Going to Work on an Egg
Going to Work on an Egg

Owner Manager Magazine

...With no sales experience and a background in property, the chances of Brian Phelan becoming a leading distributor of duck eggs in Ireland seemed unlikely. But that’s exactly what has happened.

In under a year Brian Phelan, owner manager of Glenfin Farm in Co Monaghan, is ramping up from owning 20 ducks to running two units catering for a total of 2,500 ducks, each producing an egg a day.

Having pumped around €30,000 of his own money into the business, Phelan now has two vans and is working with various distributors selling into specialist/artisan food stores and butcher shops. Glenfin Farm’s biggest customer is Avoca.

Phelan used to enjoy eating duck eggs when he visited his grandmother in Donegal, but when he went to buy some himself last year there were none to be found. He began to wonder whether the fact that he was looking for them meant other people were doing the same.

While working full time for a property company, Phelan sourced his first batch of ducks and rented a disused shed in Monaghan, which he says is “in the heart of poultry country”. In the beginning he would get up at 5.30am, collect eggs, bed the ducks, then head off to his day job at 8.30am. In the evening he would get back just in time to lock them in for the night.

He started working a four-day week and went to Dublin on Thursdays, dropping in unannounced to as many butchers and speciality shops as he could. Before he got the vans, he would drive up to Dublin with boxes of eggs in his car boot.

Phelan attended a food-distribution seminar run by Bord Bia in Mullingar and gradually started to work with distributors in diff-erent areas; he now includes his duck eggs as an add-on product on hen-egg runs in the west and north-west of the country.

Mentoring has played a major role in the 26 year old’s success so far, and he believes as an entrepreneur “you can’t have too many mentors or too much advice”.

When he started up, his local county enterprise board put him in touch with Seamus McElvaney, who had 30 years’ experience supplying hen eggs to supermarkets.

“He had just recently sold his business and was winding down a bit. In the first six to eight weeks, he was my crutch and I would ring him with any little problem I had. That early period is lonely and there’s a lot of responsibility in terms of decision-making. I think having a mentor is better than all the grants under the sun to provide support when you’re making tough decisions. Seamus was brilliant on the distribution side, providing me with contacts and advising on who goes where and who was reliable,” says Phelan.

His next brush with mentoring was taking part in the RTÉ TV series Higher Ground, where Peter Young of The Irish Farmers’ Journal and Paul McCarthy, rural business specialist with Teagasc, provided advice and guidance to the various agri-entrepreneurs featured.

At the time Phelan had bought 650 day-old ducks, which were due to start laying in a matter of weeks. “Peter and Paul were a fantastic help in terms of helping me to sell the eggs. My main conundrum with the business was communicating to people that duck eggs are a great product: fantastic for cooking and baking and lovely poached. The programme allowed me to get that point across to 400,000 people.

“Within 30 minutes of the programme being aired I got a call from Jim Marshall of Marshall’s in Mullingar wanting to stock the eggs. I mainly deal with independent retailers owned by the person whose name is above the door, which makes it easy to get to the decision maker,” says Phelan.

“My biggest worry about going into business was that I had no sales experience, but it turned out my easy-going style suited the smaller shops. They didn’t know they wanted the duck eggs until I told them they did!”

One of Phelan’s coups was to leave a free case of eggs with chef Derry Clarke in l’Ecrivain restaurant in Dublin. “I knew it was something l’Ecrivain would buy into as there were already poached eggs on the menu.” Because Clarke had around 100 duck eggs on his hands, and not wanting to waste them, he came up with duck-egg recipes and now they’re a regular feature.

Phelan did a business-studies degree at University of Limerick and he returned to the campus to avail of a market-research service for local businesses. “Some students did a survey of 100 customers and shops asking whether they had tried duck eggs and what they would use them for. There was no research into this area in Ireland, and it raised something I discovered myself – that the big challenge was getting people to try them in the first place,” he says.

“I believe I made a breakthrough in this respect by presenting them properly. Previously duck eggs used to be available at a farmer’s gate in a dirty box. By using the graphic-design services of my partner Margaret Delaney I was able to come up with packaging and a website that portrayed them as a polished, professional product.”

Phelan is still working three days a week for the property company, but is preparing to soon take 1,200 ducks into a new unit. “I aim to keep doubling up on numbers. I’m working on a couple of other products and, if they come to fruition, I may work with larger retailers. I’ve always wanted to have my own business doing something I enjoyed, so I would feel like I’d created something.”

Phelan won the Young Entrepreneur of the Year award at the JFC Innovation Awards for Rural Business held in Mullingar in March. 

30 Sep '09
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