Business Irish

Monday 26 February 2018

How the front row turns rugby into a business career

Rugby star Frankie Sheahan on Ireland's 2023 World Cup bid, his battles with the banks and getting Tony Robbins to speak, writes Paul O'Donoghue

Frankie Sheahan celebrates scoring Ireland’s third try against Japan in Osaka, in June 2005
Frankie Sheahan celebrates scoring Ireland’s third try against Japan in Osaka, in June 2005

Paul O'Donoghue

Winning the 2023 Rugby World Cup will help Ireland to bolster its regional tourism and move visitors out of Dublin city, according to former Irish rugby international and Failte Ireland board member, Frankie Sheahan.

A survey by Ernest & Young carried out last year estimated that the upcoming Rugby World Cup in England, which kicks off on Friday, could be worth almost £1bn to its host nation. Up to 466,000 visitors are expected to make their way to the UK for the event, which would be more international visitors than any previous Rugby World Cup. According to the economic impact survey by consultants at the accountancy firm, the tournament will add £982m to England's national GDP, with international visitors expected to contribute up to £869 million in direct expenditure.

At the end of last year the governments North and South announced their intention to bid for the right to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup. Although no report as comprehensive has been carried out for the Irish market, sports consultancy firm W2 Consulting, which is the parent company of Sports Tourism Ireland, has estimated that the 2023 World Cup could bring as many as 350,000 tourists to Irish shores if the IRFU is successful in its bid.

Former Munster hooker Frankie Sheahan, who serves as a member of Failte Ireland, says that the World Cup could be an ideal opportunity to showcase rural Ireland to international tourists.

"Visitors, especially those coming from the UK who might normally just stay in Dublin if they visit Ireland, might go to places like Cork and Galway, places they may not normally go to," he says.

"In our regions we have attractions like the Wild Atlantic Way, which is one of the best attractions in the world [so] it is an excellent opportunity to show off our beautiful landscape."

Sheahan has also been able to capitalise on the upcoming World Cup with his own business, Front Row Speakers, an international talent management agency that provides corporate speakers for some of the largest companies and brands in the world.

It has seen an upsurge in business in the run-up to the tournament due to its roster of high-profile rugby stars, which include heavy hitters like Irish national coach Joe Schmidt and retired Leinster legend Brian O'Driscoll.

"There has been an increase in demand for rugby speakers but not necessarily an overall increase in demand for other speakers," says Sheahan. "Fees for speakers prior to the recession were excessive and they dropped about 30-40pc afterwards, but they have now come up by about 15pc, which I think is a fair reflection."

The move into the corporate world has not always been a smooth one for Sheahan, who has faced battles both on and off the pitch. Born in Toronto, his family returned to their native Cork when he was just one-year-old.

While he is best known for his rugby career, Sheahan also got involved in the world of business from a young age. Backed by his father, who ran a successful property company, he helped sell his first home at the tender age of 14. Although his involvement in the property market would go somewhat awry after the Celtic Tiger bubble burst - more on that later - Sheahan says that it helped to cement his interest in the world of business and was one of the reasons why he chose to study economics at University College Cork.

It was there that he made his professional rugby debut, beginning an association with Munster that would span almost a decade-and-a-half. Although he had a distinguished playing career, making 153 appearances for the Red Army and notching up 29 caps for the Irish national side, Sheahan's view of his playing days are tinged with regret.

"When I look back on my rugby career, I think more about not playing for the Lions or not getting more caps, not getting more established," he says. "For the Six Nations alone I sat on the bench 17 times, I hold a record as the most amount of times that someone has sat on the bench without getting a cap. I felt at times there was a curse against me, every time I seemed to get a breakthrough something would go against me."

One of the most dramatic manifestations of Sheahan's 'curse' was the grievous injury he suffered while playing for his home province. In October 2005, Munster were a decade into their quest to claim the Heineken Cup when they came up against English Premiership high-flyers Sale in Edgeley Park. The match was barely underway when Sheahan felt a bone snap in his neck during the first scrum.

