Monday 23 October 2017

'Franchise king' rises from ashes to aim for new heights

Brody Sweeney got burned when O'Brien's found itself in difficulty but that failure has inspired him to succeed with his new venture

THE RIGHT INGREDIENTS: Sean Gallagher, left, with Brody Sweeney and chef Andy in Camile Thai restaurant in Phibsboro, Dublin.
THE RIGHT INGREDIENTS: Sean Gallagher, left, with Brody Sweeney and chef Andy in Camile Thai restaurant in Phibsboro, Dublin.
Sean Gallagher

Sean Gallagher

IN his book, The Psychology of Winning, Denis Waitley addresses an issue that is common in today's business world: failure.

"Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. It should be viewed as a temporary detour, not a dead end. Failure is something we can avoid only by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing."

What's your own attitude to failure? How do you react when you hear, on the news or read in the paper, that another Irish business has failed?

In the US, for example, failure is seen as a natural part of the process of learning, an inherent part of trying new things, of pushing out the boundaries and of exploring new possibilities.

For some US investors, it is even seen as badge of honour; a sign that you are brave enough to try new things and that you have learned valuable lessons that will stand to you when you move on to your next venture. In fact, failure is seen as a natural and, possibly even an essential, stepping stone on the path to ultimate success.

Failing for anyone is hard. But when you fail publically it can be harder still. Harder to recover, harder to dust yourself down and harder to find the courage to try again.

This week's entrepreneur is one who has known great success and has equally known the pain of a big fall. Yet, his story contains many lessons that can help inspire any of us who have ever experienced setbacks in our businesses.

Brody Sweeney was once known as the king of franchise. His name will forever be synonymous with O'Brien's Sandwich Bars, the company he set up in 1988 and which grew to become a huge international success. At its height, O'Brien's had more than 350 stores across 16 countries including Singapore, Malaysia, South Africa and Dubai. It employed more than 3,000 staff and had annual revenues of more than €140m.

Today, Brody is back in business and focused on building a new food franchise operation. Camile is an online delivery restaurant, selling restaurant quality Thai food. Brody set up Camile in early 2010 and he has already developed four outlets in Dublin. Here I catch up with him in his Phibsboro restaurant.

He is brimming with excitement about his new venture and, along with his head chef, Andy, from Thailand, he takes me on a tour of the premises.

"Our food is cooked to order and usually within about 90 seconds, so advance preparation is the key," explains Brody. "We use only the best quality meat, chicken and fish and source as much as we can from Irish suppliers. Even all our sauces are made from scratch," he insists, as he invites me to try one of his popular dishes.

If, as the experts tell us, it takes 10,000 repetitions of any action to become automatic, then chef Andy has surely passed that milestone long ago. In a series of short, rapid hand movements, he scoops handfuls of ingredients from the nearby trays and drops them into the sizzling oil. Almost spellbound, I am lost for a moment amid the mix of tempting smells and the rhythmic sounds of the wok on the gas-flamed cooker.

"We try to have the food delivered within 30 minutes" Brody interjects. "Eighteen minutes from when the order is taken to when it goes out the door, and then another 10 minutes to deliver it so that it's still perfect when it reaches the customer".

"Unlike some traditional takeaway products, Thai food, like pizza, is very suitable for the home-delivery model," Brody explains. "Our business is built on a similar model to Domino's Pizza where it has less to do with running a restaurant and more to do with running a logistics business," he adds.

The company's target market is 25 to 44-year-old urban workers. "Our customers are typically the Facebook generation," explains Brody. "They spend a significant amount of their downtime online and are essentially looking for the ultimate convenience, having hot food delivered straight to their laptops. They can now browse our menu, place their order and even pay on line. And the only time they need to get up is to answer the door," he adds smiling.

Home delivery is definitely a growing market, not just in Ireland but in the UK, where it is predicted that the fast-food and home-delivery sector will grow to £12bn by 2015.

Brody currently employs 90 people, half of which are employed directly as chefs, packers, and counter staff while the remainder are drivers who work, largely, on a self-employed basis.

