Conversations with Achievers – Pat McDonagh

This week, I met up with Supermac’s supremo Pat McDonagh.

St. Jarlath’s College was, as it is today,

quite simply the best Gaelic football

school in the world.

Few opponents could expect to live

with them for long, least of all the

Carmelite College in Moate.

That would have been the case too one blustery spring day in the late

sixties but for the presence of an unknown centre half forward on the

Moate team. He saw opportunities where none existed. He believed

implicitly that they could win irrespective of tradition and the odds.

He brought others into the game to play the match of their lives. And the

crowd liked him.

As the game ended in the most unlikely of victories for the Carmelites,

one wag was clearly overheard shouting from the sideline “Supermac,

you’re mighty”.

He wouldn’t realise it at the time but he had just given name to what would

become the iconic indigenous brand name for fast food in Ireland. A brand in the mould of the young footballer that day, that would in time take on the best known business brands of its type in the world, and have the attitude, the belief, the vision and the charisma to win.

Pat Mc Donagh grew up where he still resides today, in Kiltulla Co. Galway, midway between Athenry and

Loughrea. It will give encouragement to dossers everywhere, and to their parents and teachers, that as a young teenager Pat’s parent deemed it necessary to send him boarding to the Carmelite College in Moate.

It would teach him amongst other things the value of “self-discipline”, a

characteristic that he would later describe as “one of the most important

attributes of successful people the world over”. Inadvertently, it would

also provide him with what would become his driving and guiding

philosophy in life.

“We were in study this evening when I leaned over to get something

from the fella in front of me. Unbeknownst to me the guy behind

me, a Finian Darby from Mullingar, had positioned the needle of a compass

under my seat. Needless to say, when I sat down I let a roar out of me that

would have woken the dead. Both Darby and I were duly summoned up

to the podium and a Fr. Langan meted out the punishment. We were to

memorise and write out a hundred times the following lines from Shakespeare”.

“There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which taken at the flood, leads on to

fortune”. “That became my mantra. I discovered that at any one time there are always loads of opportunities out there. The trick is to be awake and hungry and ready. And in order to be ready you have to become a great

learner.” “My mother used say that ‘When

you’re old enough to die you’re wise enough to live’. What she meant by

that was that life is one great opportunity to learn”.

“I learned from everyone and everything. During school I used help

a local farmer called Bill Staunton. A farm is a great teacher. I learned about

the law of the farm – that what you sow is what you reap. There’s no point

expecting to harvest in the autumn if you haven’t sown in the spring. I

learned later that sometimes even if you do sow in the spring it can still rain

on your parade and you may not actually get rewarded, but that’s the

price you have to pay. More than

anything else I learned from farming

that you have to be multi-skilled. This

is crucial in running a business.”

“I was mad to learn and it didn’t

matter what job I did I learned

something from it. I started taking

photographs at events and functions

and festivals. I remember one night

down at The Rose of Tralee. It was

lashing rain and bad for business. I

figured if I could only get inside “The

Dome” I’d be elected but I didn’t have

a press card. I went up to the

doorman, flashed my camera, and

when he asked “Press”, I replied “No,

Independent” and got admitted

straight away”.

“The next night the Wolfe Tones

were playing and as I was standing

outside wondering how I’d get in who

pulled up but the Wolfe Tones

themselves and they laden down with

heavy equipment. Quick as a wink I

said to them “Lad’s, d’ye want a hand?

As I said Padraic, there are always

opportunities if you’re on the look

out”

“Another summer I cottoned on to

candy floss. Don’t quote me on this

but there must have been a 1000%

margin on candy floss. The problem

was to get people to know about you. I

discovered that it had little to do with

the taste but everything to do with the

noise. I got this big generator to power

the little machine to make the floss.

The great thing was when you revved

up that generator you were heard for

miles around”.

Back at school Pat identified three

choices following his Leaving

Certificate. He could join the army, go

to college or, like his mother and

sisters before him, do national school

teaching. He opted for the latter on the

basis that he felt that it would be good

to have a qualification, that it was only

two years, and that he would have

long summer holidays in which to

pursue a myriad of business ideas.

At the tender age of twenty years

Pat was appointed as Principal of

Kilrickle National School. He is

suitably humble to admit that “Mrs

Regan and I were the only teachers

but I learned a lot about business and

life from teaching. You have to plan,

prepare, deal with difficult situations

on the hop, and always be on top of

your game. I learned that every kid

has a talent for something. Finding

that out is your job. I’d love to be back

teaching – specifically teaching

entrepreneurism. National School is

the time to be building their dreams.

You have time to experiment which

you don’t always get in the real world”.

As planned, the long summers

afforded Pat the opportunity to build

other businesses. At this time, pool

had begun to become fashionable as a

game and Pat seized on the

opportunity to install pool tables in

pubs. The business flourished and it

occurred to Pat that there was a great

opportunity to open a pool hall in

Ballinasloe.

