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Pat McDonagh: start-up essentials
Pat McDonagh went from teacher to one of Ireland’s most successful business leaders. In his JOE column, he talks lessons from his early days in business.

Pat McDonagh is one of Ireland’s most successful and respected business leaders.

His flagship enterprise, Supermac's, currently has a turnover in excess of €83m and has over 2,500 employees working across almost 100 branches. Today it serves an average of over 320,000 customers per week.

In the first instalment of his exclusive JOE.ie column, Pat talks about how he got started 32 years ago and the principles of business which still hold true today.

I've been in business for more than three decades, but I actually started out as a teacher. One of the good things about that line of work is the holidays – having three months off during the summer gave me the opportunity to work in a variety of different jobs.

I worked with Bord na Mona, as a photographer, for Butlins and even on a merchant navy ship based out of New York.

The extra money was useful, of course, but it wasn’t the only benefit. It allowed me to develop an understanding of various industries, build up experience in the workforce and ultimately it opened up business opportunities for me.

Graduates from college can be preoccupied with securing work in their chosen field, but this isn’t always possible straight out of education. This approach can limit their opportunities, which I found opened up once I was in the workforce.

Willingness

There’s also the fact that you’ll be far more appealing to an employer if you’re already in some sort of employment, regardless of what it is. This demonstrates a willingness to get stuck into whatever line of work you need to, rather than sit around on the dole.

I came into the fast food industry by chance. I met a guy through my involvement in photography who in turn led me to meet Fintan Quinn – the brother of Feargal Quinn who founded Quinnsworth, which was later bought out by Tesco.

He was involved in installing pool tables in pubs and clubs around the country and I started working for him. He eventually sold me his business in the West of Ireland and I bought a premises on Ballinasloe’s Main Street with a view to turning it into a pool hall.

The planners, however, had different ideas and our planning application was turned down. I looked at various alternative uses for the premises and eventually decided to split it in two – we leased one half as a drapery shop and converted the other into a take-away. That takeaway was the first building block in what became the Supermac's chain.

Everyone makes mistakes when they're new to a business, but it's about how you learn from your mistakes.

In 1978, when we first started, I was new to the business and had a lot to learn. We made a lot of mistakes in the first year; not in terms of the quality of the food, but with things like buying the wrong equipment.

Everyone makes mistakes when they’re new to a business, but it’s about how you learn from your mistakes. With a combination of hard work and having the right people we eventually got it right. We could see that we had a format that worked, so we went about replicating it elsewhere.

Within two years, we had opened an outlet in Gort, followed by an Eyre Square premises in Galway city which opened for business in 1982.

Hard work

Working for yourself is a different ball game – the buck stops with you. Hard work, on your behalf, can quickly become the deciding factor in whether or not your business survives.

In the two years after opening the first take-away I had three full days off. I spent Christmas Day one year re-tiling the place.

But while hard work is something of a pre-requisite for those starting out in business, it is by no means the only thing needed.  You also need a good business idea, self-belief, a never-give-up attitude, a good accountant and a good solicitor.

The nature of doing business has changed in many ways down the years, but these attributes are just as vital today as they were when we started out 32 years ago.

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