Making It Work: Organic tan firm emerged out of recession and is still innovating

Noelle O‘Connor lost her spa therapy business in 2009, but the following year launched her new self-tan lotion with a company that continues to launch new products

7th June, 2020
Making It Work: Organic tan firm emerged out of  recession and is still innovating
Noelle O’Connor of TanOrganic at her premises in Newbridge, Co Kildare Picture: Barry Cronin

For Noelle O’Connor, the founder of TanOrganic, continuous innovation has been key to keeping the Irish-made self-tanning brand fresh in the minds of consumers in the crowded cosmetics market.

In the ten years since launching her original self-tan lotion, O’Connor has built the brand with a range of complementary products.

TanOrganic has tanning oils and mousses for the face and body, branded tanning mitts, a moisturising facial serum and multi-use dry oil for skin, nails and hair.

The company launched a vegan skin balm earlier this year and O’Connor is preparing to bring a new dark tanning mousse to market in the months ahead.

In the background, she is collaborating with Limerick Institute of Technology and Shannon ABC on an Enterprise Ireland-backed project to develop an organic sunblock.

Meanwhile, with the high street at a near standstill, O’Connor is also focusing on online sales and building on the e-commerce functionality on the website as more consumers transition to buying online.

O’Connor set up TanOrganic in 2010 and gained valuable publicity when she appeared on the RTÉ television series Dragon’s Den, securing early investment from entrepreneur Gavin Duffy.

“When Covid-19 hit last March, it felt so familiar to me. Setting up TanOrganic ten years ago had been about reinventing myself and starting again,” O’Connor said.

The year before she set up the business, O’Connor had been forced to exit the Éalú Spa Therapy chain she had established in 1996.

“I started out with one premises in Newbridge and, by the time the recession started, I had six locations and revenues of €3 million,” she said.

“We’d grown throughout the Celtic Tiger focusing on innovative high-end treatments. Then the recession hit and suddenly people were struggling just to pay their mortgages.

“Their disposable income was gone. I had 40 staff and I didn't make cuts quickly enough, so I was haemorrhaging my cash reserves.

“By 2009, the writing was on the wall. My revenues had dropped by 80 per cent, but my overheads had stayed the same. I realised I’d have to start all over again.”

O’Connor, who describes herself as a “beauty nerd” decided to try her hand at developing an organic alternative to the self-tanning products already on the market.

“I’m really fair-skinned myself and I’d been using fake tan pretty much constantly since I was 16. I found that it was drying out my skin, but I couldn’t find a product with more natural ingredients that wouldn’t be as harsh over time.”

O’Connor launched TanOrganic with an aloe vera-based formulation and secured Ecocert approval for the product.

In the years since, she has focused primarily on bricks-and-mortar stockists and listings on in-flight airline catalogues.

“In Ireland, we’re stocked by McCauley’s, McCabes, Hickeys and Boots. We have a lot of the pharmacy chains,” she said.

“We won a listing with 250 of Boots’ top pharmacies in the UK in February and we sell online on and Ocado in Britain, but a lot of our business was with airlines like Aer Lingus, Virgin Atlantic and Iberia. That all stopped when the pandemic started.”

O’Connor fell ill in mid-March and subsequently tested positive for Covid-19. While she was sick, she relied on Louise Martin, the chief executive she had appointed last year, to keep things going.

“I was completely out of action for a good two weeks,” O’Connor said. “You realise that your health matters more than anything else.

“I also realised how lucky I was to have Louise and this amazing team who could keep things going while I was out of action. I thought I had appreciated them before this, but I don’t think I really did.”

O’Connor said online sales on had been rising steadily since the start of May.

“We’ve been lucky that customers who can’t get our products in their usual stockist are now coming to the website,” she said.

“We’ve had customers from the US to Australia, all over Europe, even Mexico. About 30 to 40 per cent of our online business is international and 60 per cent is coming from Ireland.

“Online sales will be a much bigger focus for us in the future I think, but developing new products will always be my priority.

“In our business, you have to listen to the market and be able to respond to what customers want all the time.”

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