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Wednesday 17 September 2014

My life only really started when I lost both my legs

Published 13/01/2013 | 06:00

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'You tend to remember where you were when you were asked for consent to amputate your legs." So goes the opening line of Paul McNeive's book Small Steps – followed by an excruciating account of what happened next.

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His memories of December 1982 are blurred, but never go away. A dinner dance in town for junior property workers, driving home, a sudden crash, a fireball and two men "putting me out" with fire extinguishers.

At the tender age of 20, there were skin grafts, infections, more skin grafts, the harrowing physical and psychological blow of a double amputation and years of often painful rehabilitation.

Sometimes he thinks about the mixed hand that fate dealt him: the fact that only 0.25pc of cars catch fire after an accident, the fact that the two men who rescued him owned fire extinguishers and that he crashed just a quarter of a mile from a hospital.

Thirty years after that horrible night, McNeive is a dapper, fit-looking 50-year-old father of three, with computerised prosthetic legs and a nifty sense of humour.

"If you're going to go Ferrari, you're talking €40,000 for a prosthetic leg," he says. "If you're going Merc Sport, it's around €20,000. I have the Merc Sport and it's fantastic for getting around."

Everything has changed and perhaps no wonder he's become a sought after motivational speaker, giving business people and charities advice, encouragement and a bit of drive.

I should mention that McNeive, before he became a public speaker, ran Ireland's biggest estate agency, Hamilton Osborne King, sold under his watch to Savills for €50m in 2006.

And then there's his occasional sideline as a professional Bono impersonator. Most recently he was hired by Mario Rosenstock for the comedian's television sketch show.

There's also a new book to talk about, a mix of biography and sage business advice, the kind that propelled McNeive from working in the basement of Hamilton's to the very top of the Celtic Tiger's commercial property boom.

He has no regrets about riding that wave and exited the business two years before it all came crashing down, largely, he says, on the back of regulatory failure and banking incompetence.

"It's a pity that things just got so out of control. The biggest problem was the over-supply of money in the economy," says McNeive.

Starting off on £21 a week at what was then Hamilton and Hamilton, he printed brochures, made the tea, took property photos and spent the afternoons driving around Dublin with a caretaker putting up 'For Sale' boards.

After work, it was off to night school for chartered surveyors before getting a late bus back to his parents' house in Wicklow.

Then came the car crash. Feeling sorry for himself was not an option.

"Losing my legs drove me to new heights. I guess it made me work harder, aim higher, and prove anything is possible."

It helped that Hamilton's, led by MD Ian French, went beyond the call of duty, recalls McNeive. "They paid me for the year I was in hospital, they visited all the time and the visits were always about when I was coming back to work, not if."

Not only did he go back to work but he learned to drive too, the mastering of hand controls the first in a series of small steps on the road back to normality.

The crucial phase was a period of forced knee-bending at the behest of the physios, and more intensive 'small steps' to unlock his knees and prepare them for prosthetic legs.

His first legs were made of wood. His current 'Merc Sports' are titanium and carbon fibre and computer controlled with sensors.

Losing one's legs was once the bleakest of scenarios but now there are brighter possibilities with technology helping thousands of people back on to artificial – but reliable – feet.

"There was a sea-change in the 1990s in terms of comfort, the materials and design," says McNeive. "The legs I now have are controlled by a computer which senses at the knee what I am doing. If I am going downhill, the sensors tell the foot that it is on a slope and adjusts. It's like the ABS system in a car."

McNeive swims three times a week, does weights and watches what he eats. "When you have prosthetic legs, you don't want to be lugging extra pounds around," he says with a smile.

He's busy these days preparing motivational talks and enjoying the launch of his new book: Small Steps – The Secrets To Success in Life and Business. McNeive is also later this month starting a new column in the Irish Independent's Commercial Property section, offering his unique insights into the sector.

He believes too many Irish businesses fail because they don't plan or pay enough attention to achieving what they want.

"I came to realise the power of a programme of small steps and how quickly they can see you achieve a goal which initially seemed almost too much to dare to imagine," says McNeive in his book. "I secretly called this my 'Knee-bend Principle' and I began to apply it to achieving goals in both my personal life, and in business. . . it never lets me down."

And that's pretty much his philosophy in life. By applying a 'Knee-bend Principle', McNeive believes anyone can establish a goal, work out the steps to get there and never stop doing them.

"I'm not a business guru," he says. "But I have been forced through my experiences in life to discover the inside of motivation and resourcefulness. It is a powerful skill to have."

Small Steps is published by Ballpoint Press €14.99 and available from www.paulmcneive.com or www.amazon.com.

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