Finance & Management
Leadership Insight – The Factory by Brendan Dooley

Leadership Insight – The Factory
by Brendan Dooley
Please provide a brief history of how and why The Factory was founded.
The Factory, with a team of 12 employees, is a small family business based in the countryside near Birr in Co. Offaly. It was founded by my wife Gina and I in 2000. Our family had worked in the forestry sector, and we also published a number of related journals, notably Irish Timber & Forestry magazine and The Farm Forest; the latter produced in conjunction with Teagasc and the Forest Service. The Factory was setup to print those self-published items. However, in order to justify the investment in the construction of our building, and the purchase of the necessary printing equipment, the enterprise sought other commercial print jobs. The family’s involvement in forestry brought us into contact with a variety of forestry professionals, businesses and organisations at home, and also in Sweden and Finland where sustainability was a popular topic for discussion at that time. This environmental knowledge, while limited, nevertheless resulted in The Factory starting its journey on an eco-path. I believe that our enterprise was the first in Ireland to use plant-based inks and rainwater as part of the lithographic printing process. I should add that in 2004, we published the first issue of The Local Planet, a journal dedicated to sustainable living (

After spending many years in education, Lisa, the eldest of our three amazing daughters, joined the business in 2018 as Creative Director. Together, as a family, we re-imagined the future for our enterprise. A decision was made that The Factory would endeavour to become Ireland’s most sustainable, example business. It was understood that the journey would require substantial borrowings; either the business would become sustainable or fail trying. If it did fail, we had agreed there would be one less unsustainable business. While this may have appeared risky or perhaps reckless, the fact is that every unsustainable enterprise will fail at some point. In addition, we had learned from business school that ‘an enterprise that stands for something is more likely to succeed’ (Blaise Brosnan). It could be argued that running a business in an unsustainable manner is the more reckless option.

How have you aligned your business goals with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals?
Regarding the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which came into effect in 2016, the goals that we are focused on right now are 13 and 15. Goal 13 relates to taking ‘urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts’. Of most concern is the increasing global CO2 emissions which is the most significant gas in terms of our warming climate. According to the International Energy Agency, CO2 emissions will reach a maximum of 37 billion tons in 2025, in what is termed ‘peak oil’. While this figure is projected to fall to 32 billion tons by 2030, these figures are enormous and cumulative. In the case of our small enterprise, we have eliminated the direct use of fossil fuels, in what are termed Scope 1 emissions under the Greenhouse Gas Protocol. Today we use an EV for deliveries and an electric air-to-water heating system. Regarding electricity, we now produce about 64% of our annual consumption on site via a 22.5kW array of solar panels and a 2.6kW wind turbine. Excess electricity is stored in a 24.5 kWh LiFePO (Lithium-Iron-Phosphate) battery bank. We are hoping to produce more electricity on site than we consume by the end of this year (2023).

Another related key metric; this one from the IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change), is the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; they tell us that we need to keep this value at or less than 350 ppm (parts per million). Scientists believe atmospheric CO2 was about 280 ppm prior to the industrial revolution. Today, as I write this piece, the level of CO2 in the atmosphere is 423.96 ppm ( [25 April 2023].

Goal 15 relates to the protection, restoration and promotion of ‘sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems’. We have approximately five acres of land that is being actively managed for biodiversity. The objective is to support, protect and encourage a wide range of plant and animal life and create an area that is in harmony with nature. To date, we have installed five beehives, an owl box, planted a small fruit and nut orchard, together with various trees, shrubs and wildflowers. We have left much of this area to re-wild naturally. We have two semi-wild boars, Elvis and Boaris, who are preparing an area that we plan to use for a staff gardening project in 2024.

What metrics does the business have in place to measure its sustainability targets?
A number of us on the team have successfully completed a course with GMIT/ATU called ‘Climate Resilience for Business’. This intensive one-year course involved the completion of a sustainability related project. Lisa’s project was the development of a holistic accounting framework. This is used at The Factory today and involves eight separate measurements: emissions, materials, waste, water, biodiversity, wellness, social good and finance. Today we have made significant progress in each of these areas, when compared to our baseline year of 2019.
What has been the most difficult challenge you have found as a fully sustainable business?
Firstly, I should say that we are on a sustainability journey, and we’re not there yet! We have completed many eco-actions but believe we can do much more. The biggest barrier to implementing the larger eco actions was finance. There were so many things that we needed to do, and insufficient funds was an obstacle to embarking on those bigger tasks. Obviously, we were able to implement an array of low and zero cost measures, such as turning off machines, computers and lights when not required, using eco-inks and paper, and eliminating plastic from our packaging. However, the investment in an EV, on-site electricity generation and storage, and a rainwater harvesting system, required what was significant funding for our small business.

Thankfully this was solved for us in 2020 when AIB in conjunction with the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland (SBCI), provided the finance required. Both of these organisations have been very helpful. The team at AIB are very supportive on an ongoing basis.

