Forty years ago this week, as I trundled home fromschool in the Jes, I happened upon my uncle Stiofain and Chickeen Gillen in animated conversation in the middle of Dominick Street.
They were poring over the first edition of the new Galway Advertiser and as with all great conversationsthey had two diametrically opposed views. Chick was clearly delighted. It was full of local news,entertainment and history and even had a piece onboxing in the sports section. In addition, it was free andwould make for great reading for impatient puntersawaiting the proverbial “short back and sides”. My uncle on the other hand was less thanenthusiastic.
While he conceded to Chick on therespective benefits of the paper, he vehementlydeemed it to be unsustainable as a viable businessproposition and predicted that it would exceed his wildest expectations if it survived the opening of the pheasant season. (November 1)
That it has successfully survived 40 pheasant seasons is a testament to many factors, not least itsfounder and current chairman Ronnie O Gorman. Hisstory, and that of the Galway Advertiser, is aninstructive case study into the principles of effective business and living.
It’s said that when the student is ready the masterappears.F or the 22-year-old Ronnie O Gorman, that wouldhappen on the banks of the Spiddal river one fatefulJune evening.In his efforts to seduce a stubborn salmon fromamong the thick grilse run he inadvertently stumbled into a fellow angler intent on the same mission.As with anglers the world over, stories were shared,opinions proferred and emerging from that fleeting commonality of interest, a serendipitous rapport waskindled.No salmon was hooked, but Ronnie pocketed abusiness card displaying the name of one Walter Partridge of Westminster Press, Fleet Street. Ronniewas to make contact upon his return to London butwhat with the excitement of a new teaching career andthe glamour of the big smoke he all but forgot.Providence is nothing if not persistent however andhad little respect of the distance between Spiddal andFleet Street.One hazy Saturday morning that October, in GoogeStreet Underground Station fate contrived to bringtogether again the younger and older man.Later that morning, in a magnificent roomoverlooking St Paul’s Cathedral, Partridge put it toRonnie (then 23) that he should embark on a career inpublishing.He explained that Westminster Press wasabout to embark on the launch of a series of “FreeNewspapers” and that for Ronnie it was “the way to go”.Ronnie politely explained that he was a teacher, hadstudied hard to become a teacher, that he lovedteaching and he looked forward to a long life teaching.Partridge remained unconvinced and requested thaton the following Monday morning Ronnie observecritically his fellow teachers in the staff room.”In 10 years time that will be you” he counselled. “If you want to be those men, stay teaching. If you want tobe fresh and vital and connected, get publishing.”Ronnie telephoned the following week to to say hewas seriously considering Partridge’s offer.”Splendid,” replied Partridge.”I want you in Dundee immediately.””OK,” said Ronnie. “I’ll try and arrange to be therenext week.””No No.” said Partridge.”I want you there tonight.”And as that train departed London for Dundee that night Ronnie would understand better the meaningbehind Frost’s lines in the poem “The Road Not Taken”.”Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -I took the one less travelled by,And that has made all the difference.”
“Padraic, I know it sounds crazy, but our motivation wasnever actually money.”He needn’t have ever told me that because everyscintilla of Ronnie betrays passion. Passion for the past,passion for the future, and most tellingly – passion forthe now.Reflecting on those formative beginning years hereveals that his motivation was purely fun andexcitement and pride on doing something fresh andexciting and innovative.”Back then I did everything. I wrote articles, sold ads,collected money, supervised the printing. Much morethan that however I found myself thoroughly enjoyingmyself.””I enjoyed writing stories and I enjoyed the idea of itgoing into people’s letterboxes and I enjoyed the funthat we could tell a business person. ‘We will put yourad directly into a home and that’s a terrific concept’.For such an articulate man, with such a vocabularyat his command, Ronnie repeatedly uses the word”enjoy”.Contemporary psychology tells us that “we are thewords we repeatedly use”. I wonder what they’d makeof Ronnie!
The Bard of Avon once remarked that “Nothing is eithergood or bad, but thinking makes it so”.Following the foundational years of The Advertiser,Ronnie describes a period of intense visualisationwhere he began to picture in vivid detail the future ofthe business.”You have to visualise the future of the business tosuch an extent that you can almost touch it. There camea time when I could actually touch it in my mind’s eye.”This sensory imagineering had an almost self-fulfillingprophesy as the success and scale of the businessgrew in leaps and bounds.As they say in Aran however, “too far west is east”and Ronnie’s sole regret from the venture was theimbalance caused between his professional andpersonal life.”Vision is great but it comes with a cost. Building abusiness can be very unfair on partners and children.If I had it all to do over again this is one aspect I wouldchange.”
