From a young age, Noel Walsh has always been interested in agribusiness, having grown up on a then-beef, now-dairy farm in Ballyfin, Co Laois. At the young age of 27, Noel is the owner of two successful agri supply companies: Agvance and Animal Farmacy. Both companies offer a wide range of animal products to the Irish and UK agriculture industry.

As he was building his business (Agvance) and exploring trade routes for products, it took Noel seven years to complete his degree. In 2015, the first year of his business, Agvance was awarded best business startup by Enterprise Ireland.

Noel now has over eight years’ experience importing and exporting natural mineral supplement products for Agvance Ltd and, more recently, with Animal Farmacy.

Business ventures

Noel had an entrepreneurial mindset from a young age. He saw an opportunity to start his first business in 2010, aged 15. Noel tells Irish Country Living: “Before transition year (TY), I remember there was a big freeze and there was no water in Portlaoise.” When he decided to import water containers from Taiwan, he “didn’t have a clue about importing and got absolutely stung on customs and import duty”. Noel adds: “I probably didn’t even ask for help and just went ahead and did it.”

Noel decided in TY that he wanted to study Food and Agribusiness Management in University College Dublin (UCD) as he felt that this course would expose him to a wide variety of agri-businesses.

While working for his father, who is a contractor as well as dairy farming on their home farm, Noel got another business idea: “I came across these covers on silage pits that get rid of tyres on the internet before I went looking for a supplier.” At the age of 16, Noel started importing the covers and says that “even to this day they are one of our biggest [selling] products” in Agvance.

Salt rock supplier in Pakistan.

At that age, Noel couldn’t drive so he set up a distribution model. The covers arrived and he stored them before sending them out to customers on pallets in larger amounts. Noel says: “The biggest problem at the time was if customers wanted them, they wanted them tomorrow”, and he might not have them.

When Noel was 17, he started buying in rock salts. Rock salt is becoming increasingly popular in its use as a natural animal nutritive supplement. While continuing to build his business, he struggled with his exams. He decided to take a leave of absence from college after first year, using this time to set up as a limited company. Noel started importing salt directly from Pakistan, increasing his profit margins.

He then needed something more sustainable to sell year round, as “90% of the products [being sold] were winter-based”– mineral products like seaweed and rock salts. Noel told himself if he wanted to grow the buisness he needed something more sustainable

“I was slow to do anything for a while, because I wanted to make sure it fit in with what I was doing,” Noel explains. “I wanted to focus on products that were natural and sustainable, as I could see that’s where we need to be. It was probably too early for some of the ideas I had.”

Noel returned to college for second and third year. He gained experience in the meat industry during his professional work placement. The experience he received while working in a beef and sheep exporting company gave him insights into how the industry worked and opened his eyes to new opportunities.

Noel Walsh and Max Connolly meeting suppliers in Pakistan.

Noel split his final year in college across two years, of which he says: “UCD were very accommodating.” He spoke to them about his business and they supported him taking the time to focus on growing the company.

Noel expanded Agvance to include more nutritional items, like calving powders, beef minerals and bucket minerals.

“We had grown a good bit over the time I was in college,” he says. “Just as I finished college, an opportunity came about to buy Animal” As a result, he acquired this company in August 2022

Price inflation

Noel explains the impact inflation is currently having on his business.

“We are carrying the same stock, but it is costing us 30% more on average. It’s definitely trickier. Before, when we had 30 products, it was a bit more straightforward.”

They now have 650 products which they import from Pakistan, Egypt, America, England, France and China. The shipping and container costs are where Noel sees the biggest cost increase. He says: “There are only around five shipping companies left in the world. Pre-COVID-19 [most] container prices were less than €2,000, but now they are averaging anything from €8,000 to €15,000.”

Noel built an office and warehouse on the farm at home, where he runs the business.

He currently has two full-time staff and a few working part-time.

Noel Walsh and friend Max Connolly in Pakistan.

He says: “I am trying to build up a unique range of products that are not as easily accessed. We are getting more products made which are unique to our business.”

Noel went to Pakistan last spring to make sure the production line and quality of products he imports is of a very high standard.

Noel prides himself on building a name and reputation of high-quality products.

“You can’t afford to have quality issues,” he tells Irish Country Living.

Advice for starting a company

When Noel is thinking about taking on a new business venture, his rule of thumb is: “If you have an idea, expect it to cost twice as much, take twice as long and expect to make half of what you think.”

He also advises anyone looking to begin a company to: “Start off lean, don’t spend a fortune on anything really. Start off the idea small, what you could think is a great idea might not work at all.”

He continues: “If you’re thinking of doing something, there is no harm in trying something out, but don’t put your last cent into it.”

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