'I wasn't the right person, I was the only person' – Meadows & Byrne's Helen Coughlan's rise from shop floor to store director

“We’re all about personality; that’s how we have won over the world”. It’s a description of the staying power of Meadows & Byrne from one of its directors Helen Coughlan.

But the phrase could easily be applied to the Cork woman’s own career path, which started out guiding groups of US tourists on walking tours of York. 

“I had no five year plan back in the day, my plan was just to make it through first semester in college. After a BA in English and Sociology, I did a HDip in Heritage and Tourism and I ended up over in York,” she told Independent.ie.

“It was funny circle of nationalities; an Irish woman bringing these American tourists around the culture centre of York.”

It wasn’t long, however, before Helen returned home to save money for her “next whimsical adventure” but fate brought her on to the shop floor of Meadows & Byrne (M&B). Where she first properly met the interiors store’s chief executive Freda Hayes.

“I had spent several summers when I was at school working at Blarney Woollen Mills and, when I got back, someone told me about M&B so I got in the door. One day, the local radio station came down to the shop to do an ad and I was plucked to go to the studios and read the ad.”

As CEO of The Blarney Group, Freda Hayes oversees the development Blarney Woollen Mills and Meadows & Byrne. It was on her insistence that the ad be represented by one of the on-the-ground employees and Helen’s radio appearance made an impact.

“Freda called into the shop one Saturday morning after the ad went live and she approached me about it. About five weeks later, the manager was out and she called me over to look at the pottery stock; ‘count everything that you see and fill the gaps from the order two weeks ago’, she told me.

“I gave her the order. I wasn’t the right person, I was the only person. That would be my first purchasing order.”

With M&B since the early 90s, Helen rose up the ranks to her current position on the board of the directors, largely influenced by Freda who taught her the ropes by making her “walk the walk”. She experienced the merger with Blarney Woollen Mills in 2000 and rode the wave of the recession, which hit the business hard in 2008.

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“We had a template that we started from: an Irish company that is quality and design driven but not inaccessible. We wanted to sell something beautiful to the middle market without taking the proverbial. We opened the floodgates for customers to enjoy these interiors,” she said.

“When the recession hit, it hit hard, and the biggest area that suffered was furniture, that was a huge part of our business; it fell apart overnight and there was a huge gap in the revenue stream.”

The company had to adapt abruptly, and that required shutting down the logistics side of the furniture department – warehouses, trucks , personnel – and downsizing the store surface area, working the two companies out of one small space.

“We had to start converting the furniture in our stores into cash, and that brought us into an area where our ship began to steady. We also moved into the fashion arena as we needed to get our business growing again.”

M&B never really broadcasted that departure from its core interiors product range, and that was a deliberate business strategy, but clothing began bought the business time.

The five year turmoil between the crash and when business began to grow again is marked by maternity leave for Helen, who has two children, Ava May (9) and Louis (4).

“I came back from maternity leave in 2013/2014 and met up with Freda who said ‘I think we are going to go back into furniture’ and it all happened very quickly, we just went from strength to strength.”

Despite a currently booming enterprise, Helen maintains that the group isn’t cocky about their growth trajectory.

“It’s hard to have a crystal ball, I take nothing for granted. Right now there is Brexit uncertainty, Trump uncertainty, we have climate uncertainty; we still need to keep ourselves refreshed all the time.

“However, we’ll still maintain our singular vision, we will always offer good quality and qood design at an affordable price.”

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