Making it Work

Family-run Wicklow fragrance company Max Benjamin targets US expansion

The business, founded by Orla Van den Bergh in Co Wicklow in the 1990s, is looking to move into the States this year with products that include natural wax candles, diffusers and hand creams

David and Mark Van den Bergh at their Max Benjamin plant in Enniskerry, Co Wicklow: ‘We’re constantly bringing out new products to evolve the business every season.’ Picture: Fergal Phillips

Max Benjamin grew out of an idea from a summer job in the US and is now a successful home fragrance business with 20 staff based out of Enniskerry, Co Wicklow. Its products include scented candles, diffusers, hand creams and room sprays.

Orla Van den Bergh got the idea when she worked in a candle shop in Florida for a few summers in the 1980s and brought the idea back to Ireland, starting the business out of her parents’ kitchen in 1994.

“It started out just selling to friends and gradually became a business. My brother Mark joined in 1997 and looked after the sales side before I joined in 2003,” David Van den Bergh, managing director of Max Benjamin, told the Business Post.

“Our brand originally started with non-scented products, sort of church pillar-sized candles and private label products for Tipperary Crystal and John Rocha.”

The move to scented products came out of necessity – with cheaper products coming in from China, the business went for a higher end of the market to stand out.

“We moved to natural waxes back in 2008, we did that because we wanted the product to smell better and to reduce the amount of soot. It’s a much cleaner wax. We’ve built it up organically, through trade shows abroad and in Ireland. It was, and very much still is, a business-to-business company,” Van den Bergh said.

“We’re constantly bringing out new products to evolve the business every season.”

Much as the core leadership in the business has been a family affair through the years, so too is the origin of the company name. Max and Benjamin are the names of Orla Van den Bergh’s twin sons.

“The company is still officially called Oberg Associates, but we started the Max Benjamin brand in 2008. Everyone knows us as Max Benjamin now. Everyone thinks it’s a designer from South America or something,” Van den Bergh said.

While still primarily focused on the wholesale business, since 2020 the company has engaged considerably with the direct to consumer market.

“A lot of that was necessitated by the pandemic. It kept things going during the tough times. We like to think of ourselves as an omnichannel brand now. We’re rolling out the ecommerce side slowly and finding ways to make it more profitable,” Van den Bergh said.

Although the growth of the business has been organic, Van den Bergh credits Enterprise Ireland with significantly aiding Max Benjamin’s international expansion.

“They’ve always been great. They’ve been really supportive in terms of finding partners and distributors abroad. That can be really difficult to do. We did a growth programme with them in 2019 that helped,” he said.

“A small business like ours, especially a family business, can be chaotic, but they help us put structure on things. They helped us find a good partner for Germany and Italy. Our aim is to have a look at the US for the first time in 2023 and we’ll be chatting to Enterprise Ireland for advice in that regard.”

That move into the US is the key focus for Van den Bergh over the next 12 months.

“For it to work we’ve got to focus on the right areas, which are probably the east coast, the south and the west coast. Then we’ve got to find the right sales partner. We’re talking to some people at the moment. After that, it’s about finding a distribution base there,” he said.