Padraic O’Kane, CEO of Corporate.ie, shares his life and business lessons ahead of the upcoming clash in Dublin between Notre Dame and Navy.
Georgia Tech and Florida State University were recently revealed as the two teams set to contest the 2024 edition of the Aer Lingus College Football Classic in the Aviva Stadium, Dublin, on Saturday, 24 August 2024. More than 20,000 people are expected to travel to Dublin from America for the highly anticipated clash between two leading US colleges.
Before then Notre Dame will clash with Navy on 26 August this year.
“Hospitality is all about guest satisfaction. Every opportunity you get to exceed guest expectations is another foundation stone in cementing guest loyalty and repeat business”
The game is being promoted and organised by Irish American Events Ltd which is a joint venture between Corporate.ie (Hospitality & Events Specialists) (Irish Partner) and On Location (US Partner). The series’ principal stakeholders are Aer Lingus, Failte Ireland, Tourism Ireland and Dublin City Council.
Corporate.ie is a leading Irish events and hospitality company established in 2002. The company played a pivotal role to the Emerald Isle Classic in 2012, the Croke Park Classic in 2014 and the Aer Lingus College Football Classic in 2016 and has an excellent understanding of the various traditions and culture associated with American College Football. In 2015, in partnership with Anthony Travel, Corporate.ie established Irish American Events Limited which successfully promoted and operated the 2016 Aer Lingus College Football Classic between Boston College and Georgia Tech. The joint venture partnership has delivered the correct commercial environment from both the public and private sectors in Ireland to create the opportunity to attract future profile College Football fixtures.
“When you open up a large unit like FIRE or SOLE and don’t provide consistency, you’ll struggle”
Tell us about your background, what journey did you take to arrive where you are?
I come from a hospitality and agricultural background. My father was a beef farmer, and my mother was a successful B&B operator. I studied hotel management in college, so as a career journey, I guess hospitality and customer experiences was an obvious choice.
Following college in Portrush I gained valuable experience working for a number of companies, Masterchef’s and the Forte Hotel Group in the UK before establishing my first events business in 2002.
Why are you doing what you are doing? What is your USP?
Hospitality is all about guest satisfaction. Every opportunity you get to exceed guest expectations is another foundation stone in cementing guest loyalty and repeat business.
I think the USP in the restaurant, football and events is delivering consistency. FIRE is an 18-year-old restaurant. When my business partner in the restaurants, Larry Murrin, and I started this journey, we focused on the word consistency. When you open up a large unit like FIRE or SOLE and don’t provide consistency, you’ll struggle. USP for us is delivering consistency, albeit challenging at the minute due to staff shortages and staff experience levels. However, delivering consistency and an experience are essential. It comes down to people. We can train skills, but we can’t train charisma and personality.
“40,000 Americans are coming to Dublin this August staying on average seven nights throughout the island of Ireland. When the economics are calculated, it will be worth over €150m to the Irish economy”
How did you fund and start the business and what are your growth plans?
I set up my first business in 2002, and it would be fair to say there wasn’t a whole lot of money in the bank. I had established a good networking platform, and opportunities thankfully came my way, and the rest is history. Today we are involved within a successful restaurant and venue operations (FIRE, SOLE and the Round Room at the Mansion House) and our event business has American College Football as its premier annual major event.
With college football, we recently announced a sell-out for the 2023 Classic. 40,000 Americans are coming to Dublin this August staying on average seven nights throughout the island of Ireland. When the economics are calculated, it will be worth over €150m to the Irish economy.
So where did we start it off? We got a flavour for the concept back in 2012, when Notre Dame came with Navy, and we were fortunate enough to be representing Notre Dame on behalf of the Naughton family. We got a chance to understand the potential of the opportunity without risk and be involved in an amazing event which was years in the planning.
We supported Croke Park with a 2014 game too. Then 2016 came along…for a variety of reasons the game between Georgia Tech and Boston College got canceled. I remember that happened in the February of 2015. I rang John Anthony, from Anthony Travel (my now business partner in Irish American Events), and I just said to John: ‘This is too big to lose’. It was a case of putting together like-minded people and asking if they’re interested in developing and becoming part of an initiative that had the potential to be an annual major event for Ireland.
Thankfully Aer Lingus, Failte Ireland, Tourism Ireland, Dublin City Council, Glen Dimplex, Grant Thornton and many others shared our vision and joined the journey.
