Mary Ann O’Brien
According to Repak, Irish people receive an average of eight Easter eggs today. That culminates in the population scoffing approximately 17.5 million chocolate shells, with a cost amassing €36.6 million.
Thus, it feels quite apt that today’s ‘Minnie Meets…’ interviewee is Mary Ann O’Brien. Almost twenty three years ago, Mary Ann sat at her kitchen table in Kildare exploring her insatiable hunger for chocolate. Beginning with just two saucepans, a wooden spoon and her toddler Lily as a sous-chef, Mary Ann never imagined how her business would develop. Since those humble beginnings, Lily O’Brien’s has over 130 employees and in 2013, attained a €22 million turnover.
Simultaneously to Lily O’Brien’s, Mary Ann is the co-founder of The Jack and Jill Foundation and currently divides her time between the chocolate factory in Kildare and the Dáil for her role as an independent Senator in Seanad Éireann.
How would you describe yourself both personally and professionally?
I like to think of myself and someone who doesn’t take themselves seriously but takes their work incredibly seriously. I love to laugh, I love life, I love nature and a sense of humour is necessary to get through this funny old world that we have found ourselves in. Professionally, I am the over-achiever, the crazy focused one that is both competitive and hugely enthusiastic about chocolate. That’s a quick rendition of Mary Ann O’Brien!
The way in which you don’t take yourself overly seriously, is there ever a conflict between other people realising that your sense of humour doesn’t or impede upon your professionalism?
Yes, that’s a very good question and it happens particularly in the US where a cultural difference occurs – although we both speak English, they really are not the same languages. For example, when I start speaking in California, I need to be very careful because I can see it in their eyes, they’re thinking ‘Is this girl for real, or what?’ I remember when I was first presenting to British Airways in London, I spoke infectiously about the products and I was laughing gaily along but I had to say, ‘Apologies for my sense of humour but we are deadly serious about our product, quality and customer service’. I try to mix humour with seriousness.
How did you come to realise that you had to make that announcement? I imagine that amalgamation of humour and professionalism is inherent to the Irish market and population.
You hear feedback about yourself, sometimes people would say, ‘She’s a bit wacky’ or ‘She’s a bit off the wall’. I don’t think I’m ‘off the wall’, at all! When I was in my teenage years, college was never something I really strived for and in a sense, my university was travelling around the world. You get to learn a lot whilst travelling, you understand that you need to culturally adapt. I think Irish people successfully translate around the world. We are quite sensitive to others needs and to appreciating different cultures.
In a sense, we’re quite chameleon-like.
Yes, chameleon – that’s the word!
You mentioned feedback and within your other roles, particularly as a Senator, how do you manage comments and criticism?
Listening is one of the best attributes that I could think of to have in a friend, a family member or a government representative and in all of my roles, listening is a skill which I try to practice as often as possible. However, one of the things which I wouldn’t be in love with as a politician is feedback – it can be very harsh. For example, extracting fluoride from our water is something which I am very passionate about but it is a subject that creates passion and extremism on both sides. When I come out to speak publicly about fluoride, the comments which are left on blogs and online newspapers, you’re better off not to read them because you just wouldn’t be able to get over of bed the next morning.
Were you weary of criticism when you first founded Lily O’Brien’s?
I would be blindly passionate about certain ideas that I come across and Lily O’Brien’s was and continues to be one of them. It was 1992/1993; an era where it was much easier for entrepreneurs to believe in and realise their dream. I set up the first tiny melting machine in my stable-flat kitchen in Carton and away I went. I visited the hairdressers in Maynooth and asked them to taste the samples. They gave me some feedback and I travelled to my first farmers market. A few months later, I visited Superquinn and it was as easy at that. Today, you couldn’t imagine beginning a business in that fashion.
Since those foundations, what have been your biggest learning moments with Lily O’Brien’s?
Chocolate alone has been a journey and is a continuous expedition. The product is constantly evolving – we’re continuously contemplating new recipes and ideas whether that is adding toasting quinoa or vitamin D and calcium to a chocolate bar. You must not be complacent and continuously hungry to travel, touch, taste and learn from other people and cultures. In terms of being a business, it has been a hugely humbling journey – I have discovered so much about myself; my weaknesses and my strengths. Along with that, I have been fortunate to surround myself with brilliance. From engineers, marketers, the person who minds the back door at the warehouse, those in stock control, the purchasing manager who is brilliant at relationships and the receptionist who is central to everything that we do at Lily O’Brien’s. We have an amazing team and without them, the business couldn’t survive.
When recruiting, what draws you to a prospective employee?
