Age four, Maxine Hyde witnessed her mum, Yasmin Hyde, set up her own company, Ballymaloe Foods, from their kitchen.
That family business, which grew from warm childhood memories of a then unfashionable condiment called relish, would soon become a global brand which Maxine would run as general manager.
Ballymaloe Original Relish, their hero product, was first made by her grandmother, visionary chef and businesswoman Myrtle Allen, who established Ballymaloe House restaurant and hotel in the 1960s when Yasmin was seven-years-old.
Every September, as Maxine’s mum was packed off to boarding school — which she “hated” — the relish was packed with her too to bring a taste of home to plain school food.
“Bringing a few jars of this from home to stir with your simple food was very important to them,” Maxine said.
“My grandfather was a horticulturist, growing tomatoes in the 40s, it was very rare to even see a tomato back then in Ireland.
“And they were turned into this product — relish — or Ballymaloe Relish as we call it.”
However, it was not just the young Allens who could not get enough of the relish.
Guests visiting Ballymaloe House often asked to take jars of it home when leaving, something young Yasmin noticed while helping her parents there. And in 1990, she decided to start producing the product herself, setting up a new company, Ballymaloe Foods, from her kitchen.“I can clearly remember her saying ‘I’m thinking of making this a business.’ I loved it from day one and I still love it to this day,” Maxine said.
“My initial role in the company was limited, mostly to sellotaping the boxes and working alongside mum at events such as the Cork Summer Show.
“We saw how she had to sell it to people. Relish had a bad reputation before Ballymaloe Relish. It was often a cheap product, mass made somewhere far away. I remember my mum pushing people to try it, ‘go on’, she’d say. And when they tried it, they were generally converted.
“The easiest thing for me was to just join after college. But I definitely think it’s better to go and learn how other businesses do it first. But organisations like Love Irish Food or Guaranteed Irish have been great to allow you to learn from others, you can call on each other for advice and experience.”
Under Maxine’s guidance, the team has secured international partners and steadily expanded the range to 14 products including mayonnaise, pasta sauces, and dressings which are now exported internationally. The business employs 33 staff.
“The company set a target in 2018 to double our business in five years, and have enjoyed 15% growth year on year.
However, Covid-19 has “had its challenges”. It temporarily decimated what had been one third of the business which was supplying food services — like restaurants and cafes.
“That’s a huge chunk of our business that was completely gone,” Maxine said.
“But retail has been extremely busy so we’ve seen a big increase in retail sales, it’s not going to cover the loss of food service but it greatly helped us.
“We really saw the importance of business diversification during this time. We’ve always thought that exports were important for that reason, so you’re not just relying on one market, even though exports are hard and expensive to build. This crisis definitely showed us the importance of having different streams.
“Anyone from our team who could work from home has but the production team had to come in every day and we had to ensure that all the safety guidelines were in place for them.
“But we’re lucky that we’re a food business, people will continue to eat.”
Maxine said that the pandemic will have long-term impact on their organisational structure and culture.
She said: “It’s definitely shown us how you can work from home if you’re not in production. If you told me before the pandemic that we could work from home for many months I‘d have called you crazy.
“We used to have so many meetings, taking so many trains up and down to Dublin. I definitely think we’ll be reviewing that. We’ll be much more likely to organise meetings online through Microsoft Teams or Skype.”
For Karen O’Reilly, Covid-19 is an opportunity for employers to use the lure of flexible hours to recruit the best talentShe started her company Employflex after returning from France to Ireland and finding huge resistance among employers to flexible work hours.
An accountant who ran multiple successful businesses, including the largest English speaking property agency in the South of France, she had well-honed skills yet few employers were flexible enough to take her on when she returned in 2013.
She opened Employflex, a recruitment agency specialising in flexible employment and supports for people looking to return to work in 2016 and the company has grown since.
However, Covid-19 has forced employers to recognise the value of flexible working arrangements and she believes that that lesson will not be quickly forgotten.
“Employers are coming around to the idea that if they offer some degree of flexibility, they can obtain the best talent and also retain these people,” Karen said.
“There are many issues that are pushing women and men out the door of many a workplace. Educated, bright, talented employees leaving the workplace because their bosses won’t give them a little flexibility while they manage their family life.
“We were living in France for 12 years but we moved back in 2013. My husband works abroad so he’s away a lot and my kids were transitioning to a new school, they had to learn Irish, so I wanted to be there for them.
As Karen started to research the idea for her future company, she realised how many other people were in her predicament.
“At the time, there were 450,000 women who stated their role as ‘home duties’ compared to 9,000 men. When I drilled down further, I discovered that a lot of these women had a lot of qualifications and experience and skills and they were just sitting on them, mainly because they were being pushed out of the workplace due to the unavailability of flexible work.
“I did the Excel programme with the Rubicon Centre in Cork Institute of Technology and they were great to get me focused and encourage me to develop the idea into a business.
“In 2015 I developed my own website. I had no money really to put into it and I was self-funded. I made a website and put it out there.
“And there was a huge response from people who wanted something like this.”