Irish Charm – A World-class Business Experience

On a recent trip to Shanghai with Irish entrepreneurs as part of Ernst and Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year™ prorgramme, LQ met some of the world’s most inspiring entrepreneurs. Here’s a look at how three have taken the values of their home communities to create three world-class business success stories.

“The luck of the Irish“ is a proverbial phrase that describes how other nationalities see the Irish as the heirs of the natural good fortune of coming from the Emerald Isle on the westernmost edge of Europe’s Atlantic coast. “The luck of the Irish” also expresses the way in which Irish wit, wisdom, good cheer and joy of life creates possibilities and opportunities for the Irish that seem to pass others by. However, there is no blind chance or pure randomness to this. The Irish make their luck happen. They do this through a strong sense of community and connection to others, starting with family, home, county, town and spirit of place. This deep sense of and respect for community creates a rich tradition of hospitality, of reaching out and welcoming others in to experience the best that Ireland offers – or of bringing a something of the best of Ireland out to the rest of the world. This characterises some of the best qualities in many of Ireland’s most successful businesses. And for those entrepreneurs whose vision and enterprise have contributed to the brand and profile of Ireland itself, there is absolutely nothing at all owing to luck about the strength and depth of their business enterprise – it is rooted in the very values and fabric of Ireland itself.

Recently, three such entrepreneurs from Ireland visited Shanghai as finalists of Ernst and Young’s highly prestigious Entrepreneur of the Year™ business awards programme. Though very different in terms of personality, each of the three see their high value business success starting with a family story rooted very firmly in a tradition of service to the community from which they come.  The three are Liam Griffith, Collette Twomey and Neven Maguire. Each heads a business that focuses on the very best that Ireland has to offer in terms of hospitality, wellbeing, comfort, sense of self and spirit of place. Each is passionate about the very rich heritage that Ireland offers in terms of pure, natural and organic foodstuff of every kind, along with a wide open and uncontaminated nature that is rare to find anywhere else in the world.

Liam Griffin, Managing Director of the Griffin Group, is one of Ireland’s leading entrepreneurs and hoteliers. Liam is as passionate about his county, Wexford, and the sport of Hurling, as he is about hospitality and business. Liam coached Wexford to All-Ireland Hurling success in 1996 and has contributed all his life to the Irish hurling fraternity in general. Taken together, this makes Liam one of Ireland’s leading business and sporting icons. Under Liam’s leadership, the Griffin Group took the brave decision to introduce the first truly luxurious spa to Ireland at Monart in Liam’s beloved county of Wexford. Monart Destination Spa has now put Ireland in the top rank of the world’s greatest spa destinations with accolades from Forbes Magazine and Condẻ Nast Traveller.

Colette Twomey started in business with her husband Edward soon after their marriage in 1977. The couple bought the local butcher’s shop in Clonakilty, a small town in West Cork that is as authentically Irish as any place can hope to be. The deeds to the shop included a traditional recipe for black pudding written down in 1880 by the shop’s founder, Philip Harrington. Customers came to the shop because they could not get enough of Clonakilty’s famous black pudding. Edward and Colette identified fine food outlets to carry their black pudding to every corner of Ireland and to the overseas Irish community in every part of the world beyond. Together they made a very good thing from Clonakilty truly great!

Neven Maguire started to cook at the age of ten when he helped his mother out in the kitchen. His hobby soon became a passion that was to define his course in life. Neven enrolled at Fermanagh College, Eniskillen to study catering and there received the prestigious Student of the Year Award. Neven went on to hone his skills as a chef at Roscoff, Belfast and Grand Hotel Berlin, both Michelin Star winners. Neven had the honour to cook for Princess Diana at The Lea Linster in Luxembourg and for world leaders visiting Arzak in San Sebastian in Spain. Neven took over his family business in 2001 to create what has become an Irish cultural phenomenon. MacNean House and Restaurant  is located in the very rural setting of Blacklion, a village far from the urban centres of Ireland in County Cavan. Even so, MacNean House and Restaurant is one of Ireland’s most talked about, admired and consistently booked up fine dining establishments. Neven is also one of Ireland’s best-loved TV chefs with seven best-selling recipe books to his name. As such, Neven has probably had more impact on Irish eating habits than anyone else in the last fifty years or more.

So what is it that unites these very different entrepreneurs and defines their outstanding success?

Each is clear that their passion and vision for their business comes first and foremost from a real love of their home and community. Each has taken the spirit of warmth, generosity, care and comfort they grew up with and translated that into a core value of service, selflessness and attentiveness that creates wellbeing for others. Each business does this in a way that is unique to itself but totally reflective of the very best of Ireland.  Each business is centred very much in its local community, buying in the very best of local produce to create a moment of wellbeing that goes beyond food to delight and nourish the person and to celebrate and affirm the simple truth of our shared place in the world. Liam, Colette and Neven know what it is to focus on truly understanding and meeting others’ needs in a way that connects to all that they hold dear about the rich culture of hospitality in Ireland. In each case this creates an experience that is unique, unforgettable and utterly impossible for anyone anywhere else to replicate or copy.

