Case Study: The small Irish company Lily O'Briens, confectioner

'I'm a chocolate maker but have to study exchange rates daily'
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The Independent Online

A wooden spoon and a saucepan were Mary Ann O'Brien's start-up tools 12 years ago when, with a recipe for honeycomb crisp hearts, she launched a small venture making Irish handcrafted chocolates for local shops.

Today as managing director of Lily O'Briens - which is named after her daughter - she has a factory in Newbridge, Co Kildare, employs 100 people and makes 500 tons of luxury chocolates a year.

The company is heavily reliant on Britain as an export market and British Airways is one of her biggest customers.

So Gordon Brown's decision to keep sterling out of the eurozone means the accountants at Lily O'Briens must remain busy watching exchange rate fluctuations with Ireland's nearest neighbour for some time to come.

"I'm a chocolate manufacturer, not a currency trader," Mrs O'Brien says. "But I have to study the rates every day, and I have been preparing for the day when we have parity. The euro weakness against sterling has been great for our profits for the past few years but the euro has strengthened so we have to factor that in now. And ultimately, for a small or medium-sized company, exchange rate volatility could wipe you out."

Since Ireland abandoned the punt in 1999 with the launch of the euro, Mrs O'Brien has ensured the company sources all its ingredients, and its boxes, ribbons and packaging, in the eurozone. "We have to try not to buy in sterling."

Despite yesterday's decision, Britain will remain a crucial export market for cultural and gastronomic reasons,although the company now exports to the United States, Australia and New Zealand.

"The euro area is flooded with chocolate, and tastes are different. The British tend not to eat as much dark chocolate as the French, Belgians or Swiss." Mrs O'Brien would rather concentrate on innovation by designing new centres and fillings so that she can compete with her Belgian rivals than check the foreign exchange rates. But the Chancellor's announcement came as little surprise. "The currency risk has been part of the business since we started. So we just manage it, and we're used to it."

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