Mary Ann O'Brien: how I made my fortune from airline chocolates

Ex-marketing director Mary Ann O'Brien was inspired to begin making chocolates while on holiday in South Africa. She got her first big break supplying chocs to Aer Lingus, and now her company turns over £16m.

With legendary Irish racehorse trainer Vincent O'Brien for an uncle, it's no surprise that Mary Ann O'Brien, 49, got her first proper job in the horse-racing industry. "That's all everybody I know does," says the founder of £16m-a-year chocolatier Lily O'Brien's Chocolates. But she'd always wanted to run her own business. So when the Dublin racetrack she worked at as a marketing director shut down, she grabbed the first business opportunity she saw with both hands.

Tipperary-born O'Brien was on holiday in Cape Town in 1993 when she ventured into the hotel kitchen. The owner's daughter had a tiny business making chocolates. "I spent the whole two weeks of my holiday in a bikini in the hotel kitchen making chocolates. The minute I came back from South Africa I made the same batch." She sold them that same day, at her local hairdressers. They were simple 'chocolate crunchy hearts', made from honeycomb and rice krispies, but people liked them, and she sold the lot.

O'Brien continued cold calling. She'd melt and hand-pipe chocolates every night, then box them up and drive around the country in her car with them. "I was the only employee, so I used to cry when things broke because I didn't have an engineer."

With the firm gaining some traction, O'Brien borrowed £36,000 from AIB in Dublin and approached the supermarket Superquinn. "I was a great woman for knocking on a door with a briefcase and prototypes, even though I didn't really have a factory." They liked the moulds of lion's heads and crocodiles she'd brought back from South Africa. "So they allowed me to put some of my chocolates in the chocolate section of the bakery. And within nine months, the Belgians were out and I was in." The contract was worth £250,000 at the time. O'Brien put her daughter Lily, whose name she adopted for the business, in a crche and took on the deliveries, production, packing and sales herself.

In 1994, Aer Lingus asked O'Brien to tender for its trans-Atlantic and European contract, making six million mint pins and three million 'two-choc' boxes. I laughed and said, "Look lads, I couldn't make that in a year." But in 1995 the airline came knocking again. By then, O'Brien's sales had hit the £1m mark and she had her own purpose-built factory. She took on the Aer Lingus deal, and "went immediately to British Airways, where I won my first very large BA contract. After that, I was away like a shot from a gun." It was big business. Everyone in the business section of every plane, from noon onwards every day on every flight got a two-choc. "That was four million two-chocs a year, which allowed us to get into the airline catering business."

In 2008, the group served 17 million branded Lily O'Brien's chocolates on 23 airlines around the world. Turnover hit £16m last year. The business has opened a store in Manhattan, and O'Brien is trying to keep a handle on the recession and a sky-high cocoa rice price. "Speculators can really push the price up, which makes me very cross because it's my livelihood. But what goes up must come down if you're at it long enough you just hang on."

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