Padraig McGillicuddy, proprietor, Ballygarry House hotel and spa, Co Kerry. In conversation with Mary McCarthy
Building the dream: In 1957, my grandfather Gene was out for a walk and came across the derelict Ballygarry House. He was a builder and astutely spotted the potential for a hotel.
In 1958, the Manhattan Hotel opened. My father joined as general manager in 1968 and in 1982, the business returned to its original name.
I grew up in a house beside it and was working there from an early age. I studied hotel management in Galway and got hotelier experience in Switzerland, Australia and Cork.
When my father got sick in 2001, I returned to help and when he died, I took over as general manager.
I was 27 years old and was thrust into a difficult situation that was a turning point in the making of me as a focused businessman, and in the development of a resilience that helped me overcome obstacles in my life.
Testing the inner mettle
My father was an admirable man, and he had left the hotel with a stellar reputation. However, he was not a great businessman and had got bad financial advice. I took ownership when he died and following a Revenue audit, I found myself facing debts of €2.7m.
I remember that day when the keys were on the table and my accountant told me I could walk away or stay and fight.
There was no question. I borrowed the money and the next five years were spent paying it back as quickly as I could.
This concentrated my mind completely. I reckon if I had not been saddled with that debt, I could have easily been swayed into property development or other distractions.
The fact that I had one single purpose - keep the hotel going and to pay back the bank - was very motivating. That Revenue audit helped me no end. It made me very protective of the business and brand my family had created.
Carving out your own path
It was tempting to seek stress release in alcohol but instead I took to the outdoors - instinctively knowing this was the road to self- preservation.
I got into trekking and climbing then to clear my mind and these activities remain a huge part of my life.
When the debt was paid, I finally felt I was my own man. You can only be your father's son for so long, and you live in the shadows for years when you take over a family business. But there comes a time you need to put your own stamp on things.
In 2006, I added a spa, which was the start of years of refurbishments. We are now in the process of building an on-site chapel. Weddings have always been big business but for a long time I have been increasing our other offerings as I did not want all our eggs in one basket.
People are drinking a lot less, even at weddings. In the last two years - since the zero-tolerance rules - beverage sales have fallen 4pc and we are €100,000 in alcohol revenues. The corporate traveller now is likely to want a super-food salad and a workout, rather than sipping pints, and it's been tending this way for a while.
From early on, I made it a requirement that employees could not drink alcohol on the premises. I have worked in the environment of having a few drinks to relax after the shift and the lines become blurred very quickly.
I have seen, especially on the chefing side, how this is not good for employees' health and morale and often leads to extra-marital affairs. Instead, we have healthy days out, not centred around alcohol, and recently went trekking with sandwiches, though later there was wine with dinner.
I knocked down the family home I grew up in to make way for renovations. My home is six miles away from the hotel - a good buffer zone. I took advice from my college lecturer who advised us to live far enough away from work to take out your frustrations on the car, and not your family.
I remember my dad sitting down to his dinner and chances are, he would be called to go and sort out an emergency. Once I get into my car to go home, I switch off.
My wife Carmel accompanies me for 80pc of my local trekking and once a month I do a big climb - a favourite is Mount Brandon - with my good friend Pat Chawke.
We go back 25 years and have been climbing together for most of that. There have been some hairy moments such as when we needed to cross a ladder bridge over a crevice in the Himalayas.
We love the Reeks and west Kerry and this summer we plan to take on Mont Blanc.
There is a beautiful quietness in climbing. Working in an industry where you need to be 'on' the whole time can take its toll.
If a customer wants something done, they want it done now - and rightly so. Trekking is my pressure valve and means I still love my job and don't get overwhelmed.