Through the eyes of a Dragon
Sean Gallagher was almost blinded as a child but he's never been short of vision and the fire in his belly has driven him to reach his goals. Today, the RTE Dragon insists that greed is not good and tells Barry Egan he is standing up against unscrupulous property developers
Published 21/02/2010 | 05:00
On his classic I Forgot That Love Existed, Van Morrison makes use of 19th-Century Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner's idea about the importance of "thinking with the heart and feeling with the mind". "If my heart could do my thinking, and my head begin to feel," sings Van in 1987, "I would look upon the world anew, and know what's truly real."
Sean Gallagher believes that it was thinking with his head and not his heart that ultimately ended his short marriage in the late Nineties. "She was a beautiful and bright woman," he says.
"I was more tuned into my head back then. Now I tune into what my heart and gut are telling me. Sometimes we all have to keep making mistakes until we eventually learn the lesson." (They married in 1997. "It lasted just over two years. Divorced and church annulled ... ")
"While it was a tough time," one of the more interesting dragons of RTE's Dragons' Den continues, "letting go of it was the right decision. It was a transformational time for both of us and I am really happy that she is now happily married. I have nothing but good wishes for her. I am definitely a better person and partner as a result. I learnt honesty, compromise and telling the truth faster."
I ask him to explain what telling the truth faster means. "Sometimes we can try and pretend to be happy about something so as not to upset others, when if we are honest we all end up happier because things are real. And therefore we don't waste energy trying to pretend to be something or someone we are not. It's a bit like when you are too tired to go out to dinner and you make up some stupid excuse when really all you had to say was: 'I'm tired and don't feel like going out.'"
There are no such problems with communication with his girlfriend Trish O'Connor. "A brunette with some shades of red, which sometimes tends to vary for some inexplicable reason after visiting the hairdresser." Bald-as-a-snooker-ball Sean says that Trish, the sales rep for Munster for Vichy Skin Care, recently spent as much on one visit to the hairdresser as he spent in the last decade.
Sean met Trish through her best friends, Niamh Barry and husband Jim (who owns the Costcutter franchise in Ireland) while he was speaking at their annual dinner late last year. "She has quickly become my soulmate and is as incredibly beautiful on the inside as she is on the outside." Asked how they fare on the all-important tuning-in department, Sean smiles and says "we operate on the same frequency".
He adds that he is "in negotiations" with Trish, who lives in Kanturk, Co Cork, to "emigrate" to Co Louth. Forty-seven-year-old -- "I'm a very young 47!" -- Sean lives in a traditional stone house on the beach in Blackrock in Dundalk. "It's contemporary inside with huge windows and high ceilings. A place of calm and tranquility." His three favourite tomes on the bookshelf at home are Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom, Success Principles by Jack Canfield and The 4-hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss. "I think our real purpose in life is to live a good life, be the best that we can be, do good, help as many people as I can along the way, and to seek out joy and happiness in everything we do," he says.
Sean Gallagher is a hugely interesting and engaging man -- quirky even. His conversation takes lots of surprising turns. He is more New Age than some breadhead who just wants to teach the value of nothing but money. Yet isn't business and Dragons' Den more Bernie Madoff than any of that soft mumbo jumbo? Gordon Gekko said greed is good. Naturally, Sean doesn't agree.
"No, I don't," he says. "I believe that ambition and the desire to better yourself are good. We all need money and wealth to feel secure and to do the things we want. Greed implies that you always want more. You can not procrastinate your life or your happiness. Life is not about 'having and getting', it is about 'being and becoming'. All you have to do is look at all the very wealthy people who eventually give most of their money to charitable causes. Why? Because the closer they get to the end of their lives, the more they realise what was really important in the first place. I hope the rest of us will understand this life's lesson way before then. A good plan here is to visualise where and in what room in the house you could see yourself being 'waked' if you died today and then reflect on all the things you're greedy for now and then see if they really do matter."
The free-thinker and uber-businessman, who set up Smarthomes in 2002 with Derek Roddy, started on Dragons' Den last year and was an instant success. "On the Den I try not to be different from who I am in real life. Firstly, I am a Cavan man, bred to hold on to any money I have, unless I can make a good return on it. I try to balance the more sensitive side of me that has concern for the dreams and hopes of the aspiring entrepreneur in front of me with the more calculated business side of me. Because, as Dragons, we invest our own money and for that reason I come across tougher. My hope is that I am basically the same; encouraging, firm, honest, but with a scattering of good old-fashioned Irish charm and wit. I don't do bulls**t."
He drives a VW Tourag jeep -- "a bit like myself," he says, "functionable, strong but not flashy". Sean, who was appointed to the board of FAS last month, has come straight from his first board meeting in FAS to meet me today in the Shelbourne. What did you think of the disgraceful happenings at FAS last year?
"That was last year. You have to learn from the past and make sure it doesn't happen again. The key thing about the board on FAS is that it is not just government money; it is taxpayers' money. It is about value for money and being relevant to your target market -- the people who need to get back into the job market. How can I be of service? That is the new currency."
He is a ringer for the two Mitchell brothers from EastEnders and rugby icon Keith Wood. His thick neck, he says, was developed through years of judo training. Sean thinks the property developers have more of a thick neck ...
Smarthomes, he says, like many thousands of subcontractors in the construction sector, have been savaged by massive bad debts as a result of "unscrupulous" property developers not paying for work. "While I have great respect for many excellent developers, there are unfortunately many more who are using the current situation as a cloak of convenience to avoid paying their bills. I am currently witnessing widespread and blatant abuse of thousands of these subcontractors; including electricians, plumbers, plasters, carpenters, grounds people, interior designers and kitchen manufacturers."
