#IMAGEInspires: Mary Ann O’Brien Talks Family And Keeping A Chocolate Empire Going
Ten years after she last interviewed Mary Ann O’Brien, BRENDA POWER catches up with IMAGE Magazine’s first Businesswoman of the Year to talk politics, chocolate, family, and “emotional labour”.
It was definitely a first. In my long career of interviewing all sorts of people (and I have even met Harvey Weinstein), nobody has ever ended a meeting by stripping down to their undies before. “You can guard this area now,” says Mary Ann O’Brien, after her portrait session with the photographer was complete, reaching in under the table to produce, appropriately enough, an IMAGE carrier bag, “while I put back on my civilian clothes.” It was my job to keep an eye on the door of The Merrion Hotel room where we’d been chatting for the previous hour, but also to make sure there was no peeping Toms watching through the window from the building across the road. Given that a) the building across the road was the Department of Finance, and b) it was the afternoon of Budget Day, the chances of Minister Paschal Donohoe spying on Mary Ann shimmying out of her navy dress were pretty slim. Apart from that, there was nothing the least bit odd about our “changing room” moment, because Mary Ann is one of those rare people you instantly feel like you’ve known all your life, a “woman’s woman” whose ease and rapport in female company is so immediate that you’re certain you must have met before. As it happened, we did, although it was all of ten years ago, and in an Ireland far, far away.
It was back in the spring of 2007, long before we’d ever heard of austerity or Lehman Brothers or troikas or bank guarantees, and Mary Ann had just been named IMAGE Magazine’s very first Businesswoman of the Year. As well as heading up her thriving luxury chocolate brand, Mary Ann was also deeply involved in the Jack & Jill Foundation, the charity she set up with her husband, Jonathan Irwin after they lost two baby sons. The first, John, was the identical twin of Phonsie, now aged 23, but sadly died at birth. Two years later, Jack was born, a perfect boy who almost succumbed to a cot death, while still in hospital after his birth, but was left profoundly brain damaged after he was resuscitated. He survived for almost two years, needing round the clock care, and it was the devotion of their nurse, Nora, that planted the seed of the Jack & Jill Foundation, which funds home nursing care for desperately ill children. As it happened, Mary Ann’s chocolate business was also born out of personal challenges. She was diagnosed with ME shortly after the arrival of Lily, who is now 29. When Jonathan’s horse racing interests took him to South Africa on business, Mary Ann went along to recuperate. Bored by the hotel pool one day, she stumbled upon a young woman making chocolate chess pieces in the kitchen. She learned how to temper chocolate, standing in the hotel kitchen in her bikini, and returned to Ireland with €15 worth of chocolate moulds and a vague notion of a small cottage industry. She named her new enterprise after Lily, who couldn’t be kept from raiding the fridge for stray chocolates and began on a very modest scale in 1993.
I’d come home every Friday night, and I’d sit in the kitchen, like an eejit, like a weak eejit, and I’d just cry and cry. And I remember my youngest girl Molly – she’s 17 now, so she was about nine at the time – she came in with a little friend and found me, and her friend said, ‘Molly, what’s wrong with your mum?’, and she said, ‘Don’t mind her, she cries every Friday; it’s just about the bank.’
By the time she won the IMAGE Businesswoman of the Year award in 2007, Lily O’Brien’s had 100 staff and an annual turnover of around €18 million. Now the business employs 200 people and has a turnover of more than €31 million, but, within a year of our last meeting, any such prospect looked very unlikely indeed. “Outside of personal health and family issues,” says Mary Ann now, “the recession was the worst thing that ever happened in my life – I came within a millimetre of losing my business and even my home, because I’d borrowed against it to invest in the company. We were still trading well, we were fairly recession-proof, but the banks took a hard line with businesses at the time.” The business relied on an annual “stocking loan” coming in after Easter, when chocolate sales traditionally fall off, to pay for the ingredients, the labour, the packaging needed to begin serving their overseas markets in advance of the autumn and winter trade – it takes more than six weeks to get a consignment of chocolate to Sydney. But in 2009, the bank said no, and the loan never came. “And I remember trying to keep a really good side out, telling everyone it’ll be grand, but the wage bill was €48,000 every Thursday. And so I’d come home every Friday night, and I’d sit by the Aga in the kitchen, like an eejit, like a weak eejit, and I’d just cry and cry. And I remember my youngest girl Molly – she’s 17 now, so she was about nine at the time – she came in with a little friend and found me, and her friend said, ‘Molly, what’s wrong with your mum?’, and she said, ‘Don’t mind her, she cries every Friday; it’s just about the bank.’ And her friend said, ‘Oh wow, my mum cries about the bank every night.’ And that little girl’s mum lost her business. And her home…” They managed to get through, with help from her business partner and a loan from Enterprise Ireland – “Which we repaid that same year!” – but the future still looked far from bright.
