Friday, October 26, 2012

'Keep changing the rules'

If it did nothing else, yesterday's North Kildare Chamber Annual Conference fired up a geyser of optimism in the Killashee Hotel.

Against the background of the toughest financial situation faced by small and medium enterprises for decades, a stream of speakers talked up the opportunities possible, and how they might be accessed.

The key theme came early, with Hugh Cooney of Enterprise Ireland emphasising that 'successful businesses focus on innovation'. "Research and Development is essential for innovation," he urged. "And we need to continually innovate to compete globally." He said the upcoming innovation centre being established by Kerry Group in Naas should he 'held up high' as a model for industry in Ireland.

Enterprise Ireland is targeting 'mobile entrepreneurs' for investment, and also women in business. Opportunities in Sports, Communications and Financial Services are there, as there are in Agriculture, especially with the planned elimination of milk quotas. Noting that SMEs are the 'bread and butter' of Irish business and will be the major contributors to future growth, Cooney asked all present to become 'ambassadors for Irish business'.

Despite coming from a background of where he 'used to be' described as one of Ireland's most successful entrepreneurs, Brody Sweeney was sanguine about his 'riches to rags' experience, and expressed himself 'optimistic for the future of Irish business'.

He retailed the 'humiliating experience' of going around to landlords 'begging for lowered rents' for his chain of 350 O'Briens Sandwich outlets, before the business went into receivership. "I succeeded in negotiating down about a third of them, then I realised that the landlords were in just the same position as us, in hock at high prices to their banks, who in turn simply said it 'wasn't their problem'."

Always an entertaining storyteller, his subsequent up and down and up again attempts to get back in business were engaging. And frank. "It's no fun to have to acknowledge that you have failed, and you can be so crushed by the situation that you can make terrible decisions. After the receivership I was beaten up, didn't want to ever start another business."

But he did. Because like anyone else in business, he has a family to feed. Sweeney currently has a chain of four-becoming-six 'Camile' Thai takeaway food outlets in Dublin, catering for the internet generation 'who want food delivered to their laptops' instead of cooking for themselves. "And we're opening in London soon," he revealed, raising echoes of his previous global enterprise.

The former O'Briens emperor detailed what he had learned as the three key attributes of a successful business person. One, they take personal responsibility for the enterprise, its successes and failures. Two, they are prepared to do whatever it takes to make it work. And three, successful people have a plan. But even with all that in place, there are still no guarantees. "We're on a journey, and none of us know what the future brings. But one thing is sure, today is not the destination."

For Irish businesses not exporting, there's a 'very bleak' home retail market, John Whelan of the Irish Exporters Association warned those at the Conference. Noting that the country needed a lot more exporters, he outlined areas of opportunity in Transport, Tourism, Insurance, Back Office, and Financial Services. "Computer Services is our biggest services export, and the easiest to get into. Business services is also very big." Ireland also has successes in the food and drink industry, especially in recently-emerging big markets. "Russia, for instance, is the second largest market for Jameson whiskey, after the US."

Whelan said that Africa was becoming a very big consumer area, and many countries like China were moving in there to pick up the business. "We have a strong record in providing aid to the region, but we need to get smarter about opening up the business opportunities." He had blunt advice, though, for small businesses trying to access big new overseas markets. "Don't try and do it alone. Use a strategic partner already in the market. There's less cost, and much less risk."

How to break out of the natural human habit of doing the same thing all the time was the focus of Dave Cagney from Pfizer in Newbridge. "It's like a river following the shape of the land. Eventually it forms a gorge in our lives, and we're rooted into it."

His recipe for getting people thinking innovatively includes having them juggle balls at meetings. "Fun around the table helps people think creatively. Innovation requires using both sides of the brain. You can form a habit of doing things differently and get new things."

In a rapid-fire but fascinating presentation, Google's Cera Ward left participants in no doubt that consumer habits have changed and are continuing to change, because of the internet. The headline figure was sobering. Of €4bn spent by Irish consumers through the internet last year, €3bn left the country. "There's a big prize to be won," she said. "Two out of three people use a search engine before buying. You have to have a strong web presence, or people will buy from your competitor." In particular, businesses increasingly need to have a mobile version of their website, as the smartphone is becoming a major part of the consumer's pre-buy investigations. "Depending on product, between 10-20 percent of searches are now being conducted on mobile devices."

