Business Plus

Making Their Mark

David and Marguerite Lawlor’s Watermark Coffee company started out supplying and servicing machines before the couple launched their own coffee brands. Arlene Harris talks to the environmen­tally-conscious pair about plans for the business


When David and Marguerite Lawlor began their careers as chartered accountant­s in the 1990s, neither thought that a decade later they would be running their own business and making a name for themselves in the coffee industry.

Their business is Watermark Coffee, which started out with a focus on coffee-making machinery and is now developing coffee brands too. It’s a successful firm and, importantl­y, unlike many people who decide to go into business, the Lawlors purchased an existing business rather than start from scratch.

David Lawlor had a solid grounding from during his summer holidays when working for his father Pat, who was one of the founding partners of JPA

Brenson Lawlor. After college in UCD, David went on to train with KPMG, and at the age of 25 he decided he would like to work for himself.

“I really had no idea on how I was going to manage this, so I took a financial controller role with a property company, until a shareholde­r row developed,” he recalls. “I moved to an NTR venture that morphed into Greenstar, the waste management company,” says David.

“They were putting together a brand new entity at the time and were in the process of buying different small companies. I held several positions there and really enjoyed the job. It was great fun and I had many different roles, so I learned management skills required to take the helm of a company.”

Marguerite Lawlor also went down the UCD B.Comm route into KPMG, where she met her husband to be. “David always wanted his own business as he had entreprene­urial streak,” she says. “Although I’m more careful, when he flagged the opportunit­y at Watermark Coffee it seemed like it could have potential. We decided to go for it and thought that if it didn’t work out, we could get jobs elsewhere.”

Terence and Maureen Coughlan were founding directors of Watermark Coffee Technology Ltd in April 1989. The business did well, and in April 2005 the company’s net worth was €570,000 on the back of €3 start-up capital. The Coughlans put Watermark up for sale and David Lawlor (then aged 31) and his dad became directors in February 2006. Marguerite followed them in a year later, and Pat Lawlor stepped back

from the company in 2010.

According to Marguerite, the agreement to acquire Watermark called for David becoming managing director of the business with the option to purchase it with an agreed price for assets, goodwill and a formula to allow for any further movement in net assets.

The purchase option was for a five-year period, and the Lawlors had the option to walk away. In the event, the Watermark founders exited as directors in January 2007 after a deal was concluded.

“Looking back, we must have been mad, as we just had our first baby and at the time the business employed six people and turnover consisted only of commercial coffee equipment sales and the ongoing service of machines,” explains Marguerite, who is originally from Kerry.

“This was very niche and was compounded by the fact that just three customers accounted for 80% of sales. Also, the turnover was largely dependent on one machine type which was contracted to go out of production over the following two years. But there were several appealing aspects, and if nothing else it would be an epic adventure.”

The purchase of the Watermark business was effected with the help of a €540,000 loan from Bank of Scotland. Making the move from chartered accountant­s to coffee merchants is quite the leap but since the Lawlors acquired the business the entreprene­urial couple have extended their customer base and also their business model.

“Our first task was to diversify our customer base,” says Marguerite. “This was made difficult when the financial crisis occurred as banks all but ceased lending money to prospectiv­e customers who wanted to upgrade or purchase new coffee machines.

“We started to rent out machines with a service contract, which was quite slow initially as we were also constraine­d by the lack of credit in the market. However, we steadily grew during the years of recession and by 2014 we had developed the core business to allow us to start producing and selling our own coffee.”

Watermark Coffee supplies coffee machines for workplaces, foodservic­e and coffee shops, with storied Italian manufactur­ers such as Gaggia among the brands offered. The company offers rental or lease purchase and employed 18 people in the year to January 2022.

As offices got back to life in 2021, trade debtors expanded from €110,000 to €290,000 year-on-year, and trade creditors more than doubled to €400,000. Year-end stock advanced from €910,000 to €1.1m, while net worth in January 2022 was just on €2.2m.

Watermark’s coffee brands distinguis­h themselves in a crowded market by aligning with green projects. With Woodland Coffee, Watermark plants a tree for each case of coffee purchased. Is Woodland Coffee just greenwashi­ng, the brand’s website asks rhetorical­ly. No is the answer, because the Lawlors acquired a 30-acre plot of land in Limerick where, to date, 27,000 trees have been planted.

“This is a meaningful endeavour and commitment that will require looking after for 40-plus years as the trees mature, from simple things like making sure that public liability insurance is paid, rubbish is cleaned up and walkways are maintained in a safe manner,” says the site.

“Woodland Coffee is not a fleeting idea or fad, Woodland Coffee is a legacy that will deliver benefits now and for generation­s to come. Once our site in Pallasgree­n is planted, we plan to buy another location and start over again.”

In January 2023, Watermark unveiled a second brand, Green Ocean Coffee. David Lawlor is a sailor and scuba diver and each bag of Green Ocean Coffee sold will help fund the restoratio­n of one square metre of oyster and seagrass bed in Clew Bay.

In partnershi­p with Clew Bay Oyster Co-Op, the total area for restoratio­n extends to 180 hectares. The associatio­n is amplified by Green Ocean’s three coffee blends being named after Clew Bay islands Inishgowla, Dorinish and Inisheeny.

“Green Ocean Coffee is about providing the conduit that links drinking amazing coffee with authentic climate action right here in Ireland,” says David. “We are looking forward to working with new corporate clients and consumers to deliver great coffee and make a meaningful difference to the ocean that surrounds us.”

Marguerite Lawlor adds: “Today our turnover is well spread between coffee sales, equipment rental and sale and also the provision of after-sales service and repair on our own equipment and for third parties. We have also worked hard at lowering the climate impact of our own business and connecting our brands to authentic climate action here in Ireland.

“Sustainabi­lity is at the heart of everything we do, and the projects that appeal to us must be authentic, worthwhile, local and transparen­t and be making a meaningful difference. In our opinion, when it comes to climate action, authentici­ty trumps everything else and Green Ocean Coffee delivers upon this in spades.”

‘Sustainabi­lity is at the heart of everything we do, and the projects that appeal to us must be authentic’

 ?? ?? Left: David and Marguerite Lawlor shunned accountanc­y careers for a coffee business Right: Green Ocean Coffee is aligned with restoring the Clew Bay seabed
Left: David and Marguerite Lawlor shunned accountanc­y careers for a coffee business Right: Green Ocean Coffee is aligned with restoring the Clew Bay seabed

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