The phrase ‘rising from the ashes’ may be a cliché for some but for Evelyn O’Toole, founder and CEO of trailblazing company Complete Laboratory Solutions (CLS ) and 2017’s Entrepreneur of the Year, it literally describes her path to business success. CLS is now the largest privately owned contract laboratory in Ireland with two facilities, one in Rosmuc and the other on the outskirt of Galway city, yet Evelyn only founded the company after losing her first job when her employer’s premises was destroyed by fire.
Over a pleasant morning interview earlier this week, she described the mix of accident and design, talent, imagination, and resilience that has seen her become one of the west of Ireland’s foremost business leaders in the science field.
“I grew up in the village of Cushatrough, halfway between Clifden and Omey Island,” Evelyn begins. “My Dad was a farmer and my Mam was a housewife. I was the second youngest of six kids. I studied applied biology and environmental science and I got my first science job in Carna, managing a lab. I loved the work; the production side, the quality integration, making sales, and I had a good technical appetite for learning. In 1994, two and a half years into my job I was driving home from a furniture sale in Claddaghduff when news came on the radio that a plant had been gutted by fire in Carna and I knew straightaway it was ours. I was made redundant but I then went on to set up CLS really quickly after that.”
I ask Evelyn about this ‘bouncebackability’ that enabled her to overcome redundancy by swiftly founding her own company. “I have a few things going for me in life and one of them is I would not stress easily,” she says. “I generally see the positive in a situation and I like to react by doing something rather than worry. People might see what I did as me being a maverick but I was 25 and just saw it as an opportunity. If it did not work I had nothing to lose because I was already without a job, and if I succeeded then myself and people like me could find a sustainable lifestyle working with science and laboratories in the west of Ireland and that is what happened.
“I was not an academic high performer but I had a quiet confidence that I could pull something special out of the bag,” Evelyn continues. “I like the business part of the job. I think there is a large part of a salesperson in me. When I was young I used to do things like sell sweets during Lent and experiment, just for my own amusement, when I was working in shops by moving stock around or re-pricing things that were not selling and I would manage to sell them. I like trying out ideas. I always caught on fast technically and I realised there was space for someone like me in this industry, because scientists sometimes make things complex but I had an ability to simplify things and people liked that, because we could have a five minute exchange about their lab results and they could ‘get it’ without worrying about what this term or the other meant. I got on well with people socially and I would like to think I am an ethical person; I think respect is really important and it leads to long term relationships. CLS has a client retention rate of 99.3 per cent. When people come to us we form nurturing relationships.”
Having founded CLS in 1994, Evelyn established sister company CLS MedPharma in 2008, with the former based in Rosmuc and the latter in the company’s Galway site. “They are sister companies for different markets,” she explains. “Rosmuc is environmental and food testing and Galway is pharmaceutical and medical devices. We also supply fully trained analysts –who we train on contract to client sites and we have 75 who are currently fully employed by us in that area at the moment. That is a growing area and we are the only company who can do that; there is a huge demand for analysts at the moment and we are the only ones who can create them because we have the systems for training them. Over our life cycle, we have kept the community spirit we started with.”
When Evelyn won the Entrepreneur of the Year last year she was the first woman to receive the award. She also won 2017’s Irish Tatler Business Woman of the Year award. In 2016, Evelyn was awarded the Outstanding Business Woman of the Year in Galway by Network Galway and was also named WMB Business Woman of the Year. She takes pride in encouraging young people, men as well as women, to follow her path into science careers and sees a bright future for the sector here. “Girls are doing extremely well in science now and are coming through in very high numbers. In CLS for instance 65 per cent of our analysts are female. I think there is a great future there, especially now, scientists are really well respected and there has never been more opportunities. When I started the company it was hard to find local employees because science then was not on the curriculum, whereas it is now and I would like to think we had some degree of influence on that. We have had a huge surge in job applications to us from all over Connemara. This year I was a judge on the Science and Technology Week in NUIG and 24 per cent of the national activity in Ireland happened in Galway in that week. If we continue to push hard we could have a huge culture of science and technology in the west. If you invest in an early age you will get a lot back.”
What advice would Evelyn offer to people starting out in the world of business? “I would encourage people to do some profiling and do a bit of stepping out into the public domain,” she replies. “I was very slow to do that and it was only about two years ago I first had myself profiled and it led to an onslaught of positive experiences and that keeps carrying me forward.”
Ever since she began working Evelyn has retained a strong community spirit, whether that be locating her company her home county, providing advice and networking assistance to local start-up enterprises, or devoting her time to serving on the committee of Cancer Care West.
“I believe in karma, what goes around comes around, and when I was starting out people were extremely good and kind to me,” she declares. “That includes my former colleagues, also Údarás na Gaeltachta were incredible - they have a local way of dealing with local people and that worked really well. My team in CLS have carried me and the company over a long period and gave me the space to do what I needed to do to get forward. A lot of them would have been prize winners and ground breakers in their own right and I am very aware that my team have got us to where we are today.”
One can say with assurance that Evelyn O’Toole and her team at Complete Laboratory Solutions are bound for even more growth and success in the years to come and it is a story in which the west of Ireland can take much pride.