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Expect to see sparks fly with Sarah in the 'Dragon's Den'

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SARAH Newman is one busy lady -- Ireland's only female dragon, dot com millionaire, having sold needahotel.com, a newly launched private equity investor and chalet operator. It's a long way from when she arrived in Ireland over a decade ago aged 25, recently married and with no job. However, she did have an idea.

Having left school at 16, she had almost a decade of experience in the travel industry and was in charge of buying up to 1,000 rooms a night for Gulliver's Travel Associates.

Looking around Dublin in 1994 she realised there was a niche, as most travel agents did not carry a huge range of hotels and most were tied up in package deals. In contrast, she had access to 25,000 hotels worldwide and, crucially, at net prices, offering savings of between 40 and 50 per cent.

Despite the good offer, it was a hard sell, and Newman slogged around the country visiting every travel agent while simultaneously starting a family, having two children and getting separated fairly quickly. However, for Newman it gave her fresh determination to succeed. "When your back is against a wall you have to come out fighting. I wanted a better life for my children."

Back in those days, Ryanair was also beginning to take off but still had deals with travel agents. She somehow managed to persuade them to give her a desk in the call centre to offer hotels.

She sat at that desk six days a week from 8am to 8pm while also managing an office from Blackrock to deal with travel agents.

Both businesses grew steadily. Then, as Ryanair launched its website, she landed a bigger three-year deal to move online with them. Gullivers in London were also moving into real-time bookings, so the two coincided nicely and needahotel.com was launched

"It was amazing," she recalls. "All the time somebody, somewhere in Europe would be logging on, booking a flight and booking a hotel and printing vouchers. It was like watching a cash register."

The business was growing so rapidly at this point that Newman knew she needed a great team around her and recruited Andrew Collins, the former CEO of 123.ie, and Anne Keogh.

"At the end of the day, good business people are only as good as the people around them," she says.

Within a couple of years Newman was paying Ryanair multi-millions in commissions, providing one of the first examples for the airline about the benefits of ancillary revenues. In fact, in the 12 years from 1994 to 2006, the business grew from nothing to €100m.

Unsurprisingly, Ryanair was constantly renegotiating the contract and margins in general were reducing. So, after 12 months of negotiation, she sold out for around €50m, according to speculation, although she does not confirm the figure.

Since then she has "travelled and done fun things". She has also spent more time with her own children and with her partner, hurling legend DJ Carey, and his two boys.

"We have huge sports weekends," she laughs. She also took up golf and is the incoming ladies vice- captain at the K Club.

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But business is never far away -- she has almost finished renovating an Alpine chalet --www.chaletgrace.com -- overlooking the Matterhorn in Zermatt. The chalet will be available for rent in the winter for the ski season, but Newman is also planning a mind, body and soul experience in the summer.

At the same time, she is involved in a new venture with former Irish Independent business editor Tom McEnaney, Newmac Capital, which is looking for opportunities in Belarus and is partnering a large Irish corporation over there. And of course, as a dragon, she is also on the lookout for new opportunities with Irish entrepreneurs.

Earlier, before we met for the interview, Newman had been filming the show and was enthused about the quality of the entrants.

"It's great, three guys invested today. I think you can expect to see some sparks fly."

So what is she looking or in the Dragon's Den?

"I want someone I can connect with, someone with gritty determination to get things done but who is realistic. I really want lots of small projects to come my way, so if anyone is still thinking about applying, it's not too late."

Dragon's Den is sponsored by Bank of Ireland and is actively looking for prospective candidates, www.rte.i/tv/dragonsden/


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