If you go down to the woods today…

Interview: Anke Morgenroth – Bear Essentials

Anke Morgenroth’s experience of doing business has a nice circular ring to it. She started out making honey and ended up making bears!

Her company, Bear Essentials, has just expanded from manufacturing and selling hand crafted teddy bears to being a venue to cater for tourist groups, people interested in craft workshops and an all-round conference and meeting centre.

So, you think, how near Grafton Street is she located? About eighty miles as the crow flies actually, as Anke chose to locate her business in the wilds of west Cavan. And she’s doing quite well, thank you very much. 

Anke Morgenroth and her husband Nico moved to Ireland from their native Germany in the early 1980s. They were attracted to the tranquillity of rural west Cavan and were determined to make their living out of a two acre holding. 

“I think the idea when we came over was to mainly have our own garden. We were one of the first Irish growers of organic produce. We wanted to live independently and live in the countryside,” says Anke.

They kept bees and produced honey and had a number of animals as well. She recalls that this organic business was mainly Nico’s and that she was just helping out. It wasn’t long until she made her first foray into a business of her own, however.

Anke’s professional background is in the area of social work. She qualified as a social worker and worked in Germany in a range of settings from dealing with problem families to caring for and teaching special-needs children. It was in this caring role that her first business came about.

“I worked in pre-schools in Germany and I always thought ‘we need something like that here’ as well. And when I had my first two children – that really started the playschool.”

She started the playschool in an old mobile home in a field beside her house. But her intention was not just to mind children but to do some education as well. She involved them in the organic farming, recalling that: “we did a lot of planting and growing with the children.”

At the same time Anke was making jams and chutneys to sell along with the honey and she found that sales were good. So she was learning about business bit by bit although, as Nico had kept up his job as a photographer, money wasn’t critically short. It was a case of her doing the various jobs as much out of interest as for the money. 

One of the things the Anke found attractive about Cavan when she arrived was the little shops that were dotted around the countryside at that time. In most cases the shop was just a front room in the house.

“One dream I always had was to work from your house and I always had the idea that I could do it. Nico wasn’t so sure but I was stubborn about it. I had four kids and I really wanted to work from home.”

She had always been involved in arts and crafts and she had used this interest right back in her social work with families with problems in Germany. As well as that she regularly attended craft fairs in Ireland so she kept abreast of developments in the craft trade.

“So the idea of building a business out of hand-made bears came about around the end of the 1990s. I wanted to create a quality product which would still have quality many years later.”

She admits that she did little research and that she started the business in the teeth of scepticism as to its viability. In short, people thought she was crazy.

Part of the problem was that people couldn’t see the value, the real money value, of what she wanted to do. But the price of the bears give clue to the value she wanted to add. These bears are one of a kind and customised and range from e70 right up to e300. So obviously she wasn’t going to make a living out of selling them in west Cavan!

“So I was advised that I should only sell on the internet or to the American or German tourist market. But I was stubborn in this in that it was something I wanted to bring to Ireland and to sell to Irish customers. And actually my biggest customer base has turned out to be in Ireland.”

So in the beginning, around 2000, Anke worked her way through the craft fairs and began to build a reputation. People kept calling to the house after craft fairs but except for a dresser filled with bears Anke had no facility to cater for customers. She didn’t even have a workshop and was still basically working from her bedroom!

“My husband said ‘either the bears move out or I move out’,” Anke recalls with a laugh. So one Easter weekend all the boys in the family helped to convert an existing greenhouse into a workshop and showroom for Bear Essentials.

The old farmyard in Bawnboy has been transformed since then. In early 2007 the Silver Bear centre was opened. This conference and meeting centre caters for the busloads of tourists that call to see Anke’s bears and the other quality crafts that she sells.

She also runs workshops so that people can get hands-on experience of making their own toys and crafts. The workshops can take place over the weekend and in this way local people are also benefiting from accommodating the guests.

The centre can also be used for parties and family occasions and even small weddings. The centre is also being hired by organisations to run training weekends and some companies have booked it for board meetings.

Anke now acts as a mentor for other start-up businesses in the area. She worked for WIN Ireland (Women into the Network) and CMRD (Cavan Monaghan Rural Development) encouraging participant to develop best practise in marketing and networking skills. 

She has some strong ideas about how start-ups should get going. “I think you should be pretty focussed on what you want to do and don’t lose this focus. Make sure you do research.

“Also have some kind of planning written down. It’s something that a lot of small business don’t do. They just work away and they have no written statement about their ideas or goals.

“I think marketing should be a big part of the work of the business and this includes having a marketing budget.”

Anke says she has no regrets except one: “I regret that I didn’t start earlier. My son is 20 and he has started his own business. So I’m a late starter”.