Sunday, June 11, 2017

Carving a space in leather gifts

Gary and Alan McCormack.
It probably wasn’t until Alan McCormack was interviewed by Daithí Ó Sé at the recent Kilcullen & Ballymore Expo that many local people realised they had a seriously successful exporting company in the town, writes Brian Byrne.

Alan and his brother Gary had established their Carve On premium leather gift business in their native Kill in 2011, but having outgrown their original premises, moved into the vacant former Renley factory in Kilcullen last August.

Since then the brothers and their staff of seven have been quietly renovating the premises to suit their needs, while continuing to build a business which is far removed from both brothers’ backgrounds in financial services.

“Since our father was in manufacturing, we had always had an interest in setting up our own manufacturing operation,” Alan says. “Also, growing up in a village where horses and showjumping was important, we had been around leather goods for a long time.”

Initially their Carve On operation was based on making leather cases for Apple iPhones. “It was easier then, as they used to be all the same size,” Alan recalls wryly. “They became quite popular, and we soon realised that people liked to personalise their cases, so we tooled up and bought some equipment that would facilitate personalisation.”

From there, it was a short step to providing runs of items for companies that wanted corporate gifts with their own brands. By then the range of products was expanding, and today it goes from wallets and credit card holders through notebooks, portfolios, travel accessories, golf accessories, messenger and tote bags … and there are still iPhone sleeves and sleeves for iPads.

“We have about 30 or 40 different products, some of them not on our website but geared to specific markets and countries,” Alan says. “Where we are now is probably a different destination than where we had planned to be, but with any business, particularly in manufacturing, there’s a lot of listening to the market. Not all the avenues we went down led to prosperity, and there were even a lot of dead ends.”

From the off, Alan and Gary were conscious of the impact of the recession, and worked to spread the base of countries where they sell. “We didn’t want to be overly reliable on the Irish market, so we have aimed to have a good geographical spread. Especially with Brexit and the turbulence in America, it could be worrying. But we have grown quite organically — we buy machinery when we can afford it, and we have been quite conservative in our expansion. So we are prepared for the long haul.”

Moving to Kilcullen was the result of there being very little suitable property to rent in Kill or in Naas, when it came to move to a larger space. Then they found the former Renley buildings, and Alan says they were for sale ‘at a good price’. So the brothers did a ‘bit of forward investment’ and bought, as the property had significant room for further expansion. “We had quite a low cost base in terms of our last premises, so we were able to save and prepare for this. We’re doing it up as we can afford it, and we’ll continue to add equipment as it becomes viable, and the same with staff.”

There are two core elements of the Carve On success to date — high quality that’s affordable, and customer service. Starting off, Alan put his digital skills to work developing a good website on the best available e-commerce platform. “It was a lot of late nights, and doing the product photography properly, and then communicating our business through the website and social media. It was all we could afford.”

But it was enough to get them going. And after that, the quality of the products encouraged the key repeat business and referrals from happy customers. The brothers also took pains to ‘shorten the distance’ between the factory and far parts of the world where they were developing customers.

“We’ve partnered with Fedex for our deliveries, which means we can usually provide next day delivery in most markets … even if we might have to work long hours on an unexpected and urgent order. But once we fulfil a ‘panic’ order, our customers tend to stay with us for the more normal requirements.”

The referrals are especially important, as Carve On doesn’t work through any resellers. There are state agencies amongst their clients, who can also refer them to other clients. “We also provide product to many of the tech and pharmaceutical companies here, and in turn they would have operations in Asia, or the Middle East, or back home in the US … we’d get a further spread of interest there.”

Visiting the Kilcullen factory, there is literally the smell of quality, from the best of leather as the main material in use. There’s also hi-tech laser-engraving equipment for the personalisation, and all is enhanced by other leather touches such as the seats used by the staff, and even the handles on drawers and cabinets fashioned from the material.

There’s a lot more to the Carve On story so far. But we’ll leave that for another day, when undoubtedly there will be even more to say about the enterprise.

This article was first published in the Kildare Nationalist.