It is a wet dreary Thursday afternoon and Leinster House is full of the usual gatherings, whisperings, machinations and plotting, as John O’Donoghue rolls out an impassioned and some might say embittered defence of his time as Ceann Comhairle.
I arrive just in time to see Seamus Kirk TD take up his new post in the aforementioned office, but am swiftly whisked off to today’s area of interest, Senator Feargal Quinn’s office. His P.A. jokes with me that I will have a tough time shutting him up, so I arm myself with quick-fire questions and a steely resolve; however no sooner am I in the door of Senator Quinn’s office than I am disarmed by a firm handshake and a welcoming smile from the great man.
Feargal Quinn is one of Ireland’s most successful and innovative entrepreneurs in the last 50 years. Though much of his time is now spent on the Seanad floor, the vast majority of his working life was spent nurturing his own highly successful supermarket chain, Superquinn, which he sold in 2005. Superquinn’s unrelenting ability to constantly innovate and deal effectively with an ever-changing market place made Quinn a legend in his field.
I start by asking him “Why business?” He tells that it’s very much a part of his heritage. “My father was a businessman who ran summer camps, and when I was a teenager I would help out in almost every department, be it calling the bingo numbers, organising the herds of eager children or dealing with the parents”. At the Red Island Holiday camps, there was a huge emphasis on bring the customer back, and that was certainly not lost on a young Feargal Quinn. When he finished secondary school, he went on to study Commerce in UCD. During that time he regrets being on the fringes of university, “doing the odd bit of debating and the like”, but never fully integrating and delving in to the pursuit of academic excellence, instead working in a local grocery in Dun Laoghaire for much of his time. Armed with an insatiable appetite for real business, and an abhorrence of all things accounting (which caused him to repeat a year) he set off to France for a year to seek different pastures.
“There I learned a wonderful thing” he says with his customary enthusiasm. “In France, they had a fantastic thing called self-service, where if one wanted to get, say a magazine, you would go to the shelf and pick one out yourself. In Ireland, that didn’t happen and you had to ask the person at the till to get your magazine from behind the counter”. This was his first epiphany moment, and formed the basis of what was to become his own company. Returning to Ireland with a newly found fervor, he eagerly told his father of this revelation. His father suggested going into the area of food. With a year in England under his belt where he learnt his trade, he came back to Ireland in 1960 where he opened his first shop on, he tells me, “25th November, 1960 in a 210 sq m site in Dundalk with a staff of eight”. I am impressed by his sharpness as he remembers every details like it was yesterday, and goes on to tell me that he opened his second shop on the 17th June, 1965 and his third in February 1968.
I ask him what drove him on in the early days. “Without a doubt, there was the whole fear of failure. I was one of the few who started their own company after having studied business studies! Many went in to teaching, the family business, or God forbid accounting, and so being one of the few I wanted to prove to others that I could do it. And of course there was an element of me wanting to impress my father”. He speaks of his early days with pride and fondness, and his shops quickly grew a healthy reputation. He was one of the first to put in music overhead and had a microphone for telling customers of special offers (both described as terrible ideas at the time, but came to be commonplace in every supermarket in the country). “In essence”, he says, “it was about making the weekly shop a bearable experience, and if it could be enjoyable then all the better, as that was the way you were going to get the customer back!” From the late 1960s onwards where his chain grew from 5 shops in 1969 to 11 shops in 1980, he saw himself as more of a leader than a manager. “I did not have the time to manage everything, so I learned that delegating was one of the most important facets of managing a business. I had to trust people to get things done, and my job was to motivate them in their jobs”.
Though things were going well for him and his family, he doesn’t hesitate to allude to how hard he worked at times. He was in work six days a week, sometimes 13- 14 hours a day, and did not have many friends outside Superquinn in the beginning. He looks on the fact that many of his friends were able to go to rugby internationals with unashamed jealousy while he was toiling on a busy Saturday afternoon, tending to the needs and wants of his ever-expanding customer base. Added to this there was the constant pressure to innovate. Superquinn quickly came to be a leader in this area. “We brought in playhouses for children while mothers shopped, introduced delis, pizza and sausage kitchens, encouraged complaints and feedback from customers, and we even took away sweets from the tills (though this would take away valuable revenue, mothers were extremely happy they were not screamed at by impatient children eager for a morsel of chocolate)”.
I put it to him that he seems to have led a very successful life in business, and that all seems to have gone to plan. Are there any regrets/mistakes? “Oh yes! Definitely! In the beginning, I was not very good at managing cash, and that definitely hampered things slightly. We could also have gone into technology earlier, and at other times, we did it too much, spending money on unnecessary additions to the business”.
When he looks at businesses today, what are the common mistakes? “Well, definitely the management of cash is a big issue; many companies can be profitable but run out of cash. Also many firms are copycats rather than improvers, and that will get you nowhere.”
And what of prospects for budding entrepreneurs, or students on the verge of graduation in these tough times? “Look we are going through tough times at the moment, but we must take the medicine [he agrees with spending cuts and NAMA]. As soon as we do that, the sooner recovery will come. There will always be opportunities out there for people wanting to start their own business, and I think Ireland is still a great place to do business, and it will be in the future.”
I cannot help but admire his continued passion for work at the age of 72 and I as I leave his office I reflect that if Ireland is to pull itself out of the current recession, it will certainly a new generation of entrepreneurs like this one.