Not totally unsurprisingly – him

being all of 22 years young, the bank

refused him a loan. “I simply walked

across the street to another one and

got it there. That’s why I always use

two banks ever since”.

The next issue was “a small one

concerning planning permission. We

were refused it for the pool hall. We

appealed it and that too was turned

down. I learned at that young age a

great lesson – that very often when

your back is to the wall is when you

are at your most powerful. I had no

option but to look around and see

what else Ballinasloe needed. I

identified a need for a nightclub, a

furniture shop and a fast food

restaurant. Not being able to afford

the first two I resolved to open the

first Supermac’s”.

Opening a fast food outlet was one

thing if you knew something about it.

Pat didn’t, but he found someone who

did and that is another of his core

mindsets – “You should always

surround yourself with people who

are smarter than yourself. At a very

minimum you need a great

accountant; a great HR person; a great

solicitor; and great managers. There

are lots of better managers in

Supermacs than me”.

His first hire was Michael Carroll, a

chef from Haydens Hotel who would

later go on to open three restaurants

in New York. From Michael he learned

about food and food preparation and

recipes. The rest he learned from that

master trainer – trial and error.

Shortly after opening, his regular

potato supplier ran out of spuds. Pat

heard that there were great potatoes

in Turloughmore and duly went down

there with a trailer and purchased a

ton of the most fantastic looking

spuds. As he was blanching them that

night for chips he knew there was

something amiss. What he discovered

later was that he’d just been sold a ton

of Aran Banners, a potato normally

used for fattening cattle. “When I

didn’t poison Ballinasloe that night I

never will”.

A few weeks later, with the

Ballinasloe Horse Fair kicking in

business was booming. Pat recalls a

Saturday night when “there was a

queue a mile long down the street. We

were bombing it, really flying it. And

all of a sudden, darkness. I had a shop

full of hungry customers who

wouldn’t take no for an answer. With

that I wrapped some cigarette paper

around a fuse and sure enough we

were back in business. About an hour

later it went out again and this time “I

made sure to be sure”. I wrapped a full

sheet of tinfoil paper around the fuse

and it lasted ‘till about half three in

the morning. Then the whole street

went out.”

For most people, holding down a

demanding job and opening a new

business would be the apex of their

dreams. Not so for Pat. His vision

always was “to build a business that

you could replicate”. “In order to do

that you need to first and foremost

develop great systems and then

support them with great people”.

Ballinasloe was to be where he would

fine-tune his first franchise prototype,

that would in time form the basis of

the highly profitable business model

that drives all of the current 90

Supermacs shops.

As the shops increased he choose to

retire from teaching, explaining to his

employer Bishop Kirby that “there’s a

bit more money in chips than in

algebra”. For all that, his management

style hasn’t changed an iota. He still

positively loves the hustle and bustle

of being on the shop floor.

It’s a pity they don’t make cameras

like Pat Mc Donagh because in one you

would have a wide angle lens capable

of capturing the most expansive of

visions and at the same time a zoom

lens capable of zooming in on the most

forensic of details. I was minded of

Tom Peters, in the seminal work “In

Search of Excellence” where he said

“Excellence can be measured in inches

or millimetres”. Or as Uncle Stiofain

would have put it “The divil is in the

detail”.

I suspect we’d still be talking but for

two things. “Padraic, I have to go. One

of the lads is playing a hurling match

in Ardrahan at six”. The other was his

wife Una calling him to say there was

a traders’ meeting on in Loughrea

later that night and “it might be no

harm to shove your head in”.

Despite the ninety shops, and the

myriad of detail involved in running

them, Pat has never lost sight of the

core values of family and sport and

making time for both. His wife Una has

walked every inch of the journey with

him since she first started helping in

Ballinasloe all those years ago. Great

businesses, similar to great families,

rely on great mothers and through

thick and thin Una has been

Supermacs mother. Pat is fond of a

saying that goes “Some people talk a

great shop. Other people work a great

shop”. Una is clearly in the latter. Her

humility, her warmth and her

willingness to “work” a great shop

have contributed hugely to the

integrity of the Supermacs brand.

The final lines of Brutus’ advice to

Caesar in Act 4, Scene 3 of that

infamous speech were

“On such a full sea are we now

afloat.

And we must take the current when

it serves,

Or lose our ventures”.

It’s apposite that Pat believes we are

now on a tide of massive opportunity.

“I have seen more opportunities in the

last six months than I have in the

previous six years”.

Hard to improve on the wag’s

comment from the sideline all those

years ago.

