Women of Vision is a series of interviews with business women we admire. Visionary women are accessible and inspirational to others in daily life as mentors, friends, advisers, and role models. As part of our Women of vision series, we want to highlight the professional challenges and career aspirations of the women working here in Ireland. This doesn’t require a certain business title, specific wardrobe, or special permission. Women in Ireland have a strong entrepreneurial spirit: the rate of female early stage entrepreneurs in Ireland is the 5th highest in Europe. The agility and resilience of women in business in recent times has been a testament to their strength and courage. Today we spoke with Vicki O’Toole one of Ireland’s most respected business women.
Tell us a bit about you?
I was born in Limerick. I went to local primary school and after boarding school in Co. Wicklow, I studied Law in UCC. I didn’t enjoy Law, so I left University and spent a year au pairing in Paris before returning to work briefly in my fathers’ business. I met my future husband Fergus during that time and after a whirlwind romance we were married in 1985. We have five fabulous children, Chloe , Rachael , JJ, Mark, and Philip.
I am the Managing Director and owner of Ireland’s oldest packaging Company, JJ O Toole Ltd. I started to work in the business when Fergus became suddenly unwell in 2001. Fergus sadly passed away in 2010 and I have been managing the Company ever since.
My big passions in life are my family, business, and gardening. I am hoping to take up golf again this year after 12 years of putting away my clubs.
Tell us about your business
JJ O Toole Ltd is Irelands oldest packaging company. It was established in 1914 on Catherine St. in Limerick by my husband’s grandfather, John O Toole. The reins were then passed to his Father Jack O Toole and then to Fergus.
The Company provides packaging solutions to thousands of customers which include blue chip retailers such as Dunnes Stores, Kilkenny, Brown Thomas, Newbridge Silverware, Blarney Woollen Mills, McCauley & Lloyds Pharmacies.
Our focus is on offering our clients sustainable and creative packaging with a strong emphasis on eco design to coincide with the company values.
The company has changed enormously over the last 108 years. Despite our longevity and expertise, we continue to upskill and reinvent ourselves so that we are always at the cutting edge of packaging innovation and can offer our clients an unrivalled service experience.
Who is your target customer?
We don’t have a specific target customer as we design and supply a vast range of packaging to a diverse range of clientele in the retail, pharmacy, food & drink and industrial sectors. We offer a tailored service to clients who require custom-made packaging for their brands as well as stocking a large selection of off the shelf products.
Our clients vary from small to large retailers the length and breadth of the country. We are renowned for our creative skills and have an in-house studio which creates innovative packaging solutions for our clients.
What problem do you solve for them?
From concept, design, sourcing, fulfilment , storage and delivery, we manage a seamless supply chain service for our clientele. Our clients are ensured to receive excellent service with expert advice which allows them to spend less time on their packaging requirements and more time on their own businesses.
Have you always been entrepreneurial?
I never thought of myself as being entrepreneurial until I was a finalist in the EY Entrepreneur of the Year in 2018 program. I was, and still am, amazed to have reached the final amongst so many illustrious finalists. It was explained that reaching the final wasn’t about a company’s turnover but our story and what we have achieved. In simple terms an entrepreneur is someone who falls off a cliff and builds an aeroplane on the way down! The company was struggling when I took it over and it was the journey to take it from the brink to success that was recognized as entrepreneurial.
Where did you get the idea for your own business?
N/A as I am not the founder. However, the company is unrecognisable now to what it was when I took over as there have been many changes throughout its history.
What do you love about having your own business?
I think I would love the business even if I didn’t own it. There are many aspects of the business I don’t enjoy such as accounts and HR etc. but what I do love about it makes up for what I don’t! I have a real obsession with packaging and enjoy watching a concept starting from an idea to finishing as a stunning product and on to our retailers’ shelves. I am always proud when I spot our packaging on social media or carried down the high street. I love to see growth in the company – not so much in terms of turnover, but with our team and our ever improving skill set. I also love the camaraderie and teamwork we have in the office amongst the team.
Who has been your biggest inspiration in growing your company?
The three male generations who went before and left me with big shoes to fill inspire me daily to do my best. I have a photo of my predecessors hanging on the wall of my office as a reminder of our company roots and its ethos. The fear of letting the former generations, my colleagues’ clients and family down, is my inspiration to work harder each day and never give up.
If any, what challenges have you experienced as a woman in business during your overall career.
I have experienced many but most where at the beginning of my career in the business. Some challenges were understandable such as when I was questioned by so many in the office when I arrived for my first day why I was in the building at all! The company was predominantly male when I started ( now @ 60% male/40% female). The office was understandably nervous and concerned about having a woman, with no experience, starting out of blue in the company. I remembered when I was brought by the Sales Manager to meet with a client. It was my first time being introduced to the company. I was completely ignored until the conversation turned to golf and a comment was made of ‘surely you don’t have time to play golf with 5 young children’. When I replied that I could, and my handicap was 12, I was given full attention for the rest of the meeting!
I was also told that I shouldn’t go to China on a buying trip on my own as being a woman I wouldn’t be taken seriously. I went and I was!
Things have changed radically since then in the country. I believe that we all (women and men) need to be more inclusive in our conversations about gender equality and support each other. There is no difference between a man and a woman when they come for an interview for any role in JJ O Toole Ltd. We are always looking for a person to suit the role and the company, not what their gender is.
What are the most important things to progressing as the owner /director of a business? These could be characteristics, values, skills etc.
There are many. To me the most important thing is to have a ‘never give up attitude’. This is often easier said than done, particularly when we are facing massive challenges such as the arrival of the Covid pandemic which saw over 90% of our clientele closed overnight. However, doing nothing at all and hoping the problem will go away on its own, will never work. We must keep trying, no matter what. I personally have a fear of not doing my best. Failure is not a problem if we never give up trying and know we did our best.
It is also important to surround ourselves with colleagues who are better skilled in areas that we are not. I also believe that clients come first. My colleagues and I come a shared second. Without clients, we have no business.
What is the most significant thing you did to grow your business?
When I started in the company, we used to outsource our graphic design requirements . I went about setting up a studio in the office which I believe has enormously helped the company in being recognized as the leading creative packaging solutions provider in Ireland.
What have been some make or break moments in your career? Important client meetings, presentations, procurement pitches etc.?
Winning my first luxury packaging account is one that stands out as it gave me so much confidence. When I started in the Company, I knew very little about packaging so when I was informed, I had won the Avoca account it was a really defining moment for me and I can still remember how thrilled I was. Another gargantuan moment was when we tendered for the Selfridges packaging and won it against huge UK companies. There of course have also been lots of times when things went very wrong. However, we have always learned from disasters out of our control that have visited our doorstep, our mistakes or those of others, and I believe they have always taught us something and made us stronger.
What is your number 1 tip for anyone struggling to overcome entrepreneurial overwhelm and keep going?
During my EY EOY journey, I met with entrepreneurs who were at the helm of large, medium and small companies. On our retreat together, I met with many Alumni as well as finalists. All of them had an unbelievable story, many hugely successful, but the one thing that we all seemed to share is our ability to never give up. But most importantly, I learned that they too, no matter how big their enterprises were, had the exact same problems and worries as I did. I think that many look at entrepreneurs as being hugely successful and it comes easy. It doesn’t. We work very hard, have the same fears as everyone else, and very often have had to overcome failures. But we learn from them and are stronger for whatever future challenges lie ahead. So, my number one tip would be to not forget we pretty much go through the same thing – there will always be bad and good days – but we need to stay positive and work hard.
When something bad happens, we have three choices. Let it define us, let it destroy us, or let it strengthen us. We should all opt for the latter.