"My next focus is to establish outlets in places such as Cork, Limerick and Galway," he tells me. "These are likely to be franchise operations," Brody says. "With four stores already in place and a new one coming on stream shortly, we now have the model and structure right and are ready to replicate it throughout the rest of the country and in the UK," he says enthusiastically.

His vision of having more than 100 restaurants over the next five years is certainly an ambitious one but nothing he hasn't achieved before. His original vision for O'Brien's was to open more than 1,000 restaurants worldwide. "While I didn't get to the 1,000 mark," he admits, "I did get a hell of a lot further than if I had dreamed of only opening 10."

Prior to starting O'Brien's, Brody had cut his teeth in the franchise arena when he developed and sold the Prontaprint franchise in Ireland. This experience had prepared him well for O'Brien's and he was well on his way to achieving his dream when a combination of unexpected challenges and poor decisions derailed his plans.

In 2005, and bitten by the political bug, he took semi-retirement from the business to run for the Dail.

"I stood in the 2007 election for Fine Gael in the constituency of Dublin North East. I didn't get elected but I did manage to secure 3,400 votes," he tells me.

While he has no regrets about standing for election, he is quick to admit that he took his eye off the ball. He soon realised that there would be a price to be paid. O'Brien's was expanding aggressively at the time and the company had entered into a significant number of property leases, at the height of the market, in order to open up new outlets.

"It might not make sense now, looking back," he admits. "But at the time, we genuinely expected to be able to meet the cost of servicing these rents".

By the end of 2008, however, he began to see the writing on the wall. Franchisees were getting into difficulty with their rents. "I spent six months on my knees," he says, "literally begging landlords to reduce rents. But largely to no avail."

He soon realised that it wasn't going to work and so he decided to put the business into examinership with the intention of getting rid of the bad leases where rents simply couldn't be met. That didn't work out as planned and so he did a deal with Graham Beere, owner of Abrakebabra, to take over the business.

"While O'Brien's is still going strong today, I got totally wiped out in the process," he admits.

The next few years were tough for him, both mentally and financially. What was the hardest part, I wonder?

"After growing the business for so long and being so driven and focused, I now had no purpose. I had no reason to get out of bed in the morning," he tells me openly.

"The hardest part was the absence of any compelling future for me," he says. "For a long time, I just couldn't see what I could do next."

In true entrepreneurial spirit though, he realised that he needed to do something, anything, to get back on track. He turned to what he knew best, the food business. He opened a Chinese home delivery business on Dublin's South Circular Road. After a few weeks, however, the business failed to take off. It took him another two attempts, and further intensive market research, before he eventually settled on the Camile Thai restaurant model.

"While the Chinese business didn't work out as I had planned, without it, I never would have gotten to here," he tells me philosophically. "Sometimes you have to be willing to take a first step, even when you're not entirely sure how it will turn out. You can often learn more from working at something than you can from all the planning in the world," he stresses.

Business is growing steadily now and his best restaurants will turn more than €1m each this year.

He is now actively seeking franchisees who want to join him. "This business offers great prospects to the right people but, because it's a hospitality-based business, they will need to like people. And they will need to be willing to work very hard," he adds.

For Brody himself, perhaps his greatest achievement lies not in what he achieved during the good times but rather how he managed to cope when things were difficult.

It takes great courage to start a business and even greater courage to start all over again. I'm not sure if each of us has a defined destiny in life. Maybe for Brody, his is to be a beacon of hope and a role model of inspiration for those who, too, have failed and who are trying to find their way back.

Maybe it's time to re-examine our attitude to honest failure here in Ireland. Unless we learn to embrace it, as other countries have, we will have fewer entrepreneurs willing to take the risk of starting businesses and creating the employment we badly need.

As I shake hands with Brody and wish him well with his new venture, I truly hope he can replicate even some of the success he once achieved with O'Brien's. And as he suggests, recovery, for all of us, is about taking small, intelligent steps in the right direction.

Irish Independent

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