And with more than half of all retail sales expected to be done online by the end of 2014, there's both danger and opportunity. The opportunity can be grasped in a number of ways, the most important of which is to know what's happening by regular analysing of visitor patterns to a website. "Customer journeys on the internet are complex, clicking from site to site before converting to a defined search and purchase. The data can inform your marketing, your sales team."

Emphasising the small size of the home market, Ward gave examples of 'kitchen table' businesses which had grown substantial export markets. "Look at what you do as a global opportunity on the internet, and it can be huge." And her rules for success? Well, they're not really static enough to write down. "Never stop innovating, keep changing the rules, don't get left behind."

The absence of rules and regulations around 'The Gathering Ireland 2013' was also emphasised by Andrew Cowan, representing that Government initiative. "It's up to the steering groups around the country to do it themselves," he told the delegates, noting that there were already more than 850 'Gathering' events pledged around the country, with 4,600-plus ideas generated. And he had good news, of new grant money being available to local authorities and steering groups, ranging from €500-€2,500 per event. There are business opportunities attached to the Gathering, which is targeting four markets with strong Irish connections: the US, Canada, Britain and Australia.

"This isn't a new idea," he added, noting that the globally successful Rose of Tralee festival had been inaugurated with just the same thing in mind in 1959, when local businessmen with a budget of £750 put the concept in place. For 2013, the national 'event' will involve digital 'crowd-sourcing' and social media, as well as schoolchildren writing letters of invitation over the Scoilnet network. But it all comes down to one simple thought. Make the phone call. Ask the relatives, 'will ye come back for a visit?'. Like any sale, it won't happen if you don't lift the phone.

Eirgrid was the keynote sponsor of the Conference, and that company's John Lowry noted that the concept of the 'Smart Grid' in electricity transmission offered opportunities for innovative businesses with ideas to improve efficiencies in the technologies used. "We have just announced a 'Smart Grid Innovation Hub' to help entrepreneurs bring such ideas to fruition."

High quality and reliable electricity is key to attracting big businesses to the country, he noted, citing Intel as one such, which used as much power on its own as does the city of Galway. But the investment in energy for such companies must be made now. "We have to be ready for them when the economy turns."

Lowry surprised most delegates when he revealed that innovation to date has resulted in Ireland now being in a position to provide half of its energy needs by alternative and sustainable means. A 75 percent ability is envisaged by 2020. The opportunities for Irish SMEs are in generating, transmission, logistics, smart vehicles, and smart industry.

The final speaker, Gary Keegan of the Irish Institute of Sport, provided a fascinating insight into innovation by changing the mindset of a group or organisation. Drawing on his experience as the High Performance Director of the Irish Amateur Boxing Association, he punched home the importance of process in achieving performance. And he saw direct parallels in the mindset required to achieve in sport and achievement in business.

"Before Beijing, we had had a 16 year drought of medals in Olympic boxing. In the period before the programme started, we had won two medals at world level. In the same period after it, we won 52. We started with a group of ordinary people, and found extraordinary things within ourselves."

The process began with a 'hard look' at the situation in Irish boxing. It meant getting down to person level, and was challenging. "We found that we weren't fit for purpose." The keys to improvement included everyone in the team, boxers, coaches, physios, all 'visualising' themselves to be world class, standing on a podium.

"A critical success factor is to identify what you can control, and then control the hell out of it," Keegan noted, adding that working on strengths and nurturing character were key elements in the strategy. He detailed how the programme concentrated on turning values into behaviour, and getting across the fact that 'nobody is bigger than the system', including the management. "Behaviour that generates high performance has to be maintained from the top down."

His bottom line was that exceptional results are best achieved by focusing on performance, controlling the environment to promote challenge, and that the required high performance has to be defined.

Opening the Conference earlier, North Kildare Chamber President Eilis Quinlan had questioned whether the Government had been strong enough in dealing with the issues which have had the country in recession for five years, and seen personal incomes and business revenues 'fall off a cliff'. "We must ensure that Government knows that Kildare is a place to do business, and we all have to work together to succeed," she said.