"The neurosurgeon told me straight up that I could have severed my spinal chord [and] I could have died on the pitch," he says.

Munster would go on to win the Heineken Cup next season, and after a nine-month absence Sheahan returned to the side, despite the advice of his doctors. "The tear was up at the higher end of my neck, the most dangerous part, and I was more or less told that it was all over but I just couldn't accept that, I felt that I had more to give."

It was not the neck injury, but a tear to his pectoral muscle that finally thwarted a transfer to French Top 14 club Brive and caused Sheahan to hang up his boots. By the time he had lost the battle for match fitness there was a new challenge on the horizon, one that would dog him just as much as injuries ever did during his time on the pitch.

Throughout his playing career Sheahan had remained active in the housing market, buying up about a dozen buy-to-let properties across the country. The investment was to backfire when the housing bubble burst and Bank of Ireland, which had provided him and his brother Joseph with credit between 2005 and 2008, called in their loans.

After they were called in during 2011 the bank moved to appoint a receiver to several of Sheahan's properties, which prompted a court battle between the two parties. A recent judgement by High Court judge Ms Justice Iseult O'Malley found in favour of the bank and said that it was an "undoubted fact" that neither Joseph nor Frank Sheahan Jr had, at the time of being given loans, the income to support capital repayments and said that it was likely that all parties expected the property market to continue to rise.

Although limited in what he can say as the case has not yet been fully concluded, Sheahan admits that he may have been too eager to invest to dip his toes into the property market.

"As a rugby player you end up retiring in your very early 30s," he says. "My idea behind it was that it would be my pension. Prices seemed to be going the right way, I said that there was no point leaving my money sitting."

Asked whether he was naive to have such faith in the property market, Sheahan points out that he was not the only investor to be taken in by the Celtic Tiger bubble. "Go through the best business developers, the best business people, the best economists in the country, we were all naive".

He acknowledges that he has made mistakes in the market but adds that his lenders should share some of the blame, saying that there has to be "some shared responsibility" relating to his investments.

Despite his legal troubles, in 2013 Sheahan and his wife Norma decided to set up the Pendulum summit, a one-day event dedicated to bring together some of the top names in business and motivation both in Ireland and abroad.

The move was a risky one for Sheahan, as Ireland was only beginning to emerge from the depths of a painful recession and there was no guarantee that executives would buy into his message of self-empowerment. However, once the summit managed to secure 600 attendees in its inaugural year, Sheahan found it easier to expand.

"If I go into a CEO's office and I start talking to him about mindfulness and spirituality, he'd kick my arse out of the door. But if I can give good examples of companies who have attended Pendulum who have seen their bottom line increase, then they start listening to me," he says.

Sheahan has succeeded in bringing in big names to deliver the summit's keynote address so far, with astronaut Chris Hadfield and controversial spirituality advocate Deepak Chopra anchoring the event in 2014 and 2015 respectively.

His keynote speaker this year, massively successful US motivational coach and speaker Tony Robbins, may be the most well-known so far, and Sheahan is clearly an advocate, his eyes going bright at the mere mention of his name.

"He is a sensation. His content, his delivery, his passion, it's the most incredible thing I have ever heard," he enthuses. "He's very practical as well, he talks about immersion, spending time with whoever is the best at something until you can master that skill. [That's] why I wanted him here."

After the Pendulum summit, which is set to take place in the first week of January, Sheahan will look at expanding abroad to capitalise on the event's increasing brand. The growth will be on top of his already heavy workload, as Sheahan says that he would only sleep for about four hours a night in the run-up to the conference.

Despite the taxing schedule, he insists that he would not change it for anything, and hints that his passion for his work now may supersede the drive he had during his playing days.

"I loved rugby to pieces, I absolutely adored it, but I always kind of looked forward to the day when I did retire because I had so many ideas in my head that I wanted to do," he says.

"Me and Norma joke that we have five human children and we have a sixth in Pendulum as well. It's the old story of finding a job you love, and never working a day in your life."

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