From the restaurant and venue side of things, Larry and I have done our fair share of financial modeling to get us where we are. We’ve had a lot of challenges including a global recession and a global pandemic, but thankfully, we’ve strong and well-funded businesses today. Thankfully we held on to most of our key staff through the pandemic, and it stood by us because we were ready to go when the pandemic eventually lifted in the early part of 2022.
“Over the years, I’ve learned the ability to be a good listener and I am a big believer of empowerment – it’s okay to make a mistake, it’s how we all learn!”
What are your plans for future growth?
Going forward, from a college football perspective, 2023 is year two of a five-year game series. We have year three lined up with Florida State and Georgia Tech coming to town next year, we have year six lined up- we hopefully have years four and five in the pipeline. The goal is to turn the Aer Lingus College Football Classic into the annual opening game of the college football season from Dublin – The European Headquarters of College Football!
From the restaurant and Round Room point of view, we have the opportunity to further cement SOLE’s position as Dublin’s leading Seafood restaurant, which will see the footprint of the restaurant double, which will help future proof the business. Currently sales are extremely positive across our outlets, it’s how we service the sales in-order to consistently deliver the customer experiences that continues to be the greater challenge.
What are your key skills and qualities that set you apart?
Over the years, I’ve learned the ability to be a good listener and I am a big believer of empowerment – it’s okay to make a mistake, it’s how we all learn! I believe I have strong emotional intelligence, every day is different in the hospitality and event world! We deal with a variety of situations on a daily basis that require strong and balanced judgment to be able to react in such circumstances.
What/whom has helped you the most along the way? Who was your greatest mentor/inspiration?
I’m fortunate to have great business partners, in particular Larry Murrin, CEO of Dawn Farms. Larry and I established our first business back in 2004 and we continue to enjoy an amazing relationship, including having a laugh or three along the way!
I would go back to when I worked in Forte Hotels in particular. I was fortunate to have amazing general managers across three different properties who allowed my career to flourish. It made me realise that you don’t need to be a certain age or have a level of experience to get onto the next step of your career ladder. #
“Setting up a business is a science and needs a business model and plan that needs to be challenged and revisited regularly, particularly in the early days!”
What was the greatest piece of business advice you ever received?
Consistency. If you can achieve consistency in whatever you do, you avoid roller coasters at all costs!
What circumstances/qualities/events can mark the difference between success or failure in life or business?
Stay true to your word as much as you can. It’s about doing what it says on the tin. If you promise a customer that you’re going to deliver, whether it’s a hospitality package or a restaurant experience, you have to deliver as promised – the guest is the real boss!
What was the most challenging aspect of either starting or growing the business?
Setting up a business is a science and needs a business model and plan that needs to be challenged and revisited regularly, particularly in the early days!
There are many types of business capital, financial, intellectual, human etc. but don’t forget working!
How did you navigate your business through the pandemic and what lessons did you learn?
Little did we know in March 2020, it would be June 2022 before our businesses would have a clear path of direction for post-Covid. Using the experience of coming through the global recession of 2009, on this occasion, we had the foresight to react very quickly. During the pandemic, our two restaurants were closed for one year out of the two, the Round Room was shut and we had two football games cancelled, including a Notre Dame and Navy fixture in 2020.
Once we got the businesses shuttered, it was about minding our core team. We used to do Zoom calls every two weeks and had a bit of fun. I personally took the opportunity to recharge the battery. When the doors were closed, the fridges were empty, and people were at home safe with their family, there wasn’t a whole lot more we could do, and I was actually okay with that. Certainly, when we got to January 2022, we were in a good place as were our leadership team.
“When a robot delivers your pint or a pub, that will be too far for me! We must keep the human side in play, that human connection is so important, hospitality is a guest’s relaxation and downtime …”
What was your biggest lesson from the pandemic?
This opening and closing of the pandemic was very difficult. We made sure at the start of it to financially strengthen our companies, so we gave ourselves that comfort but also that stepping board for post-Covid. I think we’ve all learned so much. The Government were very strong in terms of supporting companies, but they didn’t listen in relation to opening and closing for in-particular outdoor dining and social distancing.
How has the digital transformation been a factor in your scaling journey and do you believe Irish firms are utilising digital technologies sufficiently?
