it can take 18 months to get something on a supermarket shelf, and that’s if everything goes smoothly! Fortunately, my husband Gilmar has retail experience, which helped enormously, and it’s all working out brilliantly now, but if I did it again I’d probably be more realistic.
How did you navigate your business through the pandemic and what lessons did you learn?
In 2020, during the Covid-19 lockdowns Fused grew and reached new audiences, but it also meant that Gilmar and I worked around meeting the growing demand for Fused – all the while homeschooling our two sons!
“We’ve had an online retail presence for a number of years but physical retail presence remained number one for us. During Covid, this was turned on its head”
Since then we’ve started to delegate and began working with new fulfilment centres and distribution partners both in Ireland and the UK. This has allowed the business to grow and at the same time allowed us to be less hands-on so we can focus on the business growth and strategic direction for the coming years.
How has the digital transformation been a factor in your scaling journey and do you believe Irish firms are utilising digital technologies sufficiently?
Since the beginning of Covid, in particular, we’ve seen a massive surge in e-commerce and digital transformation. Businesses and consumers were forced to “go digital”, providing and purchasing more goods and services online, and at Fused we had to keep up with this shift too.
We’ve had an online retail presence for a number of years but physical retail presence remained number one for us. During Covid, this was turned on its head. In response, we built a new website and now this forms a big part of our business.
While stores have reopened and people have returned to normal life, the digital transition will have lasting impacts on our societies and daily lives and Irish firms can’t afford to neglect this revenue stream. It’s more important than ever for Irish businesses to stay close to their customers’ changing expectations and be prepared to evolve accordingly. As a small business, this is both a challenging resource-wise but also a great opportunity.
If you were to do it all over again, what would you do differently?
It’s been a rollercoaster ever since we launched in 2015, with challenges and opportunities around every corner but I wouldn’t change a thing.
“Fused is a real family business, so much so that it really is just myself and Gilmar that manage everything”
Of course, we’ve made mistakes, but every business owner makes a few mistakes along the way and overall I’ve no regrets. I’m so glad I made the move that I did and every path we’ve taken so far has been an incredible learning opportunity.
Who inspires you in business today?
I attended a talk by Caroline Keeling, CEO of Keelings, a few years ago and I was really impressed by her work ethic and drive but also the importance she placed on work-life balance and the need for a hobby to get away from work and totally tune out which can be a challenge when you are an entrepreneur. For me, tennis helps me to do this.
What advice/guidance do you give new hires and how do you nurture talent in your organisation?
Fused is a real family business, so much so that it really is just myself and Gilmar that manage everything! On saying that we do have a number of freelance professionals and creatives who I see as valued team members. I’m really committed to building relationships, maintaining strong communication and offering them full flexibility. Because of this approach we’ve been lucky to build a loyal team of contractors who do great work for us.
What business books do you read or would recommend?
I’ve recently moved from reading books to learning a new language as I feel it’s such a gift to be able to travel and communicate directly with the local people. I’m currently studying Portuguese!
What technologies/tools do you use personally to keep you on track?
I couldn’t work without my smartphone and I’m very strict about ensuring everything goes into my calendar to make sure it happens!
What social media platforms do you prefer and why?
I’m a big fan of Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn. For food imagery and videos, Instagram is unparalleled. It really helps to get the Fused message across to our customers and I personally find great culinary inspiration from all over the world on that particular platform. Facebook is a great place for building a community of consumers. While on LinkedIn over the years I’ve made invaluable connections that have actively served to grow our business.
What are your thoughts on where technology overall is heading and how it will apply to business generally and your business particularly?
Online retail is a growing trend and improving our customer shopping experience in our online store continues to form a big part of Fused’s growth plan. Social media overall has been a really important tool to spread the word about Fused. Commitment to investing in all these areas will be critical to achieving our global vision. While real-life relationships and bricks-and-mortar retail will always be important, in our hyper-gloablised increasingly online world technology is a necessary requirement for expansion.
Finally, if you had advice for your 21-year-old self – knowing what you know now – what would it be?
If I could tell 21-year-old Fiona one thing it would be to trust my instinct and take the jump – it will be worth it!
- Fused Katsu Curry Ketchup and Japanese Style Hot Sauce are available to buy direct from fusedbyfionauyema.com. 100% of profits go to the Irish Red Cross Ukraine Crisis Relief Fund.
- If you are a retailer and would like to support the charitable initiative and stock the new Fused sauce range, please contact email@example.com.