It is precisely this focus on the very best in terms of local produce and service that Ireland has to offer that creates high margin value for each business in a way that inspires more than loyalty for the clients it serves. Monart Destination Spa, Clonakilty Black Pudding and MacNean House and Restaurant each instil a sense of the best of what Ireland brings to the world for all those who experience their products or service. This creates a real sense of pride and engagement for all those who work in, supply or are simply a near neighbour to each of these different businesses. The people of Monart, Clonakilty and Blacklion all gain in reputation – if not directly in pocket  – because their town is home to a business you cannot find anywhere else in the world. The counties of Wexford, Cork and Cavan all gain in cultural richness because each enterprise brings aspects of the county’s history and tradition to new audiences in Ireland and far beyond. And Ireland itself gains at a brand level – and as a travel destination – as discriminating consumers around the world seek out the best from Ireland that is better than anything else from anywhere else the world has to offer.

But what does all this mean in very practical terms for the individual entrepreneur and their communities?

At a very simple level it means Liam, Colette and Neven get to live and work in the place and among the people they love most.  But it goes much farther than this.

Griffin Group employs around 100 people in Monart and 300 others at Ferrycarig Hotel and Hotel Kilkenny. Each hotel is the best in category for the niche market it serves in Ireland – wellbeing, weddings and conferences. Each establishment sets the standard to which all others in the sector category need to aspire. As such, Griffin Group plays an important role in raising standards for and expectations of the hotel industry in Ireland as a whole. Just as importantly, the group provides an environment in which a new generation of restaurateurs and hoteliers can gain a world-class career experience without ever leaving Ireland. This was certainly not true for Liam Griffin who had to leave his family’s hotel in Rosslare Harbour to work in world famous hotels in places like Switzerland and London to gain his professional experience. As Liam says, looking back on it now: “As a young man living and working in Switzerland I lay in bed one night feeling homesick. To lift my spirits I made a decision there and then that when I had gained sufficient experience around the World I would return to my native place to live out the rest of my life and raise my Family. I vowed to grow my business and use my talents particularly in sport within my community.  I am pleased to have done that. Today we employ 400 People in two 4 star and one 5 star Hotel having started with 4 staff.”

Clonakilty Food Co employs 42 members of staff who produce a range of high quality gourmet foods that go far beyond the original Clonakilty Black Pudding for which the firm is famous. As Colette Twomey explains, “Clonakilty Blackpudding Co. is now a grown version of a small local enterprise which began in the butcher shop using locally grown ingredients. Today all be it to a bigger scale, we still use locally produced products. We were always conscious that when promoting our blackpudding we were also promoting our town and its people”. So it is no surprise to find that Clonakilty Food Company has invested in state of the art production facilities that are important to the town. Colette Twomey is also proud of the relationship between the firm and the town, saying: “Clonakilty people have a sense of pride in Clonakilty Food Products and that is why we are a very strong sponsor of local events and teams both cultural and sporting”. As importantly, the firm has acted as a catalyst to improve access to market for a wide range of local farmers and food service suppliers. Clonakilty has become something of a hub for high quality foodstuffs with improved transport and infrastructure links not only to Ireland but to the rest of the world. Edward and Colette Twomey have ensured that black pudding has been rescued from the realms of folk fable to feature on the menus of many of the world’s most famous restaurants as an inspirationally Irish gourmet delicacy.

MacNean House and Restaurant is a magnet that draws in people to the town of Blacklion and to the lakes and surrounding countryside of County Cavan. In the last three years Neven has doubled the seating capacity of the restaurant and added ten luxurious guest bedrooms. Even so, the restaurant and rooms remain fully booked a full six months in advance! Most importantly, Neven has reached out from his restaurant to communicate his passion for good food and healthy, seasonal and ethical eating to audiences of every age all across Ireland. In this way Neven has helped inspire new attitudes to food and farming that have helped raise standards, quality and availability of organic food to all.

So what are the lessons here for others wishing to found a local, high value, niche business?

The first is to really care about what it is that you bring from your community into your business. These are the values that ultimately define how and why you will be successful. The second is to really understand what it is your customers are looking for. Once you understand your customers; needs and expectations you can focus everything on delivering something they will want to experience and buy again and again. Repeat business is the lifeblood of a high value, high margin business enterprise. Repeat business also drives recommendations and word of mouth.

Creating a good relationship with your customers in a way that makes them feel good about themselves because they relate to the traditions and values you bring to your business is they secret to creating success no one else can copy. This is important if you want to have a high margin business that defines the standard of excellence in the niche that you serve.

As Colette Twomey of Clonakilty Blackpudding so aptly says” Our policy is always on quality product  and customer satisfaction is always our priority – we find out what the customer wants, – and give it to them!”

Finally, you need to really understand the value of niche versus scale. Get this right and you can create astonishingly high and sustainable margin, business and brand value.  Try to scale your brand values beyond the needs of your niche clientele and you risk losing focus, devaluing the brand and disappointing your core customers.

It is no accident that Clonakilty Food Co is less famous than its iconic black pudding or that Griffin Group is less well known than its amazing Monart Destination Spa. If you desire to branch out from your core value proposition, learn well from these Irish entrepreneurial grand masters. Take that little piece of home to market, niche by niche. Do so, and China if not the world can be your oyster. As Liam Griffin says, “it’s not what a man gets for his toil but what he becomes by it that matters most in the end”

The luck of the Irish, it turns out, is not reserved just for the Irish after all.