Overall, I believe we have embraced the digital transformation very well. Our leadership team has worked hard to introduce new or modify existing systems, which for sure has increased value and consistency through innovation, invention and the overall customer experience. We’ve embraced a full online live reservations system, but we do encourage people to talk on the phone sometimes too!!
“Get focused on what you’re doing, make sure it has potential including the ability to make a profit, empower people and never forget the customer”
Vehicles like TripAdvisor are a global reference point, and we’ve embraced it well. Both of our restaurants, FIRE and SOLE, are ranked within the top ten restaurants in Dublin. Overall, I feel we have reacted to the digital transformation very well. When we opened FIRE in 2005, social media was at an early stage! It was about landing on the front or social pages of a paper or magazine, not posting on social media!
I think Covid has moved everything along faster than anticipated. I see it all the time with the Amazon van showing up to the office or at home. Retail had no other option but to react and change the model. I think in general, everything has moved on, but I think we can go too far. When a robot delivers your pint or a pub, that will be too far for me! We must keep the human side in play, that human connection is so important, hospitality is a guest’s relaxation and downtime…
If you were to do it all over again, what would you do differently?
As a young entrepreneur, when I went out on my own in 2002, I wasn’t as focused with a clear plan. Some products or services did not work, I over-stretched myself, so I’d say get focused quickly on an agreed plan. Get focused on what you’re doing, make sure it has potential including the ability to make a profit, empower people and never forget the customer.
Who inspires you in business today?
Ireland has produced so many brilliant entrepreneurs across almost all sectors and thankfully many of them are our customers. One such leading entrepreneur from within the hospitality industry is Pat McDonagh, the founder of Supermacs. Pat has built an amazing portfolio of restaurants, hotels and motorway Plaza’s throughout Ireland employing over 4,000 staff across 116 sites. Pat is never shy in championing a cause on behalf of the industry, most notable insurance reform.
What advice/guidance do you give new hires and how do you nurture talent in your organisation?
When we recruit good talent, we work hard to nurture and encourage them to become part of our extended family. It’s important we develop a personal development plan for each member of the team, however the responsibility should be collective to maximise the opportunities and turn identified weaknesses into strengths – on that basis, all parties and ultimately the customer wins.
“In our businesses, there’s certain things I won’t allow. There will always be a hard copy of a menu. I’ve no time for walking into a bar and scanning a QR code”
What business books do you read or would recommend?
There’s one fabulous one, and I’m slightly biased. My “little” sister, Assumpta O’Kane, along with Connell Fanning of the Keynes Centre, wrote a book on how to think about leadership. It’s called The Leadership Mind. Assumpta has had an amazing journey in her career, and it’s something she’s always wanted to do. It’s more than a book, it’s more a bible for leadership insight and probably one to have at the side of your desk.
What technologies/tools do you use personally to keep you on track?
Outlook for email and calendar and that’s more than enough for me!
For the restaurants, the OpenTable back of house App is an amazing tool to ensure we are tracking as forecasted – it also allows customers to give live feedback on their experience, which I find extremely useful.
What social media platforms do you prefer and why?
LinkedIn. It’s the only one I’m on, life is just too short!
I find it a very useful networking tool and a solid platform for news and information updates.
What are your thoughts on where technology overall is heading and how it will apply to business generally and your business particularly?
While I appreciate technology needs to be embraced, I have strong reservations particularly around the impact on our younger generations and how it can influence their decision making and general outlook on society.
In our businesses, there’s certain things I won’t allow. There will always be a hard copy of a menu. I’ve no time for walking into a bar and scanning a QR code and collecting my food or beverage – that’s not an experience. There’s positives and negatives with technology, but I think we’ve just got to be careful that we don’t let it control us.
Finally, if you had advice for your 21-year-old self- knowing what you know now- what would it be?
Don’t leave the job or college just yet. And thankfully I didn’t. A college degree or an apprenticeship is a must. Equally to all those budding entrepreneurs, don’t leave the job too early. I’m delighted I didn’t because if I hadn’t had that experience in Forte UK and back home with Master Chefs, I wouldn’t be where I am today. My advice would be to stick with it. You’ve more to learn academically wise or from working and learning within your chosen industry. If you’ve got a business idea, work in that sector to get a better understanding – you might even find your future mentor, partner or investor. Don’t be in too big a hurry. Go learn while having some balanced fun!