Leaders’ Insights: You can’t get ahead by focusing on nine to five only

13 Nov 2017

Evelyn O’Toole, CEO of Complete Laboratory Solutions. Image: CLS

Award-winning entrepreneur Evelyn O’Toole of CLS is a role model for those in leadership.

Clifden native Evelyn O’Toole is the founder and CEO of Complete Laboratory Solutions (CLS) and has been a scientist for more than 20 years.

CLS is the largest privately owned contract laboratory in Ireland and supplies microbiological and analytical testing, and fully trained analysts on contract, to clients in the food, environmental, medical device and pharmaceutical industries. It has two facilities, employs 140 staff, and partners with leading national and multinational clients.

Earlier this year, O’Toole won the EY Industry Entrepreneur of the Year award and Irish Tatler Business Woman of the Year award. She is a Women Mean Business (WMB) gender diversity ambassador and advocate for Cancer Care West. In 2016, she was named Outstanding Business Woman of the Year in Galway by Network Galway as well as the WMB Business Woman of the Year.

Describe your role and what you do.

My role is CEO of Complete Laboratory Solutions (CLS) and my main focus is on growing the business. It’s a role that I’m passionate about and one I thrive on. It’s about meeting prospective clients, making lasting relationships and getting the best outcome for clients so that, with our support, they can become the best in their respected industries. As a service company, my position also covers reviewing major red-flag issues that may arise, resolving them and finding better solutions.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

I love my career but I equally love my downtime, especially the weekends. As an SME, the standard working hours of nine to five don’t apply to me. We are still a small company that’s growing and I support the view that you can’t get ahead by focusing on nine to five only. Prioritising time and allowing space to plan when I’m not overly busy is crucial to my business, as it’s during these times that I identify good solutions for the company and our clients, and so I always look to plan my week in such a way that allows me to have this time away from the day-to-day calls and meetings.

What are the biggest challenges facing your business and how are you tackling them?

We are growing our staff numbers at present and it’s about getting the right talent and nurturing them. My employees are an area of priority and I want to ensure that each employee is given career development opportunities from the start. We are currently implementing improved formal processes and a robust internal communication systems to ensure our goals in this area are met.

Another big challenge for us is remaining competitive, staying ahead of the competition, and we do this by diversifying, being innovative with solutions for clients and being open to change.

What are the key industry opportunities you’re capitalising on?

Outsourcing and insourcing are key opportunities in our industry sectors at present, especially for our CLS MedPharma facility. As a contract laboratory, our analysts are essentially our USP and it’s what differentiates us from our competitors. The benefit to our client is that it allows them to outsource their testing requirements to us and we perform them in our laboratories on their behalf. We also provide analysts on contract to client sites. This service model allows our clients to add our analysts to their resources, giving them many advantages (including scalability) and allowing them to focus on their core business.

What set you on the road to where you are now?

I knew in secondary school that I wanted to be a scientist and so I studied biology in college. After graduation, I spent some time in the UK working for an industrial paints company and then returned to Ireland. As luck would have it, I got a job managing an aquaculture laboratory in Carna, Connemara. Two-and-a-half years into that job, the whole production plant burned down and my job disappeared overnight – I was made redundant.

I was a scientist who wanted to live and work in the west of Ireland and so, two weeks later, I became an entrepreneur. At the age of 25, I set up CLS in Rosmuc in Connemara. Many people told me that I was mad – wrong location, not enough experience, no investment or capital or contacts – but, with help from Údarás na Gaeltachta and my redundancy money, I started my own company.

Initially, I started out by offering a basic supply of testing for routine factory hygiene, cleanroom monitoring, and microbiological and analytical testing in our laboratories. As I grew the business, prospective clients shared concerns about getting samples to us and queried our location, so we invested in a bespoke laboratory information management system and produced results to client in real time 24/7, which also allowed our clients to trend their data on our systems.


Evelyn O’Toole, CEO of CLS. Image: CLS

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

On reflection, I would have to say that the most obvious mistake would have been in not appointing a dedicated sales team to look after sales for the company. The senior team has always had combined roles covering responsibilities for their team, and operational functions and sales would have fitted alongside this. We have benefited in the fact that the majority of our clients have been referrals from other clients but, looking back, a more proactive approach to sales would have been more beneficial in growing the business during the early stages.

How do you get the best out of your team?

By empowering and trusting them. As my team members get more experience, my expectations grow and I do apply a lot more responsibility and opportunity to them. This transition can happen faster for some more than others, depending on the company stage and cycle and how they respond to being levered. It’s a balance of being people-oriented and technically strong in our industry to ensure we maintain our market position.

First jobs can make a big impact and, if the experience and atmosphere is right, a new graduate can grow into a powerful colleague and develop into a high-performing company star, so I ensure that there is an extremely kind, encouraging and nurturing environment for them to develop their confidence.

At a senior level, all the senior team at CLS have years of laboratory hours under their belts and each of them are experts in their sectors. I give them a high level of responsibility, and this in turn allows them to become empowered in their roles and be more responsive and effective.

STEM sectors receive a lot of criticism for a lack of diversity. What are your thoughts on this and what’s needed to effect change?

There has been criticism but I believe we will see this rebalance over time. It’s an area that was below par and has become a focus in recent years, but we need to invest in it more, and that will take a few years. I believe that the more female role models in the STEM sector we have, the more it will effect change.

At CLS, we have a 75pc representation of females on our management team and 65pc of our analysts are female – as a female scientist, I’m very proud of that. I have also seen the number of female graduates rising in our sector, and that is encouraging for the future. Becoming the first female winner of an Industry EY Entrepreneur of the Year Award, and the third female to win an EY award in the awards’ 20-year history, does make it obvious that we have some distance to go to create a balance, but it is starting to happen.

Who is your business hero and why?

The most prominent one for me is Anne Heraty, CPL. She’s been a high-performing entrepreneur and leader for many years. Her presence during the EY programme has been really important – as a pioneer for female entrepreneurs since she won in 2006 – in paving the way for others, and I have a newly found admiration for her.

I also have a huge admiration for humanitarians. Mary Robinson has been a standout for me with the work she has done following her Irish presidency. On a personal level, I have always admired life and society ‘careers’ and, in particular, my own late mom is top of my list for her endless care, fun, love and time she gave to me as a child, and helped me as an adult to stand on my own and be comfortable within my own skin.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

Very few, but I’m working on it! I like factual books. I’m reading Quite at the moment, a present from another EY finalist, Fergus McArdle, and I have a history one from our legendary Harry Hughes when I finish that.

I am constantly reading abstracts and headlines of everything to do with current affairs and business-related topics. I have a strong technical appetite for what’s happening in the world of technologies and diagnostics, and I have a great interest in advance testing in the medical space.

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

My team at CLS, my phone (I can’t live without it!) and my calendar.

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