St. Jarlath’s College was, as it is today,quite simply the best Gaelic footballschool in the world.Few opponents could expect to livewith them for long, least of all theCarmelite College in Moate.That would have been the case tooone blustery spring day in the latesixties but for the presence of anunknown centre half forward on theMoate team. He saw opportunitieswhere none existed. He believedimplicitly that they could winirrespective of tradition and the odds.He brought others into the game toplay the match of their lives. And thecrowd liked him.As the game ended in the mostunlikely of victories for the Carmelites,one wag was clearly overheardshouting from the sideline “Supermac,you’re mighty”.He wouldn’t realise it at the time buthe had just given name to what wouldbecome the iconic indigenous brandname for fast food in Ireland. A brandin the mould of the young footballerthat day, that would in time take on thebest known business brands of its typein the world, and have the attitude, thebelief, the vision and the charisma towin.Pat Mc Donagh grew up where hestill resides today, in Kiltulla Co.Galway, midway between Athenry andLoughrea. It will give encouragementto dossers everywhere, and to theirparents and teachers, that as a youngteenager Pat’s parent deemed itnecessary to send him boarding to theCarmelite College in Moate.It would teach him amongst otherthings the value of “self-discipline”, acharacteristic that he would laterdescribe as “one of the most importantattributes of successful people theworld over”. Inadvertently, it wouldalso provide him with what wouldbecome his driving and guidingphilosophy in life.“We were in study this eveningwhen I leaned over to get somethingfrom the fella in front of me.Unbeknownst to me the guy behindme, a Finian Darby from Mullingar,had positioned the needle of a compassunder my seat. Needless to say, when Isat down I let a roar out of me thatwould have woken the dead. BothDarby and I were duly summoned upto the podium and a Fr. Langan metedout the punishment. We were tomemorise and write out a hundredtimes the following lines fromShakespeare”.“There is a tide in the affairs of men,Which taken at the flood, leads on tofortune”.“That became my mantra. Idiscovered that at any one time thereare always loads of opportunities outthere. The trick is to be awake andhungry and ready. And in order to beready you have to become a greatlearner.”“My mother used say that ‘Whenyou’re old enough to die you’re wiseenough to live’. What she meant bythat was that life is one greatopportunity to learn”.

“I learned from everyone andeverything. During school I used helpa local farmer called Bill Staunton. Afarm is a great teacher. I learned aboutthe law of the farm – that what you sowis what you reap. There’s no pointexpecting to harvest in the autumn ifyou haven’t sown in the spring. Ilearned later that sometimes even ifyou do sow in the spring it can still rainon your parade and you may notactually get rewarded, but that’s theprice you have to pay. More thananything else I learned from farmingthat you have to be multi-skilled. Thisis crucial in running a business.”“I was mad to learn and it didn’tmatter what job I did I learnedsomething from it. I started takingphotographs at events and functionsand festivals. I remember one nightdown at The Rose of Tralee. It was

