Biting back: Sweeney 'staying in game' after O'Briens collapse
"Stay in the game."
That was the message from one of Ireland's best-known entrepreneurs, Brody Sweeney, as he made a rare public speaking appearance at the Business Summit conference.
Mr Sweeney, who has just been taken on as chief executive of Diep at Home home-delivery service, was giving a seminar at The K Club in Co Kildare last Friday, where he said he was coming back fighting from the liquidation of his O'Briens sandwich empire.
The former multi-millionaire described how the collapse of the chain left him struggling to pay his mortgage. "I used to be introduced as one of Ireland's most successful entrepreneurs," he joked after he was called on stage as an "example of perseverance in business".
"Two years ago, I was at the top of my game, I was living the dream and I was the Celtic Tiger boy. I was earning a good income . . . and it all fell off a cliff in a very short time."
Describing how he was involved in "the fight of his life" during his attempt to rescue the O'Briens sandwich business, he explained: "It was like a death in the family. The business was clearly on the ropes and I was absolutely terrified about what the future held for me.
"I thought 'I've a big mortgage and I've a family to feed and this business is going west and I'm not going to be able to pay the bills'."
Opening up about the effect the collapse of his business empire has had on his confidence, Mr Sweeney, who began O'Briens in 1988 at the time of another recession, said: "It's a male thing. Our egos are tied up in our business. I was 'Mr O'Briens' for years so I felt a huge loss of self-esteem when I hit the bottom.
"I had the sleepless nights and the terrors and all the horrible things people go through when their life is turned upside down in a short period of time," he added.
"You think why me? What did I do that was so wrong? Your friends say 'it's not you -- it's the recession' but statistically most businesses survive the recession, so when your friends try to offer you comfort you know inside it's not the same," he said.
In 2007, the O'Briens franchises had a combined turnover of €140m. The holding company, which owned the brand, had profits of €1.2m.
That was also the year in which Mr Sweeney attempted a high-profile launch of a political career, running for Fine Gael in the general election. He was unsuccessful in the Dublin North East constituency, although his running-mate Terence Flanagan did got elected.
However, in March 2009, O'Briens went into examinership, before being placed in liquidation six months later.
But, this weekend, Mr Sweeney said he has turned his life turned around and is now CEO of the Diep at Home Thai food takeaway service.
"I've gone in 15 months from having no idea what the future held, and being scared and terrified, to having a new business, having some optimism and having a salary.
"It's nowhere near enough, but it's a salary. I've got my seven-year-old car with the side taken out of it, which my daughter contributed to, but I have a future, I have a hope.
"We really can't see the future and, gloomy and dark as people would have us believe, we got into this mess quickly and we can get back out of it just as fast."
Giving hope to struggling businessmen, he said: "It's very hard when you're in the difficult time to have a different perspective. To think in a year's time that things will be different. But by staying in the game, opportunities will present themselves to you. So for all of you who are in the perspective of the abyss, stay in the game."
Mr Sweeney is operating a Diep at Home Thai food takeaway in Dublin's Cork Street. Mr Sweeney's outlet is the third shop in the chain to open in Dublin, with the other two in Blackrock and Ranelagh.
Mr Sweeney's foray into the Asian food sector came just three months after O'Briens went into liquidation. However, most of the shops have remained in business under new owners.