Which made it all the more a pity that one of the Government TDs, present before the start of the event, had to leave very early to attend some Dail business. There was so much that could have been brought back to that same Dail if he had been able to wait. The positive vibes alone could have taken another half percent off our bond interest costs.

And besides, geysers of optimism can't be sustained unless there's an underlying and consistent pressure of encouragement. Which many of those attending weren't confident is coming from Government.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

A dream of eliminating famine

If you haven't ever visited Strokestown Park in Co Roscommon, make the time when you next drive that way.

It's an 18th century Palladian mansion surrounded by 300 acres of parkland and traditional gardens. But Strokestown is also the memorial heart of one of the blackest periods of Irish history, the Great Famine. And thanks to the passion of one man, Jim Callery, that history is brought to life at Strokestown.

The plantation itself was described as one of the best examples of how a big estate should be run, back in the 1700s. But when the Famine began it became a classic example of how Irish tenant farmers found themselves at the starvation end of existence.

Much of our knowledge of the period is coming from the study of some 40,000 papers found in Strokestown House by Jim Callery after he bought it from the Packenham-Mahon family. Now being restored and curated at Maynooth, the small proportion so far available reveals extraordinary details of the lives inside and outside the house, and how they interacted, or didn't, to deal with the catastrophe.

That's partly why the National Famine Museum was located in a stable yard of the house by the Westward Group founded by Jim Callery, who have also been restoring the house and its gardens and parklands to what it once was.

Soup kitchen pots designed especially for famine relief work in Ireland of the mid-1800s.

It isn't just a repositary for the memory of the Great Famine in Ireland, it has the potential to provide a focus from which solutions to modern famines across the world might be developed.

Now in his late 70s, this is Jim Callery's final passion. He believes that Strokestown could become a global centre to fight famine by learning the causes and dealing with them. He says it will require a 'global effort' to establish and fund such an institute.

The bottom line is that there's generally a fixable shortage of food or water in the regions of Africa and other places where famine has become endemic. That was the situation in Ireland in the middle of the 1800s when a third of the population disappeared either through starvation or emigration.

Irish landlords were exporting food in large quantities during that period, making substantial profits while at the same time demanding full rents from their tenant farmer families starving because of the blight devastating their staple potato food crop. If they couldn't pay they were evicted, their cottages razed to provide fresh lands for grazing as the landlords shifted from tillage to pasture for raising beef.

I came out of a special tour of the Strokestown Famine Museum yesterday with feelings very similar to when I exited the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem some years ago. Maybe I was taking it a little too hard? Maybe not. It is the case that we have only in recent years begun to come to terms with the Famine. Something about a collective 'survivor guilt' is suggested.

There are arguable parallels today. Banks demanding full repayments from their mortgagees trying to survive with very diminished incomes in the recession caused in large part by those same institutions. Evictions are happening, as is emigration of the best of our young people. Organisations like the St Vincent de Paul and Simon will tell us that there's also real hunger in today's Ireland.

But the Famine Museum makes strong argument that what is happening in other famine parts of our world also has direct reflections with the position of the Irish people in the mid-1800s. And that there are similar political and commercial reasons underpinning the perpetuation of those modern and all too enduring catastrophic situations.

There are many other, and very pleasant reasons to visit Strokestown Park too. And I'll put those down in coming weeks. But let's for the moment just think of how our nation's darkest period might become the impetus for preventing it happening to people today in other lands.

Before Jim Callery leaves us, wouldn't it be a really great epitaph to give him?

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Bouncing off my forehead

Two priests have played significant roles in where I am today. And coincidentally, I heard both of them on the airways over the last couple of weeks.

Neither influenced me in a religious sense. What they did was respectively offer me a belief in myself, and a space from which to do something with that belief.

In the late 1970s Fr Brian D'Arcy was teaching the journalism module of a Broadcasting course I was attending at the then Catholic Communications Centre in Booterstown, Dublin. Fr Colm Kilcoyne was the Director of the Centre.

Recently left the family business, I was working to find some kind of slot in journalism, having found that I really liked writing. Or, the other description, telling stories.

I was already moving onward from my efforts in The Bridge, Kilcullen's community magazine, with which I had been variously involved since it was founded. Both local papers, the Leader and the Nationalist, were taking material from me. I'd had some small successes with pieces in a couple of national titles. But it was a struggle, not least because I never had any training in the craft.