lashing rain and bad for business. Ifigured if I could only get inside “TheDome” I’d be elected but I didn’t havea press card. I went up to thedoorman, flashed my camera, andwhen he asked “Press”, I replied “No,Independent” and got admittedstraight away”.“The next night the Wolfe Toneswere playing and as I was standingoutside wondering how I’d get in whopulled up but the Wolfe Tonesthemselves and they laden down withheavy equipment. Quick as a wink Isaid to them “Lad’s, d’ye want a hand?As I said Padraic, there are alwaysopportunities if you’re on the lookout”“Another summer I cottoned on tocandy floss. Don’t quote me on thisbut there must have been a 1000%margin on candy floss. The problemwas to get people to know about you. Idiscovered that it had little to do withthe taste but everything to do with thenoise. I got this big generator to powerthe little machine to make the floss.The great thing was when you revvedup that generator you were heard formiles around”.Back at school Pat identified threechoices following his LeavingCertificate. He could join the army, goto college or, like his mother andsisters before him, do national schoolteaching. He opted for the latter on thebasis that he felt that it would be goodto have a qualification, that it was onlytwo years, and that he would havelong summer holidays in which topursue a myriad of business ideas.At the tender age of twenty yearsPat was appointed as Principal ofKilrickle National School. He issuitably humble to admit that “MrsRegan and I were the only teachersbut I learned a lot about business andlife from teaching. You have to plan,prepare, deal with difficult situationson the hop, and always be on top ofyour game. I learned that every kidhas a talent for something. Findingthat out is your job. I’d love to be backteaching – specifically teachingentrepreneurism. National School isthe time to be building their dreams.You have time to experiment whichyou don’t always get in the real world”.As planned, the long summersafforded Pat the opportunity to buildother businesses. At this time, poolhad begun to become fashionable as agame and Pat seized on theopportunity to install pool tables inpubs. The business flourished and itoccurred to Pat that there was a greatopportunity to open a pool hall inBallinasloe.Not totally unsurprisingly – himbeing all of 22 years young, the bankrefused him a loan. “I simply walkedacross the street to another one andgot it there. That’s why I always usetwo banks ever since”.The next issue was “a small oneconcerning planning permission. Wewere refused it for the pool hall. Weappealed it and that too was turneddown. I learned at that young age agreat lesson – that very often whenyour back is to the wall is when youare at your most powerful. I had nooption but to look around and seewhat else Ballinasloe needed. Iidentified a need for a nightclub, afurniture shop and a fast foodrestaurant. Not being able to affordthe first two I resolved to open thefirst Supermac’s”.Opening a fast food outlet was onething if you knew something about it.Pat didn’t, but he found someone whodid and that is another of his coremindsets – “You should alwayssurround yourself with people whoare smarter than yourself. At a veryminimum you need a greataccountant; a great HR person; a greatsolicitor; and great managers. Thereare lots of better managers inSupermacs than me”.His first hire was Michael Carroll, achef from Haydens Hotel who wouldlater go on to open three restaurantsin New York. From Michael he learnedabout food and food preparation andrecipes. The rest he learned from thatmaster trainer – trial and error.Shortly after opening, his regularpotato supplier ran out of spuds. Patheard that there were great potatoesin Turloughmore and duly went downthere with a trailer and purchased aton of the most fantastic lookingspuds. As he was blanching them thatnight for chips he knew there wassomething amiss. What he discoveredlater was that he’d just been sold a tonof Aran Banners, a potato normallyused for fattening cattle. “When Ididn’t poison Ballinasloe that night Inever will”.A few weeks later, with theBallinasloe Horse Fair kicking inbusiness was booming. Pat recalls aSaturday night when “there was aqueue a mile long down the street. Wewere bombing it, really flying it. Andall of a sudden, darkness. I had a shopfull of hungry customers whowouldn’t take no for an answer. Withthat I wrapped some cigarette paperaround a fuse and sure enough wewere back in business. About an hourlater it went out again and this time “Imade sure to be sure”. I wrapped a fullsheet of tinfoil paper around the fuseand it lasted ‘till about half three inthe morning. Then the whole streetwent out.”For most people, holding down ademanding job and opening a newbusiness would be the apex of theirdreams. Not so for Pat. His visionalways was “to build a business thatyou could replicate”. “In order to dothat you need to first and foremostdevelop great systems and thensupport them with great people”.Ballinasloe was to be where he wouldfine-tune his first franchise prototype,that would in time form the basis ofthe highly profitable business modelthat drives all of the current 90Supermacs shops.As the shops increased he choose toretire from teaching, explaining to hisemployer Bishop Kirby that “there’s abit more money in chips than inalgebra”. For all that, his managementstyle hasn’t changed an iota. He stillpositively loves the hustle and bustleof being on the shop floor.It’s a pity they don’t make cameraslike Pat Mc Donagh because in one youwould have a wide angle lens capableof capturing the most expansive ofvisions and at the same time a zoomlens capable of zooming in on the mostforensic of details. I was minded ofTom Peters, in the seminal work “InSearch of Excellence” where he said“Excellence can be measured in inchesor millimetres”. Or as Uncle Stiofainwould have put it “The divil is in thedetail”.I suspect we’d still be talking but fortwo things. “Padraic, I have to go. Oneof the lads is playing a hurling matchin Ardrahan at six”. The other was hiswife Una calling him to say there wasa traders’ meeting on in Loughrealater that night and “it might be noharm to shove your head in”.Despite the ninety shops, and themyriad of detail involved in runningthem, Pat has never lost sight of thecore values of family and sport andmaking time for both. His wife Una haswalked every inch of the journey withhim since she first started helping inBallinasloe all those years ago. Greatbusinesses, similar to great families,rely on great mothers and throughthick and thin Una has beenSupermacs mother. Pat is fond of asaying that goes “Some people talk agreat shop. Other people work a greatshop”. Una is clearly in the latter. Herhumility, her warmth and herwillingness to “work” a great shophave contributed hugely to theintegrity of the Supermacs brand.The final lines of Brutus’ advice toCaesar in Act 4, Scene 3 of thatinfamous speech were“On such a full sea are we nowafloat.And we must take the current whenit serves,Or lose our ventures”.It’s apposite that Pat believes we arenow on a tide of massive opportunity.“I have seen more opportunities in thelast six months than I have in theprevious six years”.Hard to improve on the wag’scomment from the sideline all thoseyears ago.

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Comments

  • Comment by Ethna Archer — April 13, 2015 @ 5:13 pm

    I really enjoyed that. It’s straightforward and to the point in terms of leadership advice. It deserves a wide audience. Thanks.

  • Comment by niall conlon — November 20, 2015 @ 1:31 am

    fair play too pat,una they made the nicest chips,burgers,,lovely coke too its so so so tasty,i love it,,they put supermacs on the right map,,fair play too yee guys

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