Another challenging area is the supply chain; specifically, sourcing suppliers with similar values to ours, who understand the true social and environmental impact of their enterprise and the products they supply. Whilst this is improving, a gap in sustainability knowledge exists amongst a significant number of those from whom we purchase materials. Getting the necessary environmental information regarding specific products can be both difficult and time consuming.

people sitting in a conference table with their laptops
Does becoming more sustainable make good business sense for SMEs?
I would say that becoming more sustainable is not only good for business, but for people and the planet too. Ultimately an unsustainable business will fail. I should include The Factory’s mission is: ‘to be an inspirational, ethical business that helps protect our planet & our community’. As part of that mission, we are trying to demonstrate that not only can an eco-enterprise be positive for people and the planet, but it will be more financially successful too. In fact, the sooner an SME commits to sustainability, the better the financial reward, as EU and national regulations are continuing to expand in this area.

There is a saying in business; ‘when the crowd arrives, it’s too late’. It is clear that in the context of sustainability, the crowd is not there yet, and currently there is a unique selling point for not only small enterprises, but for every business that embraces sustainability now.

While a company that produces a product or service sustainably will not always be competing on price, it is also true that an eco-business, will usually manage resources better, and have a more dedicated, productive team, where production costs can be lower than its competitors. Regarding the team, The Factory’s success is as a result of our super fantastic team, each of whom plays an important role in our ongoing eco-journey.

I believe they now understand that our small business is not only about producing great products, but also about how we can have a positive impact on our environment and within our local community. This sense of purpose creates a positive atmosphere and a more productive and financially strong business.

Over the company’s existence, how have you found your customer’s attitudes to sustainability change? For example, some people consider it a big cost so how do you become sustainable at a profit?
Regarding the first part of the question, we have experienced a significant change in attitude from a large number of our customers. Many are much more conscious about ordering a product that has the least impact on the environment.

During the noughties, for example, the majority of our customers had very limited understanding of sustainability; some wondered why we were trying to do things differently. Thankfully, there is a noticeable and positive change in this area today. Re the second part of the question, I believe that pursuing an eco-path is not a cost, but in fact a significant business advantage. For example, we expect our solar panel array will have a life of 25 to 30 years.

We expect the investment will be fully repaid in less than seven years from the date of purchase, after which time we will have very low-cost electricity, giving us a competitive advantage in the market. The cost of ownership of our EV is likely to be significantly less than a similar size vehicle with an internal combustion engine. And as our heating system is now powered by electricity, much of which is produced on-site, there is an obvious financial advantage here too.

In addition, generally being more efficient with resources, will reduce waste. This in turn reduces the cost of both supplies and waste disposal. Regarding our customer base, this has significantly changed from mostly local with a small number of national customers, to a very evenly spread of customers throughout the country today.

It is also clear to us that a growing number of customers are shopping for meaning and are taking the values of the businesses that produce those products and services into account. However, in this context, it is very important to tell one’s story.

What do you feel are the most important qualities that today’s leaders need to be successful?
I believe that having a vision and an ability to communicate that vision to others is very important in every business and organisation. To be honest and ethical in everything they do is fundamental.

Respect and understanding are also of great consequence. From a business success perspective, the ability to construct and implement a strategy to achieve the agreed vision would be central to that person’s success.

2 sets of hands looking at a laptop with a map and a chart on paper
Who inspires you most in business?
While he is perhaps known better as a spiritual teacher, yogi and mystic, I find the ongoing journey of Sadhguru inspiring. Having been very successful in business, today he is at the heart of the Conscious Planet movement and the Save Soil campaign.

For many years he has been promoting the importance of soil in humanity’s existence. He has worked with leading scientists and the United Nations to develop soil management policies for regions around the world to highlight the loss of organic content in soil and to provide solutions to reverse that trend.

Last year, at 66 years of age, he met with national representatives in some 27 countries during a 100-day 30,000 km motorcycle journey that covered 3 continents. He is very well known for his engaging public speaking, not just about soil, but how one can achieve both physical and emotional well-being through what he terms ‘inner transformation’. Over 30 years ago (1992) he founded the Isha Foundation, a non-profit organisation whose goal is to promote human well-being through yoga, meditation and various spiritual practices.

What are the main pointers you can give to small businesses starting on their sustainability journey?
Think consciously about the impact of your enterprise on the environment and on all stakeholders, including your local community.

I would also consider how your business can make your area or community better in every way. It’s not just about manufacturing a fantastic product or delivering a super service, but also about how you can make your local environment more beautiful. This might be through planting some flowers, shrubs or trees, for example. Perhaps one could create a small project that might be beneficial to pollinators.

From a social perspective, think about how your enterprise might enrich the lives of those you come into contact with, but especially your team. For example, we financially support and encourage further education.

