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AA chief has the tools to crack home repair market

Motoring boss who looks after 500 staff and a €40m turnover is using the iconic brand to diversify into new sectors and bring tradesmen to your door. By Thomas Molloy

BRENDAN Nevin has a confession to make when we meet in The Green Hen on Dublin's Exchequer Street; he hasn't been there before.

Despite a request to pick his favourite restaurant, the chief executive of AA Ireland decided to choose a place that he has always wanted to visit instead.

It turns out to be a good choice, but then many of the choices that the 48-year-old Dubliner has made during a career spanning several countries and companies have also turned out well, despite a habit of breaking the rules.

On a wet and windy afternoon last month, The Green Hen feels cosy and foreign; a pleasant escape from the first gales of autumn.

Nevin works around the corner, where the AA has one of three offices in Dublin; a situation he hopes to remedy soon by amalgamating the organisation he has run since he was headhunted from Bank of Ireland early last year.

While most of us are used to hearing the voices of AA spokesman Conor Faughnan or Roadwatch's baroquely named Arwen Foley, Nevin is the man who runs the company and looks after the AA's 500-plus employees and €40m turnover.

At the moment, he is busy trying to use the brand to move into new sectors including home repairs. That has been a big push for the AA in the UK and Nevin hopes to do the same thing here.

"We are about to bring the AA from the car to the home," he says as he orders a goat's cheese starter and fish pie from the short but enticing menu.

Nevin is a salesman to his fingertips. His father owned Connolly Shoes, a shop based in Dun Laoghaire, with branches in Bray, and it was here that he began his apprenticeship in sales.

After a marketing degree from DIT, he bagged a rare job selling paper and labels for new-fangled computers, fax machines and telex machines in Dublin, but soon hoofed it over to the UK, where he worked in product development for Bulmers Cider in Herefordshire (where "there was a lot of tasting going on") and then United Biscuits in London, where he helped design campaigns to encourage people to eat biscuits as snacks.

The offer of a job back home with Baileys brought Nevin back to Ireland, where he worked under Ned Sullivan (who went on to lead Glanbia and sit on the board of Anglo Irish) and looked after the spirit's expansion into eastern Europe despite never having set foot in any of the newly liberated ex-communist states.

"That was quite a tough job in terms of lifestyle. Travelling a lot," he remembers now.

"You'd be knackered at the weekends."

Baileys changed its strategy -- moving sales people into the field and Nevin changed jobs again, moving to Coca Cola -- a company that he clearly loved and where he thrived.

Within a couple of years, the recently married salesman had been moved to Greece, where one of the Coca Cola organisation's largest companies operates.

"We really enjoyed it a lot. Great climate. Great lifestyle. Great food and drink," he says a little wistfully as he picks at the fish pie back in Dublin -- which he eventually fails to finish.

Unusually for an expat, Nevin learnt Greek, moved to the headquarters in Patras and took part in day-to-day issues such as union negotiations.

Looking back on his days there, it sounds as if he could teach the troika a thing or two about doing business in Greece.

"Greeks tend to be passionate and imaginative" but bad at carrying through change, he adds.

The Nevins faced a choice at this stage in their career; to stick with Coca Cola and join the lucrative expat circuit or return to Ireland. In the end, they chose Ireland for a mixture of personal and work-related reasons.

The family returned to Ireland, where Nevin joined Eircom and then Bank of Ireland. While the two companies do not appear to share many business characteristics beyond their financial problems, Nevin was responsible for marketing first Eircom and then Bank of Ireland's services to large customer bases.

He clearly enjoyed both roles and admits freely that he did not really see the crisis coming until it was far too late.

Nevin gives every impression of being both thoughtful and intelligent so it is somewhat surprising that he missed the crash, but that's the way it was for him.

He soldiered on at Bank of Ireland through much of the recession but jumped ship last year following a phone call from the AA, which is seeking to expand here by moving into new areas following similar moves in the UK in recent years.

The AA's big idea is insurance for home owners that will guarantee tradesmen in an emergency.

It's a neat idea for time-pressed home owners and those who don't like dealing with the nitty gritty of home maintenance.

While providing home maintenance is a long way from providing roadside assistance, the service builds on the AA's expertise in fixing things, marketing and running call centres.

The question that Nevin must now answer is whether he can convince enough home owners to throw away their address books and trust the AA to provide tradesmen and services at a reasonable price.

To change the way people have minded their houses for generations is a big ask that will take all his obvious energy in the years ahead.

Still, a man who has sold everything from Coca Cola and banking to biscuits and telephones seems like exactly the right fit for the AA's move on your home.

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