We have established a great culture at Lily O’Brien’s. We look for people who have an energy about them, who are passionate and enthusiastic about the business of course, they have to tick the boxes or the skills which are attached to their specific role but in order to sustain that culture among our employees, their personal attributes and professional discipline are essential.
The skills which you acquired and developed throughout your time at Lily O’Brien’s, how did they transfer to the Jack & Jill Foundation?
Lily O’Brien’s was just Mary Ann on holidays! For as long as I can remember, I was the child at the side of the road selling lemonade. I always wanted financial independence and constantly searched for new ways to make money. However, the Jack & Jill Foundation was very different. It began out of necessity. I never had much insight or experience with disability and then all of a sudden, I had given birth to a child who had many challenges of his own. Jack was in intensive care for three months and although his condition hadn’t improved, the doctor said that we could take him home. His final words will always stay with me though, he said ‘there is no roadmap for a child like this in Ireland’. He suggested that we drop him into Crumlin Hospital and abandon him as it would be the only way that the state would take care of him. Instead, we brought him home but it was incredibly tough. The Jack & Jill foundation began because neighbours kept knocking and a young woman began to work in Lily O’Brien’s because of a Back To Work course but previously, we was a neo-natal nurse. She rang me and I began to cry. She visited the house and showed me a couple of things to soothe and aid Jack. She also asked if she could train a few of the neighbours to relieve me, if needs be. We had a fundraiser and were then in a position to pay a few local people for their hours with Jack, which gave me the opportunity to return to work.
As the journey developed, we began to meet with families who were in similar situations and each parents admitted their distress over the lack of support that was available in Ireland. My husband Jonathan and I decided that we needed to do something to help and the Jack & Jill Foundation started as organically as that. It’s a very simple charity – the fundraising pays for a nurse to visit with families whose children have very serious illnesses and conditions. Collectively, the nurse and the family decide what type of care is best for their child – it could be nigh care to allow parents to sleep or could facilitate parents returning to work. It’s incredibly simple but we didn’t take on three hundred babies on our first day, we began with one child, then two, then three but as the fundraising increased our determination grew and we never wanted to be in a position to say no to helping a family.
Is there a sense of fear in that too?
There is but there’s fear in everything and that keeps us sharp. Jack was one of the luckiest things to happen to our family. Jack empowered my husband and me to begin this charity which has brought about incredible experiences with the most amazing parents and children. Every day is incredibly humbling.
What has been the most surprising element of that journey?
When we first brought Jack home from the hospital, I was in such despair and constantly focused on what he would never be able to do but to imagine that I could be at such peace and awe at the people we have met and continue to meet – it’s inspiring!
I understand that Enda Kenny appointed you to your role in Seanad Éireann but was it your involvement with Jack & Jill that made you say yes to the position?
Yes, it was mainly for that reason. Lobbying is so difficult and to have access to people such as the Minister for Health and to have the ability to call debates in the Seanad is incredibly valuable and action can occur! Also, there’s no doubt that they were looking for more women in politics and as an entrepreneur too, I imagine I ticked many of his boxes.
How does that notion of ‘ticking the boxes’ make you feel?
I was very honoured to receive the position – I’m not saying that I deserved it but I was incredibly honoured to receive that phone call. In terms of ‘ticking boxes’, with the amount of responsibility that comes with a government position, I’m not sure you ever feel that you deserve it but without them taking a chance on me, I never would have been able to affect change for the issues I believe in and for the families that trust me.
Speaking of change, if we were to look forward to the next ten years, how do you imagine the development of each of your three roles; Senator, Lily O’Briens and the Jack & Jill foundation?
Well, Lily’s is set to become one of the biggest brands in the UK and Ireland. I would love the Irish population to be extremely proud of Ireland – even more so than they already are – and for it to become the nation’s chocolate brand. I would love for Jack & Jill to be safe and funded forever more. My aim is that someone like you could take it over and that succession planning could occur so that no child in Ireland will suffer again. At present, we can only mind children who are up to four years of age and it’s my vision that we could expand that from zero to six. Thirdly, in terms of the government, I think massive change has to occur. I’m fortunate that I’m not tied to any party and I’m not a career politician. Thus, I’m not looking for votes. I’m merely in the Seanad to do a job. I’d like to see the removal of old politics and an amendment to the whipping system, particularly for moral issues. Though, in the amalgamation of my three roles, within the next decade, I just want to be happy.
What’s your definition of happiness, Mary Ann?
Oh, happiness is being outside with my dogs, looking like the back end of a tractor! I’m quite a simple soul and nature is what does it for me. I don’t need much!
Thank you to Mary Ann and Sadhbh for making this interview possible. You can find Lily O’Brien’s on Facbook, Twitter and Instagram.
If you enjoyed this, take a look at the other ‘Minnie Meets…‘ interviewees!