Making it Work

How a Meath soap company went from 'two pots in a kitchen' to 25 staff

The Handmade Soap Company, which manufactures natural body and home care products, puts a lot of emphasis on the green agenda for future growth

Donagh Quigley, co-founder of The Handmade Soap Company: ‘All we had was elbow grease and a bit of a dream.’ Picture: Fergal Phillips

The name may seem a bit Ronseal – as the old slogan goes, it does exactly what it says on the tin – but there’s more to the Handmade Soap Company than just soap. The firm, which is based in Slane in Co Meath, was started by husband-and-wife team Donagh Quigley and Gemma McGowan in 2010.

It has grown to have 25 staff now while regularly adding another 30 to 40 temporary employees during times of peak demand.

“We manufacture a range of completely natural body and home care products. We started with two pots in a kitchen in 2010, and we hadn’t a clue what we were doing. All we had was elbow grease and a bit of a dream,” Quigley told the Business Post.

“Originally we were selling eight types of soaps at farmers’ markets. It expanded quickly, but we almost didn’t notice at the time because it was such hard work.”

The range has now expanded to include more than 75 products covering the likes of shower gel, shampoo, pillow mist, diffusers and, of course, soap. As with many businesses started around the last great recession, circumstance and happenstance both played key roles in the success of the Handmade Soap Company.

“Before this I was thatching roofs for a living. It ticked a lot of boxes for me. I was working outside, it was a traditional craft, and it was sculptural. Every time I drove past a job, I knew I’d made it. I thought I’d do it forever, but the financial crisis of 2009 meant it fell apart so I had to think of something else,” Quigley said.

“It was when I was on a road trip in Australia with my wife that we went to a farmers’ market outside Cairns and came across a stall with handmade soap. My skin was in rag order from working outside, and the soap was really nice on it. That was the genesis of the business.”

The firm was recently awarded B Corp accreditation, a worldwide standard for businesses that verifies companies for social and environmental performance.

“We really drive the green agenda, it’s very important to us. B Corp is about showing that businesses can be a positive force for humanity. It’s one thing to say we try to do all these initiatives, but it’s another to be recognised by a global institution,” Quigley said.

The business has been an Enterprise Ireland client for over a decade and Quigley credits the agency with supporting the company throughout its growth.

“They’ve been very supportive on the journey. I’ve gone on programmes with them over the years based on leadership and selling internationally,” he said. “We have a strategic push going in the US and their market development fund has been a big help for us.”

The Handmade Soap Company has developed strong interest in some European markets including Switzerland, Germany, Portugal, Britain and the Nordics. The company had planned to enter the market a few years ago, but the pandemic delayed that until late 2021. However, it has made up for lost time.

“We were on the first plane out of Dublin there when restrictions got lifted,” Quigley said. “We now supply two national chains in the US and we have a few hundred independent stores working with us across the US. We’re over on average once a month to build that market.”

This Making it Work article is produced in partnership with Enterprise Ireland