Monday 21 October 2019

'Shrinking sector made me realise it was right time to quit Newstalk and reinvent myself'

Jonathan Healy
Jonathan Healy
Tremendous fun’: Jonathan Healy interviewing national school pupils during his time with Newstalk, where he worked for 11 years
Ellie Donnelly

Ellie Donnelly

Jonathan Healy; journalist turned business owner, though he would probably admit that he never set out to be either.

Changing circumstances, some within and some beyond his control, have seen the Corkonian spin himself a new narrative.

Today, Healy is celebrating two years as owner and head of a communications firm that he set up with his wife Colette, and which bears the family name.

"I had no idea how to become a businessman," Healy says. "It's ridiculously hard if you don't know how to do it.

"I mean even setting up a company bank account was a minefield, because you have to jump through so many different hoops to set the account up in the first place."

You then realise how many ways you are taxed, "which is a terrible fright, so you have to make sure you have a good accountant", he says. "None of it held me back, thankfully, but it was a challenge."

Celebrating its second birthday this month, Healy Communications is going from strength to strength.

However, the University College Cork (UCC) law graduate is of the opinion that the culture here is designed to put people off becoming self-employed.

He describes Ireland as a place that hasn't necessarily been a country of entrepreneurs. "That was borne out by the fact that if you failed, you failed spectacularly. You couldn't come back from it," he says.

"I found once I took the leap [and set up a business] that it was an infinitely better way of earning money than what I was doing as an employee."

Working with universities today, he can see a change in attitudes towards entrepreneurship starting to emerge.

His interest in the media and communications industry was sparked while studying at UCC.

"I always had an interest in journalism from when I was a kid. My mother would always tell the story of how I practised being on the radio long before I was ever on the radio," he says.

Having worked in the college radio station, Healy was bitten by a passion for journalism. Instead of going down the traditional law graduate route of Kings Inns or Blackhall Place, he started working at Cork's 96FM as a reporter.

However, he's perhaps most well-known for his work at Newstalk. "It was a good 11 years with Newstalk full-time as a member of staff, with several of those years presenting the lunchtime programme, which is kind of a challenge because it is a daily radio programme, and anyone who ever works in radio will tell you it is tremendous fun, but then you have the JNLRs and all of the other challenges that come with that."

However, a change to the station's radio schedule forced Healy to take stock.

"I'm really passionate about the [broadcasting] job and worked with amazing people on the production team," he says of his time at Newstalk. "And then there came a point where they wanted to change schedules - as happens on a regular basis - and what they wanted to do just didn't suit me. So I said 'now is as good a time as any to try and do something else'."

"To be fair, it was the changes that were coming [at Newstalk] didn't necessarily suit me, and I took stock," Healy says.

Before making a final decision to set up the business, some soul-searching was required.

"I was 40 and I had to ask myself the difficult question about what will the landscape be like for careers in this sector in 10 years' time, and while there will still be amazing people working in media, it will have contracted quite a lot, and I said if I go now I will reinvent myself, if I am going to give a go at another career I am going to have to do it now."

Not everybody would relish career disruption, especially when it is relatively out of your control. For Healy, he says it provided him with the impetus to want to do something else.

"[It] is a bit of a risk because I was always the PAYE guy, I was always the employee, and I had myself convinced that would be the way it would be until I retired," he says, adding that "long consideration" was given to his decision to set up the communications company.

"I would have gone to the grave happy as an employee but that wouldn't necessarily have filled the potential that might have been there and I think that as a country we need to support and nurture people who want to set up a business," he says.

Going out on his own is something that has been daunting. Had somebody told him three years ago that there would be five salaries coming out of a business with his name over the door, he "would have lost sleep" over it.

"Whereas now I realise well OK, we will work together hard as a team to make sure those salaries can be paid. It's not as daunting when you get into it as it appears from the outside."

The main strand of the company's business is public relations.

Healy describes the business as "a very broad church" in PR, adding that the group is specialist in corporate storytelling and profile building. Clients range from an investment firm, to a pharmacy chain, and probiotic manufacturer.

The other side of the group's business is media training. It also has a content creation arm.

Despite its relative infancy, the communications group has already got some big names working for it; former 'Irish Examiner' reporter Niamh Hennessy spent five years working in communications for AIB, while Ciara McDonagh spent 10 years editing and presenting morning bulletins on Newstalk. In August the team will expand further when Padraigh Hoare, a business reporter with the 'Irish Examiner', comes on board.

The business, Healy says, benefits from the fact that the staff are "very like-minded".

"We are all former journalists, so we have shared values and a good knowledge of what is needed to make a story work."

"That's the biggest thing I learnt when I started talking to clients, is that there are huge volumes of stories that are untold. A lot of the time they think 'well we want to tell X', when in reality that is part of it, but look at all the other things they are doing," he says. He adds, "People who sweat tears and blood into their business, they don't always realise some of the things they have achieved."

Coming across as very unflappable, it is unexpected to hear Healy express surprise at the level of the company's success over the past 24 months.

"If you told me two years ago we would be where we are today with five people on staff I probably would have said 'not a chance' but we have," he says.

"We are working with great people and growing quite quickly in both Dublin and Cork. I think you are conscious of what may go wrong next, maybe Brexit might happen, or maybe something else might go wrong with the economy. But there is always a market for a good story, and if clients put their trust in us to be able to tell that story we are going to do well."

Having the company located in Cork, as opposed to Dublin, is not something he views as a hindrance, describing Healy Communications as "an Irish company that happens to be based in Cork".

"I perfected the art of bi-location over the past number of years, I'm always in Dublin for a couple of days every week, but Cork is my home."

However, he admits he doesn't think the business would have been able to do what it does now 10 years ago, "because we didn't have easy ways to do communications".

"Whereas the world has gone a lot smaller in 10 years and you can communicate much more easily with clients."

With a lot of the company's business based in the Rebel City, Healy says that "having the Cork base was an advantage".

The company's business has increased on the back of the word of mouth.

"Our reputation has been growing organically. We haven't advertised. We haven't gone to the market necessarily aggressively pitching, but that hasn't held us back from growing," he says.

"In that way we have been very lucky to work with good people, and a lot of people have put faith and trust in us, which has yielded rewards for them."

Since setting up the communications company, it is obvious that Healy has not looked back. "Whatever stress this is, it's a good kind of stress," he says. He adds that working alongside his wife means "I know there is somebody standing behind me full square".

"With three kids, they are going to look at mum and dad now as doing this, as running their own business, and it's not going to be alien to them.

"My 10-year-old came home a few weeks ago and said 'the teacher told us half of us will be doing jobs that nobody has invented yet' and I was thinking 'that's what I want to foster, I want you to do one of those jobs'."

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