Saturday 24 March 2018

'My story really begins with a patch of sand my dad bought in Dubai'

Dennis McGettigan wants to open 50 of his premium Irish pubs around the world and then go public, he tells Sarah McCabe

Dennis McGettigan, pictured this week in Dublin. Photo: Mark Condren
Sarah McCabe

Sarah McCabe

It looked like a building site when we walked through it on Monday, but today an expansive site beside the Royal Hotel in Bray, Co Wicklow, will open for business as a stylish restaurant and pub. I'm amazed at the turnaround but Dennis McGettigan (40) shrugs it off. "I can usually turn one around in eight weeks," he says.

The Bray outpost will be the 11th McGettigans, the international Irish bar and restaurant chain he founded five years ago in Dubai. It is just one arm of the McGettigan Group, one of the country's biggest hospitality businesses, set up by Dennis' father Jim McGettigan more than 50 years ago.

The story starts on the Queen Elizabeth ocean liner in the 1960s, where Jim worked as a maitre d'. The job allowed him to save enough money to open up a pub, McGettigans, on his return to Dublin. That was followed by the Baggot Inn before he moved into the hotel business, expanding into the UK in 1999.

Today the McGettigan's group spans 11 hotels - one in Dubai and the rest in Ireland, including the Royal Hotel, the North Star in Dublin, the Ambassador in Cork and the Millrace in Wexford - and 11 pubs around the world, with outlets in Abu Dhabi, Fujairah and New York and three in Dubai. Staff numbers total around 2,000.

Dennis is one of ten siblings; seven work for the family business. Jim McGettigan is 78 but still holds the group chairman role and is actively involved in its management. Dennis learned the ropes of the hospitality industry at the family business and then worked for Marriott for a stint.

"My story really begins with a patch of sand my dad bought in Dubai in 2005," he says.

That patch of sand would become the Bonnington Jumeirah Lakes Tower Hotel, a 40-storey, five-star property with 208 rooms and more than 250 apartments located across from Dubai marina. Dennis was asked to manage it.

After a couple of years managing the luxury property he realised there was a gap in the market for a new type of bar targeting expats.

"Dubai at that time was very luxury, very chic, all about wine bars. There was something missing; something more casual but still premium.

"The model I came up with was for a modern, international Irish pub.

"We have a shamrock in our logo but it is totally removed from the leprechaun thing. It's a premium product, very comfortable with excellent food. We have loyalty schemes with premium airlines like Emirates and Etihad. Sports is a key part - you will find every Irish fixture in a McGettigans' when you are travelling abroad.

"And music is central too - we are bringing the Coronas to play at our Singapore outlet next week.

The concept took off at a rate of knots. He opened two more in Dubai and then took the model back home to Ireland, followed by Abu Dhabi then Singapore and New York.

"We are at 11 now; I want to get that to 50 in the next five years and then do an IPO." After that he plans to move back into hotels.

He is always on the lookout for new locations he says - anywhere with a big expat community.

Running hospitality businesses around the world gives him an interesting insight into the social habits of different cities.

"Every place is different. In New York we get huge amounts of corporate business, big Monday to Thursday traffic, people drinking during the week. It is much quieter at the weekends. Whereas in Singapore there is a constant nightlife, something on every night. In Dubai, you might not think it but there is a huge social drinking culture. Monday night there might be bigger than a Saturday night here."

And then there are the different start-up challenges.

"New York was probably the most challenging place to set up. There are layers of bureaucracy, you have to get so many licences. In Ireland I can normally turn a bar around in eight week but in New York it took four or five months.

"In Singapore, the rule is you have to hire four locals for every one foreign person you employ. That's why they have just 2pc unemployment. It's not a bad idea! Dubai is a place you can do absolutely anything as long as you respect the people there. There are no limits on what you can achieve. I love the people... like the Irish, Arab people are very family-oriented. And there are lots of Irish people in top jobs over there; Colm McLoughlin, who runs Dubai Duty Free, for example, the biggest Duty Free in the world. Or Gerald Lawless who runs Jumeirah Hotels" [one of the best known luxury hotel chains in the Middle East, the company behind the famous Burj Al Arab].

He is still based in Dubai, where he lives with his partner, "but I'm on a plane every second day. I don't mind it, I get a buzz out of it."

He runs a concert business in Dubai too, bringing acts like Ed Sheeran and Razorlight out to the Middle East play for audiences of up to 20,000.

Dubai has changed dramatically in recent years, exposed to an extraordinary number of political events, he says.

"You've had Russian sanctions which have had a drastic impact on Russian business. Then there's the devaluation of the Chinese yuan.

"The rise of the US dollar against the euro has held back Europeans, since in Dubai the currency is pegged to the US dollar." But the best performing McGettigan's is still the Jumeirah Lakes Towers in Dubai. "It does huge business. It is ground zero for so many people living there.

"In New York, everything has gone crazy again; hotel rates have gone right back up. London has been slower to catch up - rates are up, but not as much as in New York. Dublin is going through its own huge boom once again. 2016 will be a great year for Ireland. I have to hand it to Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Ireland; they are doing a great job at selling the country overseas.

"In general, Ireland is an exceptionally good place to do business. The guards are fantastic, the people are fantastic... though I will say that some parts of the country are more welcoming than others. Bray has been particularly welcoming. In London and Singapore they will trip over themselves to welcome you because they know that business breeds business. I don't know why that view isn't shared universally."

As well as running McGettigan's pub chain and the Bonnington in Dubai, Dennis is involved in several of the group's Irish hotels.

He bought the Clanree in Donegal out of receivership for around €1.8m, when it was losing 150,000 a year. He considers it his best investment. After extensive upgrades, revamping rooms and bringing it up to four star status, as well as adding a McGettigan's restaurant and bar, it's now making about €1m a year.

The same overhaul model is being followed across the group. The aim is to bring all 10 Irish properties up to four-star standard; several have already been upgraded.

"What country hotels need is support from their local communities. Put love and investment into the hotel and the area, hire locals, support local projects.

"Our hotels and pubs are about staff and community. We are connected to the local communities, sponsor local sports teams and employ local people. We have a great staff retention rate.

"Everyone is going nuts for Dublin hotels at the moment, paying top prices... I think it's crazy. I would buy 15 country hotels before I'd buy one in Dublin; the prices are so high that your risk is huge if anything goes wrong."

The group, like most hospitality businesses, ran into trouble during the recession.

Two loan-backed development projects, in Raheny in Dublin and in London, fell apart around 2010 and debts of about €70m passed into Nama. But the group is now weeks away from severing all ties with Nama.

"Nama has been fantastic to deal with," says Dennis.

Significant cost-cutting was achieved, with virtually all staff agreeing to pay cuts. "Everybody did it together. It allowed us to keep more jobs," he says, adding that "2010, 2011 and 2012 were the worst years. Things started picking up in the summer of 2013. This year we've seen a big change."

Working in a family business has its advantages and disadvantages, he says.

"What's nice is that we are all on the same page. But the problem is that you are always at work - because even when spending time with family you never stop talking about business."

"Hospitality is very rewarding but it does require a lot of commitment. There are long hours, you will always have two wives. It's not for clock watchers."

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