To date four of our team of 12 have completed part-time third level courses and a fifth is currently participating in a course on sustainable design at Limerick College of Art and Design.

We also have a four-day work-week, that includes a free yoga session. While this will not be possible for every business, I’m confident that one will be able to find some way of incorporating a positive social element. It’s probably worth pointing out that an enterprise that can implement a 4-day work-week can reduce lighting and heating costs by one fifth.

For larger enterprises, this could also reduce emissions from staff commuting by a similar percentage, which could be significant in terms of a reduction in CO2 emissions. Then, when you are confident that your business is creating a better world for future generations, it is important to tell that story. In the past, one would have required a substantial budget for television, radio and other national media to reach a large audience.

Today, this can be achieved for far less, through employing a specialist with social media skills; this could be done internally or through an external contractor. For a business with a small team, it is important that the vision is fully explained and that everyone understands the future path. We have discovered that regular team meetings have been very successful in this context. Additionally, ensure everyone is given at least one task on that eco-path. I think it is also a good idea to encourage conscious thinking about every aspect of the enterprise’s operation. Invite everyone to submit their ideas on how the enterprise could be more sustainable.

One other very important point is education. I mentioned this earlier in relation to the social aspect of the enterprise. However, this additional knowledge is fundamental to good decision making. As nothing stays the same, it will also be significant in the ongoing evolution of our enterprise.

Additionally, we are continually finding things we can do better. Every day there is something or perhaps many things we could do better. It is a continual learning experience.

Where do you see the next key developments in sustainability will be?
As mentioned earlier, I believe that our changing climate is the most serious challenge today. Experts tell us that we will experience more extreme weather events. Currently those who live in areas that suffer extremes of climate are most under threat; droughts will be longer, heat waves will reach higher temperatures, winds will be stronger and flood waters will be deeper. Last year we saw how more than 1,700 people lost their lives in Pakistan as a result of extreme flooding events.

As CO2 is the most significant greenhouse gas, I believe that we are likely to see an increasing number of restrictions on burning everything and anything; in time this could potentially extend to wood-based products.

Also, on the subject of energy, there is a significant volume of research being carried out into ‘green’ hydrogen as an additional energy carrier to batteries to store electricity produced from renewable sources. If this can be solved in a cost-effective manner, it may obviate the need for a grid connection and offers the potential for many more businesses, including farms, to produce and store their own electricity. Perhaps kits will be developed that will enable heavy machinery ICE engines be converted from diesel to hydrogen. I understand that JCB are currently building new machines with modified engines to run directly on hydrogen.

In time, it is likely that the traditional business model of setting up a business with the sole focus of making a profit, will become obsolete. It is likely that a lending institution will not only require a solid financial plan before making a loan, but social and environmental plans too.

3 people sitting next to each other
Can you share some of your future plans on The Factory’s sustainability path?
In order to tell our story and share our sustainability knowledge with others we are developing an educational aspect to our enterprise called ‘The Eco School’. The idea is to share everything we have learned on our eco-path, what we have got right in addition to the mistakes made along the way.

This project has been established with support from Offaly Local Enterprise Office (LEO) and Offaly Local Development Company (OLDC). The vision is that The Eco School @ The Factory will become a centre for sustainability-learning, helping small enterprises and community groups urgently and more easily transition to sustainable practices. The Eco School will focus on practical implementation of eco-initiatives, where the participants can see many of those solutions in practice at The Factory. Since March 10th this year, three courses have been held, and based on feedback, are of real value to the participants. It is envisaged that courses will be made available to community groups and SMEs from all over Ireland, and beyond, in a timely manner.

Later this year, we are hoping to replace our small 2.6kW wind turbine with a larger unit, to help meet our electricity demand during the shorter winter days. We also plan to extend our solar array and install an additional 24.5 kWh of battery storage.

We plan to continue the development of what we call our Circular Signage System. The idea is to produce signs that can be part of a circular economy. This involves supplying a wooden frame with an internal sign. The customer rents the sign, complete with frame, and then returns to us where we can re-cover the sign with new artwork. This gives the complete sign a longer life and can look far superior to other event signs one might see on the roadside. Currently we have these available in 8×4 feet, 4×4 feet and another 4 feet wide by 2’8” high. To date, all of the wooden sign-frames have been created from used wood, but we may use new wood for these frames in the future.

Overall, the team at this small enterprise has set itself a goal of not only making our business more environment friendly, but through our actions to show others that an eco-business can be more fun, more rewarding, better for people and the planet, and financially stronger; proving that a business is capable of being much more than a money-making entity.

headshot of Brendan Dooley
Brendan Dooley
Brendan Dooley is the dedicated manager of The FACTORY, a family-owned business located near the town of Birr. Passionate about sustainability, Brendan advocates for environmentally and socially responsible practices to achieve long-term financial success for SMEs.