An ambassador for women in business, Evelyn O’Toole, CEO of Complete Laboratory Solutions, has risen through the ranks of the corporate ladder. With a keen eye for direction, combined with a cool and calm nature, the Clifden native chats to GALWAYnow about her journey from a humble science student to an enterprising entrepreneur.
What initially attracted you to the world of science? I was always science orientated – it was just a matter of what field I would pursue. I began my studies in Athlone Institute of Technology, studying Applied Biology, before going onto Sligo IT where I took up Environmental Science. I had managed to secure one of the last positions in the course in Athlone. On our first day, in our very first class, we were quickly informed that the 57 of us would be whittled down to just 23 in our second year. It was incredibly competitive and an aggressive introduction into academic life. Somehow I just pipped my way into second year and I always say that it doesn’t matter how you get there, as long as you get there!
How did you make the move from science into business? During my time in Athlone, I took up a marketing elective which was unusual for a scientist. It was probably a sign of things to come but I found myself head of the year in that subject. Concepts came very quickly to me and I think I had a unique ability to talk in layman’s terms – an area in During my time in Athlone, I took up a marketing elective which was unusual for a scientist. It was probably a sign of things to come but I found myself head of the year in that subject. Concepts came very quickly to me and I think I had a unique ability to talk in layman’s terms – an area in which a lot of scientists fall short. I could break down technical information and deliver it to customers in a simple format, and I think that really pushed my success. As a child I used to save my sweets during Lent and set up a small shop, so I was entrepreneurial from an early age I guess! Technical positions, as you can imagine, were scarce in the nineties in Connemara. This, partnered with being made redundant, allowed me to create my own opportunity. I just looked people in the eye, gave them my word, they gave me a chance, and I delivered. It was a very simple beginning. We had a bit of a financial hiccup in 2003 which really taught me to move away from my comfort zone as a scientist and into the business side of things.
It took a lot of courage to start your own business. Did you really believe from the start that CLS would work? Somebody once told me to go out, find a decent job and have a good life. For me, this was a commitment I was going to make work. I never thought of failing at any stage. I was told that I was either stone mad or very brave! I have an overwhelming sense of positivity and I’m quite heedless when it comes to negativity, I discard it easily. I think it’s a trait of entrepreneurs – they choose the opportunities and drop the failures. I’m not sensitive at all and I have a logical sense of progression. If something didn’t work, it didn’t work. Initially, our service provided for food and environment testing. We expanded into the medical device and pharmaceutical industries and provided testing and trained analysts on contract to clients sites. We then secured HPRA and FDA approval, once we had enough financial backing. It was all about sustainability, and growing nationally and internationally. Now we have 7% international business and we’re the largest privately-owned laboratory in the country. We have two thriving sites in Galway, 12 refrigerated vans on the road every day, and 24/7 access for our clients results so they can track their progress.
How do you deal with gender diversity within the workplace? Within CLS it’s not an issue. Over 65% of my analysts and 75% of my management team are female. It’s essential to keep the balance right on the other side. Within the company we have an abundance of iconic women – I’m only the CEO. I’m very much of the ethos that you don’t have to be aggressive to succeed – if you accept aggression, then your culture becomes it. I want to build people to succeed, men and women alike.
You’re an advocate for Cancer Care West in your spare time. Tell us about the work you’re doing with them? My campaign is very much about communication. They have the capacity to help so many more people so I’m trying to create awareness. I’m starting to work with GP’s to increase referrals and will follow through with local companies to ensure their staff know what Cancer Care West can do and how they can support their families. Not just people who are going through cancer, but grievance counselling for families also. It’s a very broad level of support that’s available and I don’t think people understand that.
How do you keep fit and healthy? I do yoga every Thursday which takes care of my mind. I also do regular aerobic sprinting, which I’m hoping looks after my heart. Other than that, take each day as it comes and try not to let frivolities affect me!
What’s next for you? We’ve got a lot to deliver. We’ve developed a lot of capability and capacity, and we must fulfill that. We need to do a lot more work in the developmental phase with other companies. After more than 20 years in business, we’re a success. It didn’t happen overnight but we’re here now, and we’re here to stay!