The serial entrepreneur

Brody Sweeney – O’Brien’s

There are just a few Irish people with the business success of Brody Sweeney – someone who founded a business and managed it into an international brand.

O’Briens Sandwich bars have become a familiar sight on Ireland’s Main Streets and in shopping malls. But actually there are more O’Briens outlets abroad and the company continues to expand.

The success of the O’Briens brand has also made Brody Sweeney a much sought-after commentator on business matters. The chain of outlets now extends to 270 bars (170 abroad) employing over 3,000 people. The business model used for this expansion is mainly in franchising the stores, thus creating entrepreneurs as well as employees.

While Brody Sweeney obviously values success, he also has a positive attitude to failure, seeing it as an essential ingredient in building up experience and learning lessons. “Failure is part of the stepping stone to getting it right. I would much prefer to work with someone who has experienced real failure because I think they have a much more interesting outlook on the world. I have experienced a lot of failure in my life and I think it makes me a better business person.”

He sees that many of the newer business people in Ireland have done well out of the boom but that they may have missed many of the lessons of running a business when things are not going so well. He gives the property sector as an example. “People who have gone into property in the last ten years have had nothing but an easy ride. I don’t think they are at all qualified to manage things through a downturn.”

On the same theme of having the necessary personal skills to start up and run a successful venture, he believes that our education system is failing to provide opportunities for enterprise and entrepreneurs. He would like to see a change in emphasis from academic to more people-oriented skills.

“Schooling is as much about developing social skills, to my mind, as about formal education as in learning facts and figures. We spend far too little time on the social skills. For example, we don’t talk enough about relationships, marriage break-ups, how to avoid conflict, how to get on with people….that kind of thing,” he says.

But are our schools and colleges encouraging enterprise?Sweeney says that traditionally the second-level education system has left students with two options–either get a job or go to college. He believes that this is not good enough.

“I think there should be a third option talked about and that is the option of doing your own thing. This could mean setting up your own business, not necessarily with money as the bottom line. It could mean setting up your own dance group or your own charity but the point would be to use your initiative to do your own thing.”

“So while someone coming out of school may not have enough life experience to do that immediately or indeed go on to third level education, the important thing would be to sow the seed at second level. So I would like to see, as part of the secondary curriculum, more attention given to entrepreneurship.”
He himself has been involved in initiatives to help people start their own businesses. One concept that he has been promoting is the supply of micro loans. In many cases the banks are not willing to lend small amounts of money to people who may have no credit history but do have a set of skills which would allow them to start up on their own.

“The particular fund that I got set up was for unemployed people who were outside the banking system to set up their own businesses. Some of these people would not have had a bank account, or would not have come from the right address, or have had a difficult credit history. They might have a great idea and the willingness to do it but they find it very difficult to get access to funding.”

“Take, for example, a single mother looking to get back into employment. We would have lent her the money to buy a computer, a printer and an internet connection. Then she could do piece work and do it around her childcare, for a relatively small sum of money.”

Brody is now turning his attention to politics. He has been selected as a candidate for Fine Gael in the Dublin North East constituency. He believes that there is too few successful business people who are putting something back into the community. He also sees that the political class has a disproportionate number of people who haven’t had the experience of running anything. He points out that a third of members of the Oireachtas have a background in the education system. While he doesn’t have a problem with teachers in the Dáil, he thinks that perhaps they are over-represented.

“Far too many people in the political sphere has done nothing other than politics. I’m getting involved because I think I have something to offer. Business people are under-represented in the Dáil and we have a different range of skills to bring”.

Obviously he hopes to get elected but his ambition doesn’t end there and he would like to get his hands on a junior ministerial portfolio, perhaps in the food area. He is also keenly interested in community values and instances his involvement in setting up the Farmer’s Market in Howth as an example of getting local communities together.