Posted: Thu 30th Jun 2022
Cathal Sheridan is founder and CEO of Huku Balance, a Donegal-based company that makes balance boards for both adults and children.
Sustainability has always been at the core of the business despite the cost of materials soaring and the supply chain drying up. Cathal tells us how Huku Balance has maintained its values despite these challenges.
Your business has grown quite a bit over the past two years. How is it going now?
We've increased our sales, not just in Ireland and the UK but we're starting to ship right across the world – the United States, Singapore, Japan, Australia. So it's been fantastic with growth.
We've also been continuously revising the way we make our products, from an environmental but also a cost point of view. Because the price of everything has been going up so much these last few years.
We had to revisit the way we make things and just try and get a bit clever with how we do things to cut costs, so we didn't have to increase prices. That was a big part of the last couple of years.
Give some examples of how you have managed to keep the costs down while maintaining the sustainable integrity of the business.
Take our balance board rollers, for example. I could have very easily got those shipped over from China and made for a fraction of the cost. But there is enough virgin plastic out there – we don't want to add to it. We can make it a more beautiful product that's environmentally sustainable ourselves.
We had to look at how we made those and using different methods, because the cost of the material is almost three times as much as it was.
We've managed to keep the wood as the main material, and for the grip it's upcycled cork and natural rubber – that's something, again, that we managed to keep a hold of. There are cheaper alternatives, but they don't recycle well, and they'll sit in landfill for a very long time, so they weren't really options for us.
We put up our prices by a couple of euros each just to cover the cost of materials. We absorbed two price hikes before we increased our prices and we've absorbed the last three price hikes since.
That was just down to changing the way we made the product. We invested in different machinery and we designed new procedures, and it brought the costs of production down.
I'm hoping we've hit the peak for having to absorb prices, because I'd like to start seeing the prices return to normal over the next year.
What was having such an effect on the increased cost of your materials?
In January this year, we saw the price decrease a little bit – supply chains were just getting back to normal post-pandemic. The factories that produce the wood were returning to normal production runs. We did see a decrease in price in January and early February.
Our main material is from the Baltic region of Europe. We've always got it from Latvia and Estonia. Russia is part of the Baltic region, and Finland is a big producer as well, although the Finnish material was always very expensive.
When Russia invaded Ukraine, people stopped purchasing Russian products. Everyone wanted wood from Latvia and Estonia and the prices went up again.
In late January, when the price had come down, I'd ordered enough material to get us through most of this year, so we've been able to avoid the more recent price hikes.
Those factories are now starting to get to a point where they can meet the demand. Look, we don't know how long the war is going to last but we do know the factories are beginning to meet the demand, and we're hopeful the prices will start to stabilise.
What other sustainable practices do you have in your business?
Our own boxes are made from recycled cardboard. But we get deliveries all the time and we keep that cardboard ourselves to use as a packaging filler. We use recycled packaging paper as well and even our masking tape is recycled paper. Everything we send out, packaging-wise, is biodegradable.
It's the least harmful way of doing it. We'd love to get the boxes sent back but I just don't think it's feasible at the moment.
At the moment, we're working with Tree Nation planting in various places around the world. One place we're focusing on is Sri Lanka and planting the three types of trees that help prevent coastal erosion.
Our long-term plan is we'll be buying land ourselves locally and planting native Irish trees alongside the ones worldwide. I think, at the moment, it's more a case of asking where's the priority in the world? Where do they really, really need them? Eventually it'll be a nice bonus to be able to do it locally as well. This year we've planted almost 700 trees.
What are the future plans for Huku Balance?
We want to continue to grow our product range and our sales worldwide. This year we're focusing more on the UK and Western Europe. Towards the end of the year, we want to increase our awareness of our brand in the United States.
That's going to help us get to a point where we can hire more people. More local jobs is a big bonus for me personally, as it keeps people in their local community rather than having to head off to a city and work.
We want to continue to focus on creating products that are not bad for the environment. We have some prototype designs and it's a very simple solution to use a piece of plastic and get them launched, but it's just not what we're about. There are challenges there, but we want to continue to abide by the rules we've set ourselves.