One major income stream, providing chocolates for business class flights, dried up when the airlines began paring their margins. “But then a chef on BA asked if we’d ever think of making desserts for airline meals, and I said absolutely, I’d love to – I’d never made a dessert in my life, but I went home and looked up chocolate mousse recipes, and made up some samples and brought them to London in 2010. And a whole new business was born.” Within months, she’d built on a factory at the back of their Newbridge premises, blending local cream and chocolate to make the purest and simplest desserts – they’re now supplying 23 airlines across the globe – and she was standing there, one day in early 2011, when she got a phone call. She imitates the very posh voice that told her that William and Kate – that’d be the future Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, who were due to marry that April – absolutely adoooored Lily O’Brien’s chocolates and would be deliiiiiighted if she’d provide the petits fours for their wedding, and left a Buckingham Palace phone number for her to call if she was interested in the job. And did she ring it? “Well, of course I did, yeah, and they hadn’t a clue what I was on about…”
It turned out to be a rather mean prank by a friend who had a talent for mimicry and so, when her receptionist told her that Taoiseach Enda Kenny had phoned looking for her, a few weeks later, Mary Ann wasn’t going to be caught again. “She said he’d left his mobile number, and I said, yeah, right, and I just ignored it. And I was up in the factory, covered in chocolate mousse, a while later when my phone rang and a voice said, ‘Hello Mary Ann, it’s Enda Kenny here,’ and I said, ‘Look, I know it’s not, alright.’ And when he went on to say that he wanted to nominate her to the Seanad, she was even more convinced it was a joke. “I think I’d met Enda Kenny once in my life – I had no involvement in politics, I barely knew where Leinster House was,” and so she took his number and said she’d ring him back. When he answered, “Enda Kenny here,” she was no less reassured. “And when he said, ‘I’m just on my way to Cork to see off the Queen,’ I thought, would he really tell me something like that…?” Eventually, though, the penny dropped. When she said she needed some time, and the Taoiseach suggested she might need to talk it over with Jonathan, she said, “Are you sure it’s not Jonathan you should be nominating to the Seanad?” You did not say that?! “I did, I did – come on, Jonathan was the campaigner, he was the voice of the Jack & Jill Foundation – and he’d have loved it. He was very jealous, you know – he’s a sweet man, very supportive and encouraging… but he was very jealous. Anyway, Enda said, ‘No, you’ll be perfect for the role. You can bring a wealth of real experience to the job. You can represent the families that the Jack & Jill Foundation helps. You started your own business… I could put you on the Agricultural Committee, and I want to bring independent thinkers to the table.’ Fair play to him, really – he didn’t appoint his pals, because I didn’t know the man from Adam.”
I have never had a problem walking into a man’s club, or doing business with men. I think it was the way I was brought up; I had no brothers, so we learned to shoot and fish and ride, and I’ve never had any issues with confidence around men. I’ve never felt any different in business or in Leinster House.
Doesn’t her reaction – first thinking it was a joke, then recommending a man for the job – bear out Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s anecdote about the different responses of men and women to prime appointments? He said that when you offer the job to a woman, she’ll say, “Are you sure I’m good enough?” But when you offer the job to a man, he’ll say, “About bloody time.” “I know, it wasn’t a great reaction, was it? Maybe it was a bit telling… but I have never had a problem walking into a man’s club, or doing business with men. I think it was the way I was brought up; I had no brothers, so we learned to shoot and fish and ride, and I’ve never had any issues with confidence around men. I’ve never felt any different in business or in Leinster House. I don’t think there’s any difference between men and women in the workplace except for one thing – work/life balance. I think we need 50 per cent women in boardrooms and in Cabinet – we think differently, we bring a balance to the conversation, but I honestly think the work/life balance is impossible for women to achieve. Some women seem to be able to manage it, but, I’m being honest, I never could.”