Irish Times

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The Irish Times
– Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A rock-solid change of business direction

FUTURE PROOF: BEFORE THE downturn, stonemason Eric Byrne had a thriving business. Having started out working for his father making headstones and fireplaces, the Celtic Tiger created a booming market for high-end kitchens and bathrooms.

With years of experience in crafting bespoke kitchen and bathroom fittings from granite, Byrne was working all over the country.

But in 2008, the property market crashed and the demand for such luxuries dwindled. “During the building boom, things were very busy. Then work just dried up and I had to assess my situation and figure out a way to adapt my skills to create a new career path,” he says.

“I continued on a smaller scale and tried to have a think about what I wanted to do.”

By 2010, the idea for a new business had formed, with the emphasis on stone giftware and decorative items rather than the more expensive home fittings.

“Stone-cutting and carving was always of interest to me; that was what I knew. I’m a second generation stonemason, I come from a family tradition of working with marble and granite that spans more than five decades,” he points out.

Another element to his previous business had been creating decorative trophies and commemorative pieces for sports events and other occasions.

“From that, I created a range of stone giftware and, in late 2010, with the support of my wife and extended family, Hennessy Byrne was established,” he says.

“The giftware products were launched at the National Design Fair in December 2010 and, from there, business has taken off.”

Byrne has built up the business, based in Meath, using indigenous Irish stone, including Kilkenny limestone, Connemara marble and granite from Dublin and Wicklow.

Add in a shopfront on craft website Etsy and a thriving online business, and Byrne is happy with the way things are going at the moment.

The range has grown from the initial products and has even built up into an export business, supplying stores in the United States. These days, it includes everything from kitchen utensils such as cheeseboards and salad spoons to limestone clocks, Christmas decorations and worry stones made from Connemara marble.

The products are certainly unique. “Connemara marble is world renowned for its unique shades of green. No Connemara cheeseboard that I make is identical to another – it’s not possible,” says Byrne. “The colours vary so much within a square foot. It can be white on one side and green on another. There’s a colour there for everybody.”

Hennessy Byrne took part in a showcase in the RDS in January last year, which helped to bring on board Irish stores, including Kilkenny Design, and win some business in the US, beginning a healthy export trade for the firm.

“The showcase in January 2011 was the start for that. The products were only on the market two months and it started going towards export,” he says.

Part of the reason for Hennessy Byrne’s success is the support from the Craft Council, which has proved invaluable.

“From there, we learned what other products people would want. We doubled the range we had, adding other items, which allowed me to have a range of items starting from €5 right the way up to about €160 and more, depending on the product,” he explains.

“This year, we made it into Creative Island, which is a selective group of crafts by the Crafts Council. That boosted us even further. We’ve trebled our orders to the US and we’re receiving online orders from the US from stores that have seen the Creative Island website.”

Byrne is also on the hunt for a major Irish department store. Cracking the Dublin market has proved difficult, with the emphasis on finding the right type of store to stock the products.

Sales on Etsy have started to pick up too, he says, but the main direct markets are the national craft fairs. The company is hoping to showcase its wares at the Bloom festival this summer.

A lot of the Hennessy Byrne products are bought as wedding gifts, he adds, and, with the wedding season coming up, getting the products into the public eye is important.

“When you’re doing something different from everyone else, the key is to try to figure out what people want,” he continues.

“The hard part is letting people know that you exist. That’s the real challenge I think for many businesses.”

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