I was at this stage in my early 30s, and even if I had been young enough to undertake the two-year course which was then the only official way into journalism, I really couldn't afford the time. ('Young enough'? You had to be under 20 to start in it!) I found the Communications Centre course in a 'Night Classes' booklet. There was a place left, which was lucky because it was strictly limited to a dozen people.

The Journalism module was just a week in a six-week event. But it was extraordinarily formative to me, not least because it put me in touch with a number of professionals in the business whom I would never otherwise have met. Among them Tom Savage, Terry Prone, Mike Burns, Frank Delaney, Emer O'Kelly and several more who had inputs as tutors or had other involvements on the course. Some later became friends, others colleagues, which is often the same thing. After the Journalism week, I stayed on to complete the full course.

At the end of the Journalism module, Fr Brian had said that if I wanted to, I had what it took to be a professional journalist. When the overall course was over, Fr Colm offered me a job at the Centre.

By saying and doing what they did, both men gave me a self-belief which I badly needed at the time. I stayed with the Communication Centre for more than two years, continuing to learn and also teaching the essentials of journalism, broadcasting and audio-visual skills. At the same time I was building up my freelance work in a variety of publications, specialist and national. In particular I found I had an aptitude for radio, and it was while teaching the Journalism module on one occasion that the opportunity presented itself for me to begin broadcasting with RTE. A beginning which eventually resulted in me spending a decade as a broadcast news journalist with the national station.

Over the years since, I have bumped into both men on infrequent occasions, though I have always followed them through their own journalistic work. In particular Fr Brian, because he has tended to appear on radio and TV more.

Fr Colm was recently talking with Marian Finucane about his new book on Knock, which he was persuaded to write from his retirement. He no longer writes his weekly columns in a provincial newspaper, but for very many years in them he presented his religious thoughts as they could be worked out in real daily lives, and probably did more for the Catholic Church over that time than would a legion of Vatican cardinals. His gentle comments on matters such as celibacy for priests and homosexuality in that interview showed that, even at the venerable age of 77, he retains the thoughtfulness and wonderful compassion for which I remember him.

Fr Brian has also been in the news lately, most recently relating to the fact that he was 'censured' by a Vatican version of a Kangaroo Court last year, and has since had to submit all his writing and broadcasting scripts to a Church censor before publication. For a man whose lifelong journalism has spread the best of Christian principles as widely as possible in these islands, this is a fundamental and most undeserved humiliation from an organisation to which he has given his life.

In the Communications Centre, Fr Colm had one particular phrase which he used if any of us, or our students, said or wrote something which he believed wasn't clear. "That's bouncing off my forehead," he'd say, tapping said forehead with a finger. It was a signal that we were saying something which he—or by extension those with whom we were trying to communicate—couldn't understand.

Well, what the Vatican is now doing to priests whom the cardinals feel are stepping out of line is having that effect on me, and no doubt many others. As a communicator, I find the latest repressive actions of the Church against some of the best of its own to be reprehensible. As an observer, what they are up to is truly bouncing off my forehead.

No wonder the churches are no longer full.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Financially tagging the talking heads

I have a lomgtime friend in the motor business who is great company, has a sometimes quirky sense of humour, and is a rock of sense about business matters.

This week he came up with what I think is a great idea.

We’re all too familiar with the political and business ’spokespersons’ trotted out on our visual and audial airwaves to explain stuff. Whether a Government department civil servant, a political head of a committee, a university ’expert’ providing an opinion on our national financial policy, or whatever.

Most of the time they’re telling us what they think we at the listening end, the frontliners, should be doing. It can be Big Phil swingeing around with his big stick threats on the Household Charge, or Euro MP Joe Higgins articulately flailing his oar at everybody who isn’t a Socialist. It could be the Consumer Agency’s Ann Fitzgerald urging us to shop around as prices rise and incomes fall but mobile phone costs here are still three times what they are in the UK. Or representative men and women from industry and business lobby groups and unions.

Whoever. They’re all talking heads. Mostly they’re all saying the same things over and over. And pretty well all of that on the gloom end of the emotion spectrum.

Also, most are very well paid for their main jobs of telling us that we must tighten our belts even further.