"These are the very people who got up in the dark at 5am every morning and travelled long distances in vans to build estates and apartment developments. They supplied their products to developers, paid their suppliers and their staff and are now left broke and unpaid," he says.
He continues with not a little passion: "Not a week goes by that I do not receive calls from subcontractors who are forced to close as a result of such practice. It is a shocking injustice. And I have been brought up to know that when something is wrong, it is wrong, and hiding it behind legal mumbo jumbo does not make it right.
"I have now, out of desperation, decided to take a stand on this issue. I will shortly launch a campaign to bring about changes in the law to protect these subcontractors and will, if necessary, organise large-scale picketing of certain sites to highlight where this practice is taking place."
Despite being a 200-pound skinhead, Sean Gallagher is a softie with a highly evolved sensitive and philosophical side. The last time he cried was when his mother Ann, from Tullamore, died in 2005. Sean used to call his mum most days after his dad John -- from Killygordan in Co Donegal -- died in 2000. (Both his parents were smokers. He attributes their deaths from cancer to their smoking. Obviously, he doesn't smoke himself and is, he says, "totally opposed".)
"I would go home to Cavan most Sundays where my sister Breda and I would take her out for lunch. Five years on I still have the same desire to phone her up." He believes he got his wit and social skills from her and his "shrewdness" from his father, who worked in the Department of Agriculture all his life.
Would he like to be a dad himself one day? "Absolutely, I can't wait. I think it's the most important job I could ever do ... shaping their values and character while allowing them to develop their own personalities and outcomes. I don't underestimate the challenge and have so much respect for parents."
His famous shiny head glistens in the sunlight streaming in through the hotel windows. He started to lose his hair when he was 24. Studying to be a professional youth and community worker in Maynooth University, Sean was sharing a house "with some lads and we had a light over the mirror behind the sink in the bathroom, which we didn't have at home in Cavan," he recalls.
"One night I was washing my hair lazily in the sink and I looked up and saw that I was losing my hair and I let a roar out that was so loud the lads came tearing up the stairs. They spent the next hour laughing their heads off. I was more handsome with hair."
More problematic than losing his hair was almost losing his sight as a young child. Sean gave a talk last week in Dublin about life-lasting success: he talked about being born with a condition called congenital cataracts. That is a one-hour operation now, he says. "Back then it wasn't. I was practically blind until I was four. It is almost like looking through the bottom of a glass with milk," he says, holding up a glass in the Shelbourne.
"My parents were very lucky. They met a doctor who performed an experimental operation to give me partial sight." Young Sean had surgery in the Eye and Ear Hospital in Dublin in 1965 and 1966. The surgeon was Dr Thompkins.
Thirty-five years later, Sean went back to the southside of Dublin and found the doctor who helped his sight. "I tracked him down. I think he thought I was mad. I went out and had a cup of coffee with him and his wife. I thanked him for the difference that he made to my life and every single day of my life.
"I am visually impaired," Sean says now. "But in many ways, like everything else, the challenges you face in life and the obstacles you overcome ... I am more grateful for the limited sight I have than most people are for the perfect sight they have. There isn't a day goes by that I don't start my day with gratitude to my sight."
He remembers a teacher, Tom Gawley in fifth class, in Cavan who told him: "Look, Sean, you don't have to have the same talents and abilities as everybody else academically. If you can dream it, you can become it."
"That became my life's mantra. He was way ahead of his time."
He was never short of vision. By the age of 18, he was writing his life plan: "Become a farmer, a youth leader, a trainer, a martial artist, a fitness instructor, a politician and an entrepreneur." He has achieved them all. At the age of 21, he bought a farm; at 26, he was commissioned to develop the Government's first national alcohol education programme for young people. Two years later, he became a full-time political adviser to the then minister for health, Dr Rory O'Hanlon TD. He has became something of an acknowledged business brain ever since.
In between, there was also a bad car crash at Ballyhaise in Cavan on June 28, 1983. He was in bed for a year with bad neck and back injuries. "It was a blessing in disguise," he says. "It made me focus on fitness." And life.
Donald Trump said: "Deals are my art form. Other people paint beautifully on canvas or write wonderful poetry. I like making deals, preferably big deals. That's how I get my kicks." How does Sean gethis kicks? "By making things happen. I am a 'doer' and a 'completer-finisher' and therefore once I decide to do something it is like I have a built-in GPS and I will drive through anything to get it done and get to the finishing line. As a result, I am often considered impatient and intolerant. On a good day, if you like me, you might say I am persistent and on a bad day or if you don't like me, then you might say I am stubborn and aggressive."
From the few hours I have spent with Sean I can vouch for him as more of a gentle giant. On Valentine's night, he took Trish out to dinner in Cork and then for a walk along the beach in Inchydoney. He describes himself as a romantic person.
"Someone once described me very well as being both 'strong and gentle'; there being 'nothing so strong as gentleness and not so gentle as real strength'. I think that is a fair reflection of how I try to remain balanced. I don't think you can be one thing or the other -- sometimes you need to be tough and sometimes you need to be more caring. I have grown a business in the construction sector which at times can resemble a jungle environment where," the managing director of Smarthomes smiles, "only the strong survive." He is one smart homme.
Dragons' Den, sponsored by Bank of Ireland and produced by Screentime ShinAwil, airs on RTE One on Thursday at 10.15pm. www.rte.ie/dragonsden
For information for people starting up a business, see www.allaboutbusiness.ie