When we think of salt we tend to think of table salt but this is not what Noel Walsh was thinking when he decided to start up a business importing Himalayan salt from Pakistan. “I am always looking out for business ideas”, says Noel. “Even at a young age, I could see gaps in the market, problems that needed to be solved and I set about solving them and turning them into small businesses”.
Noel’s keen entrepreneurial eye saw there was a need to provide a natural salt supplement for farm animals, as they no longer get this from grazing due to intensity of farming. Packed in 500kg bags, Noel provides actual blocks of natural salt, imported from the salt mines of Pakistan. They are sold directly to the farmers and are for sale in Agri shops around Ireland.
Noel started up his business from his own savings from his previous businesses. He needed to build up stock particularly as demand increased. As the product is imported from Pakistan, there could be all of kinds of delays, particularly when you are dealing with an intermediary where you have no control of supply. Noel has to buy in large stocks and to take the pressure off the cash flow; he has a working capital loan as he has no credit terms with his provider and has to pay before delivery.
Noel believes that what he is offering is very different to what is already available on the market. “Cattle greatly improve when cows are supplemented with Himalayan Salt”, he says. “Trials in New Zealand are showing excellent milk production responses”. Noel goes on to say that, salts are a great boost to cattle and provide them with what they are missing. Cattle will only lick the salt when required unlike molasses licks.
Like all start-ups, there are always challenges in the first year. Noel faced a difficult challenge when his intermediary supplier who kept letting him down. He was constantly over promising and under delivering. This meant for Noel that he was letting down his customer and for any fledgling business; this was not a good start. Noel saw it as a real problem and it needed to be solved.
He set out looking at ways to go around the intermediary as he was not getting the service that he needed. It was not easy to navigate this, but he managed to, through determination and persistence to procure directly from the salt mines in Pakistan.
“There was a lot of learning and lots of sleepless nights”, says Noel. “It takes time to negotiate as Pakistan can be a challenging country to deal directly with”. He is delighted with the direct procurement arrangement and for his business to have continuity of supply.
Noel has grown his business primarily through direct selling to his customers. When he started out, he targeted the big farmers in Ireland who are influencers and who share their knowledge and experience. He worked from a listing from the EBI (Economic Breeding Index) and sent out information to each of them. As with all direct marketing campaigns, follow-up is critical which Noel did by phone to each one.
Noel admires Michael O’Leary because he believes he is a man that gets things done and is a problem solver. He had the courage to create a unique business model and take all the flack associated with it and he was not afraid to take on the big players. While he may be funny and eccentric at times, Noel believes he is very cute because over the years he has got so much free publicity and was not afraid to speak his mind on any topic.
The best advice Noel was given was when he was at a business boot camp. When people are starting out in business, they have a belief that everything will go to plan and in reality, this does not happen. There was a real reality check for all of them when they heard their idea will probably take twice as long to materialise, cost twice as much and the rewards will be halved.
At the 2015 IBYE Competition, Noel’s company Agvance Limited won the “Best Start Up Business” award. Apart from the prize of €20,000, which was great for him, Noel believes he also benefited immensely from the mentoring. It gave him a great focus when writing his Business Plan. He learned a lot during the process from time management, meeting deadlines and he became more organised.
The prize fund helped him to source his products and keep an inventory to meet customer demand. Given his procurement challenges in the first year, the money helped to cushion the business during this unsettling period.
“I would definitely recommend the IBYE Competition”, said Noel. He felt it was a great opportunity to meet like-minded people who genuinely wanted to help you. He has a built up a strong network of different businesses and there was so much learning from all the people he met. “While they might be in different business, we all go through similar challenges”, says Noel.
If he was to start all over again Noel says he would pay more attention to his costs. In the beginning, he was more concerned about shifting product than looking at the profit. However, he is more aware now of how much stocks are costing the business and affecting his cash flow.
When asked about his proudest moment Noel felt it was securing the business arrangement with the Pakistan salt mines. When he got in his first direct shipment, he felt a real sense of achievement. While it took a lot of time and energy, it was well worth the efforts. Noel is all of twenty-one years of age and to be able to secure a business arrangement like this, without prior experience and knowledge, is a real achievement for him.
The future looks bright for Noel and Agvance Limited. Noel’s big picture approach already has him looking into the UK market for a potential distributor. He is confident that with the continued trials in New Zealand and the excellent results coming out of them that this market will continue to grow as more and more farmers learn about the real tangible benefits of Himalayan salt.
If there were ONE piece of advice Noel would give to someone starting out it would be: “You need a Business Plan. When you write your Business Plan show it to someone you trust who is already in business because they have been through all the ups and downs and will be able to give you an objective view about where you are going”.