So here’s my friend’s idea. The simplicity gets it a top score. He suggests that every time a public or semi-public servant is captioned while talking on a TV screen, their salary as paid by the citizen taxpayer should also be displayed. On radio, the ID out should also provide the information.

Similarly for Members of the Dail and Seanad, industry spokespersons, trade union leaders, bankers, judges, and anyone else speaking about the economy and other public matters on behalf of a large state or public company who is paid a salary for their position. And there might even be a case for the same relating to journalistic pundits, though not to reporters.

Academics who are regularly trotted out to pontificate on one side or the other would also come under the rule. After all, their salaries in their institutions are paid for out of the public purse.

To be fair, perhaps there should be a ceiling under which such information need not be provided. Say €60,000 a year, which also happens to be the salary which I believe ought to be the top payment to a TD, and then only if he or she manages to be elected to a second term. But that’s another story.

Y’know, if the idea was taken on board, we might well find that there are far less economic and political theatrics and talking heads preaching at us to tighten our belts any further. That would be a result.

If you have any thoughts on it, send them along (with a note of your annual salary if over the limit above).

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Switching off from the bitching

First, an admission.

I’m a news junkie. Especially radio news and current affairs. Probably in part because I spent a decade working in the RTE newsroom as a broadcast journalist through the 1980s. And also because I’m still a journalist, and still interested in what goes on around me.

But after a month in Australia with my daughter and her family to start 2012, I’ve been trying to kick the habit. A little bit, sure. But definitely trying to tune out somewhat.

The time difference meant that I couldn’t conveniently listen in over the internet to Morning Ireland, Today PK, News at One, Liveline, or Drivetime. I could, and did, read the online newspapers and radio stories, but it wasn’t the direct part of my day which those and similar programmes have been over many years.

As a perspective, I have been away for long periods before without that same kind of contact. I was usually glad to come back to the norm of being all the time up to date with the happenings.

When I was in Australia this time I didn’t at all miss the direct connection. I could have made the effort, with the various internet playback and podcast facilities, but I didn’t. That there’s still a buzz of optimism about the Australian scene was no small element in my switching off from home.

But, you know what was the key thing? Not hearing the whinging. Not listening to the tit-for-tat reactive politicking in the Dail. Not having to wince when a Fianna Fail former minister complained about something the successor Government was doing. Not reacting to current Government constantly blaming their predecessors for where we are (time they stopped that). 

Not switching off the radio every time Gerry Adams or his acolytes pontificated about what was wrong with an Ireland they had done their proxy damndest to put out of business. And being quite glad that a pink shirt and similars, along with a long-established and lugubrious Socialist bottom-feeding Euro MP who wouldn’t know positive if it was a gene replacement, were not twittering in my ear.

I came home. Had a think. Did I want to get back into the flow? I suppose, honest, I wasn’t really sure. I compromised. 

I decided, for an indeterminate period, to abstain. Not cold turkey. I still light up my MacBook in the morning to check out the news, locally and global. And I’ll listen to the Irish radio news. But not the local current affairs programmes, radio or TV. Foreign is OK, so BBC News 24 is a sometimes thing, Al Jazeera also. But these not even that much. I do check the global edition of the New York Times most of the time, because the journalism is excellent and their viewpoints are considered.

I have tuned into my local radio station a bit more. Because local news is what I’m at anyhow, apart from my global automotive and travel stuff. All three are part of my living.

I told a longtime friend of mine last week—he’s a career editor in RTE—what I had been doing. “I don’t feel deprived,” I said. “In fact, I feel very positive.”

He shrugged. In a non-offensive way. “You’re right. And I understand. But remember, we have to present all sides. We’re a state organisation, we can’t take sides.”

I used to be like that. Presenting all sides. I’m a journalist more than three decades, and I have done my best all those years to write my stories in a fair and balanced manner. I still do.

But I have now gone beyond what I call the journalistic balancing act. I will be fair, always, but that doesn’t mean I won’t take sides sometimes.

And in the last couple of weeks, tuning myself out of the whinging, I feel better off.

Hey, I run a small business. Anything that makes me feel more positive has to be good for that. Also, I’m a person like any other of us on this island. If we all listened more to positives, we could be quicker out of this.

And that’s the side I’m taking.