If you read any business book or attend any business course, one of the key principles hammered home is ‘lead by example’. A strong leader can make or break and shape a company’s success. Standing firmly at the helm of Lily O Brien’s is founder Mary Ann O’Brien.
I had the good fortune to spend a morning in Lily O’Brien’s chocolate factory in Co. Kildare. In Lily’s I got to see first hand the production process. I also got to meet some of the team behind the incredibly successful brand and of course the lady herself. Lily O’Brien’s are passionate about chocolate and have a unique recipe for it.
Lily’s & Marketing
Chatting with Suzanne who looks after marketing I got a sense of the company, where it stands and quizzed her on some of their marketing insights.
What is the mission/ethos of the brand?
At the centre of the brand are three key ingredients, people, passion and quality.
The mission is ‘to create a delicious chocolate taste experience beautifully presented for you’
The company’s vision: ‘to be the affordable premium chocolate luxury of choice’
What is the biggest challenge in terms of marketing?
Global reach for a quality artisan brand such as Lily’s can take time and requires a huge financial investment. Other brands such as Lindt or Thornton’s are longer established so Lily’s prides itself on being innovative in its product offerings. Diverse interesting flavour combinations and clever marketing ensure they are kept in consumers minds.
What is uniquely Irish about Lily O’Brien’s?
The name O’Brien itself has its roots in Ireland. The packaging also has the Love Irish logo on it. In 2013 the brand identity also went through some redesign. A creative team in Laois were behind it and have incorporated a traditional Irish torque into the ‘O’ of O’Brien’s. The strong turquoise colour conjures images of ancient Ireland and is also considered classic and premium at the same time.
What markets do you export to?
Lily’s export to a number of overseas countries, in particular the UK and the US. What a lot of people probably don’t know is that they also produce a range of products for private customers in the US and supply over 23 airlines with desserts and chocolates. To date Lily’s has won the tender for every airline they pitched for. A testament to the quality of the products they produce.
How involved is Mary Ann in the operation and running of Lily’s?
Mary Ann remains heavily involved in the day-to-day running of the company. She is as passionate as ever about chocolate and in particular new product development. As the founder and face of the brand she is also kept busy in the role of brand ambassador covering marketing, customer relations and negotiating contracts for new business.
Do you have any plans to run chocolate factory tours?
It is certainly something Lily’s would love to do in the future. The current plant layout does not lend itself easily to factory tours. If they do open the factory they want to ensure that visitors get the most unique, hands on experience possible and to do that some restructuring of the plant would be needed.
At The Heart Of The Process
After my chat with Suzanne we headed to the really exciting part of my visit, a tour of the factory itself. We were joined by the operations manager Sean who was going to take me on a journey which led to the chocolate heaven you see below.
The first thing which struck me as we walked through the doors of the factory was the tantalising smell of chocolate. It was a rich aroma which immediately wrapped itself around my senses. I imagine it’s the same experience Charlie Bucket had when he stepped foot into Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory; although Lily’s is far more clinical on the inside, exacting standards in production are key to the quality end result.
We started at the beginning. Three large silver vats hold superior quality Belgian chocolate made to Lily O’Brien’s own unique recipe. One milk, one dark and one white. Lily’s make over 240 lines and each is made with the same high quality chocolate.
From the vats it is piped to the factory floor where it is tempered and ready for use. Tempering is what gives the chocolate its brilliant shine and ensures you get a snap rather than a crumble when you bite into it.
The factory is set out in a linear production line, meaning the raw ingredients go in one end and the finished product comes out the other. The chocolate is filled into molds, which come in all shapes and sizes, depending on the type of chocolate being produced.
The molds are then flipped over and most of the chocolate drained out to be re-tempered again. The molds are cooled leaving a cavity ready for its filling. Depending on the type of chocolate this could be a single or double filling.
The molds continue along the production line and the filling is covered with chocolate to form the bottom of the sweet. The end result is a perfectly formed chocolate.
The finished chocolates are actually placed in boxes by hand and its that attention to detail that ensures the highest quality of product is produced.
Quality Control At Lily’s
Quality control is paramount at Lily O’Brien’s. I asked Mary Ann did they have actual chocolate tasters on site, to which she replied “everyone here is a chocolate taster and everyone treats the factory like they own it”. There is an incredible sense of pride in the work carried out by the staff at Lily’s and it was very evident from the people I met.
The factory also has the highest BRC approval rating available and taste tests are carried out every two hours to ensure the highest standards are met. I tried a few myself (for research) and I can say for certain they were perfect.
Any chocolates (seconds) not deemed suitable to make it into a box are sold in the factory shop on site. Lily O’Brien’s has also worked with the very worthy Food Cloud group who work to reduce food waste and food poverty.
At the end of the tour of the factory I also had the opportunity to hand decorate some of the chocolates. Jenny the master decorator was on hand to show me the delicate procedure. While mine weren’t as professional looking as hers I gave it a good go (and then I ate them).
Meeting Mary Ann O’Brien
Warm, personable, engaging and very much with her feet on the ground is how I would describe the lady behind Lily’s. She splits her time between Lily’s and her work as an esteemed Senator.
She is focused and passionate about the brand and constantly on the look out for new trends in terms of flavours and innovative ways to bring the joy of chocolate to her customers. The team at Lily’s plan a year in advance. A necessity to ensure they hit their key market dates such as Easter, Valentines and Christmas.
While sitting with Mary Ann I got to sample a brand new range of desserts which were prepared for an airline tender. Mississippi Mud Pie and Key Lime Pie were on the menu. Quality, high-end desserts with incredible taste sensations. The brand is popular with airlines and Lily’s counts over 23 airlines among its customer base.
The Future for Lily O’Brien’s
From homemade to a custom factory in Co. Kildare Lily O’Brien’s has seen incredible growth. As customer tastes evolve, so to do the products on offer to match them. As an artisan brand with full control over production Lily’s are in the enviable position to be able to adapt to these customers demands quickly.
The US market for example tends to be a few years ahead of Ireland in terms of all things food. As Lily’s supply a range of private customers in the US they are ahead of the curve already. They have been supplying salted caramel to the US market long before salted caramel became a big hit for Irish customers.
With consumers having a higher emphasis on healthy eating, I also talked with Mary Ann about how realistic a healthy chocolate option might be. She herself has a keen interest in nutrition and is a seasoned yoga practitioner. Future market segments for Lily’s could include the incorporation of super foods into chocolate or the use of chia seeds for example. Chocolate is also an efficient carrier of probiotics, so at some point in the future your chocolate treat may also be your healthy treat. I threw out the suggestion of a Lily O’Brien’s ice cream which I suspect would be quite popular.
My visit to Lily O’Brien’s gave me a great insight into how the whole operation works. The team are led by example from the top and strong family like values are evident throughout. As a quality, affordable, premium chocolate brand the future is bright. I for one will be watching closely to see what new chocolate innovations will be coming on stream.