An interview with Grainne Kelly could be an expose on the life of a working mother who also happens to be an international business woman. It could turn into a feature about the female CEO of one of the most successful products to ever launch from the Northern Ireland market. It could be the tale of the Derry girl who’s gone on to occupy column inches in the Wall Street Journal with her revolutionary booster car seat.
At the end of of a 40 minute chat with the woman herself, the outcome is none of the above.
She may be the brains behind a product which is set to sell millions, but the Waterside woman is adamant that she’s no different to any other Derry woman. In 2009 she saw a gap in the market, and was determined to fill it.
While travelling back and forward from England with her family to visit an ill relative, Grainne noticed that the car hire companies she was using didn’t provide booster seats for children. The only option, at that stage, was to carry the bulky seats as luggage every time the family flew or hire the seats at a cost of £5 or £6 a day.
As a mother to two boys looking for a convenient way around the problem, Grainne started to think about an easy to carry version of the mandatory car booster.
“I had to find out why nobody had invented it,” she says.
For most people wondering and bemoaning the cumbersome nature of the problem would be as far as that thought process would go. For Grainne, the quandary saw her travel to China and back where she fought every testing and safety regulation in her way and eventually saw her idea become a reality and a world first. With the name Bubblebum, the inflatable booster seat was instantly a merchandiser’s dream and the last three years have been a whirlwind networking and PR tour for the enterprising Derry mother.
“In 2009, I wrote down in my diary that Bubblebum would go global,” says Grainne, who always had complete faith in her product.
“It wasn’t arrogance but I knew there would be a demand for it,” she adds.
With a background in construction, commercial radio and travel Grainne describes herself as someone who can marry the practical elements of a new idea with the creativity it takes to market, design and publicise.
When she started funding research into the Bubblebum brand, the Waterside woman was still running her travel agency franchise business Travel Counsellors PLC.
Three years later and the inflatable booster seat, thought up here in Derry, is now available in 24 countries around the world. With a a potential catchment audience in excess of 100 million there’s much more to do with the Bubblebum brand. That kind of potential and the success to date, as Grainne admits, doesn’t leave a lot of time for down time.
“My whole life, and my family’s life, has been consumed with Bubblebum since we started. In 2010, we decided to move to Florida for a year to get a better understanding of the American market and we just did it, because we had to to make it work,” she says.
Grainne has a simple answer to how she achieves the work life balance and makes family life work in the middle of establishing a global brand.
“I have a very modern husband. In fact, there are times when I think he makes a much better wife than I do,” she laughs.
“My husband, Fintan, is totally methodical and logical and does so so much at home. I wouldn’t be able to do everything I do without that support.”
Grainne and Fintan also work together at Bubblebum, but the 40-year-old business woman says there’s a key ingredient to their success as a couple who work together.
“There are no egos. It’s as simple as that,” she says.
“People often ask how we can work together full time and live together but the reality of it is that because of the nature of the company and what I do, we might not speak to one another from the morning until the evening.”
Last year, Grainne totted up 100,000 airmiles between visiting her factory in China and capitalising on the US markets. She’s proud of capturing the American market but confirms that the consumer mindset there is a different world compared to Europe.
She’s remaining tightlipped about plans to launch other products in the Bubblebum market but there are no indications that life is going to quieten down for the mother of two just yet.
“I have so many different goals for Bubblebum and I’m really excited about the future of the business,” she says.
Last November Grainne was awarded the Derry Chamber of Commerce Business Achievement Award. Among her other accolades are the Belfast Telegraph Business Woman of the Year Award 2010-11, the Ulster Bank Business Achiever Awards 2011 and Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Finalist 2011.
It’s the Derry chamber award that she’s most proud of however and she insists that she’s no different to any other local person who works hard at an idea they’re passionate about.
“I don’t see myself as being any stronger or any better than anyone else. I suppose I’ve just found my special purpose. For me the Derry Chamber of Commerce award was a real highlight. It felt fantastic to be recognised here in my own town. I’ve done so much with the company around the world but it was great to receive that award in my own town. My parents were thrilled, it didn’t matter what I’d done anywhere else, they were just over the moon to see that I was being recognised here!” she laughs.
She’s recently spent time in China and India with the Bubblebum brand but the highlight of the past few weeks for Grainne has been spending Mother’s Day with her sons Lorcan and Fintan. Breakfast in bed and an Adam Sandler movie proved a real treat for the successful North West inventor who says she likes to spend her bouts of spare time, which are few and far between, walking on the beach.
Towards the end of the interview, conversation turns to the possibility of early retirement, but for the woman who finds it strange when she has no emails waiting for her, putting the feet up isn’t on the cards anytime soon.
“Absolutely not. I’m not ready for a pat on the back just yet,” she says.
Bubblebum is already stocked by major retailers and e-tailers such as Amazon, Toys R Us, Kiddicare, Halfords online, as well as airlines such as BMI and Emirates and is now also available in supermarket giant Asda.
For further information visit Bubblebum