David Mc Clelland of Harvard, author of The AchievingSociety observed that the major difference betweensuccess and failure in life is one’s choice of a “referencegroup”.As a young teenager Ronnie was educated in Glenstaland become deeply influenced by the Benedictines andspecifically the “Rule of Benedict”.”Benedict wrote a rule 1,500 years ago and it’s neverbeen changed. It’s never been changed because it stillworks and applies right up to today. It has succeeded inkeeping a diverse group of people contributing.”In addition to the Benedictine commitments ofstabilitas, conversatio morum and obedienta Ronniewas hugely influenced by the role the Abbot and Bursarplay in monastic life and how this can profitably beapplied to business.”Every business needs an Abbot – one boss”.Referring to the role of Bursar he whips a notebookout of his pocket and shows me two hand writtencolumns.”Every day you need to write down two lists. One,what you took in today. The other, what you paid out. All my life I’ve lived by that rule.”
The Rule of Benedict outlines that “Whenever anyimportant business has to be done in the monastery, let the Abbot call together the whole community and statethe matter to be acted on. Then, having heard thebrethren’s advice, let him turn the matter over in hisown mind and do what they judge to be the mostexpedient.”Listening to Ronnie, you sense he’s done this all hislife. He stresses the importance of listening withoutevaluation – the importance of non-judgment.He is a big believer in market research andconstantly invests in surveys which he then uses todevelop and implement strategy.He is open and receptive to the opinions and ideasof his team and constantly seeks their input. On oneoccasion Mary O Connor swapped jobs with Feargal Quinn when he was MD of Superquinn. Feargal camedown and worked in the newsroom, sold ads and madethe tea.”The effect was electrifying. It pays to attract diversity.”
“It’s one of the things I learned from Feargal Quinn. Hisfather taught him to always run up stairs. It kept you fitand energetic and people prefer energetic people.”One should walk to work more often. It gives youtime to think and we’re better performers when we’vetime to think. I like to get off the bus one stop earlier andproject the day in front of me.”
As we began to pull together the threads of this fascinating and inspiring story we reflected once again on the influence of education and choice of career.” You know Padraic, I probably really should havegone to business school. When we started I washopelessly inept at finance, marketing, economics andmanagement. But my imagination would always run wildwith me and my passion for teaching and writing wonout over all the business subjects.”And as he continued, I couldn’t help but stare outfrom the window of his office in the Advertiser and lookover at Supermac’s on Eyre Square, and was mindedof another man who also was a teacher at 22.Pat Mc Donagh, founder and MD of Supermac’s,Ireland’s most successful indigenous franchisebusiness, once told me that “Nothing could quiteprepare you for a life in business better than teaching.It teaches you to prepare, to manage people – both theeasy and the difficult, to anticipate and solve problemsin the heat of the moment, to take pride in a job welldone and to perform at your best in each and everyclass.”And almost if, as in divine tribute to teacherseverywhere, the drone of the 2.30 Galway to Dublin AerArann flight could be heard above the cacophony of Eyre Square.I was transported back to a world bereft utterly ofimagination and passion. A commerce class in the Jes,or anywhere in the world for that matter, before theappointment of one Padraig O Ceidigh. Nothing canquite stunt imagination and passion like a badly taughtcommerce class.At 22, O Ceidigh succeeded where millions havefailed. He ignited the smouldering minds of youngstudents by bringing commerce to life – by making theuninteresting interesting.Many moons later he would tell me ” I was nevereither a teacher or a business person. I was a facilitatorof learning.”Galway owes so much to these “facilitators oflearning” who dared to imagine and who had thecourage to follow the “road less travelled”.
In concluding this article on Ronnie I am minded of thefact that Benedict regarded grumbling as a serious sin.No fewer than 12 times murmuratio is named in the”Rule” as a serious threat to the community.Wil Derske in “The Rule of Benedict for Beginners”opines that “Grumbling obscures vision, drains energy,and touches the heart. Grumblers seek each otherscompany, strengthen one another and infect others;they act like sand and poison in your organisation.”Fortunately there is an antidote to grumbling, namely cheerfulness. This cheerfulness is a slowly workingsocial balm, an elixir that gives new strength.Ronnie O Gorman is cheerfulness personified. Andthat has been Galway’s gift.With that too has come a gift for Ronnie.”All I ever wanted to do was write little stories. It’s taken me 37 years to sit in an office and do just that -write stories. I now write the Galway Diary every weekand with that comes happiness.”
Long may it continue.