Saturday 18 November 2017

Fitzpatrick Castle's Eithne has won battle to beat crash

Sean Gallagher meets owners of small and medium-sized businesses and shares the lessons they’ve learnt in building their companies

Sean Gallagher with Eithne Scott Lennon, owner and ceo of Fitzpatrick Castle Hotel in Dublin. Photo: Justin Farrelly
Sean Gallagher with Eithne Scott Lennon, owner and ceo of Fitzpatrick Castle Hotel in Dublin. Photo: Justin Farrelly
Sean Gallagher

Sean Gallagher

Ireland has a great reputation for the quality and friendliness of our hotels and none more so than the iconic Fitzpatrick Castle Hotel located in Killiney, in South Dublin. Sitting on a hill overlooking the picturesque heritage village of Dalkey, it is a wonderful example of traditional Irish hospitality mixed with all the charm of an original castle setting.

The hotel is owned and run by Eithne Scott Lennon. Like every other independent hotel owner in the country, she has had to fight hard to stay in business over recent years but now - employing 144 staff and with annual revenues of €7.5m - her hard work is finally paying off.

"We describe ourselves as a castle hotel with a family feel and where the personal touch is our key focus," says Eithne. "Our main business comes from the corporate sector and includes all manner of conferences and events as well as providing accommodation to travelling executives visiting companies in the greater Dublin area.

"We also have a strong wedding business as well as many leisure tourists who stay with us throughout the year," she adds.

Eithne has seen a sharp increase in the number of US visitors in recent months, up 17.4pc on the same period last year. Visitors from other developing markets such as Australia and New Zealand are also up - all of which signals better times ahead from the hotelier. Hospitality is certainly in Eithne's blood. Her late father and mother, Paddy and Eithne Fitzpatrick, bought the castle in 1970 and converted it into a hotel. Paddy originally trained in the Gresham Hotel before moving to the Talbot Hotel in Wexford where he built such a reputation as a manager that he was later invited to become general manager of the PV Doyle Group of hotels.

"My father actually grew up on Vico Road in Dalkey and used to tell us about how, when he was a child, he played cowboys and Indians in the grounds of the castle. So when the place came on the market in 1970, he jumped at the chance to buy it," says Eithne.

As a teenager, Eithne got exposed to every part of the business, from washing glasses in the bar to clearing tables in the restaurant.

"If you didn't work, you didn't get any pocket money. That was my father's way of helping to instil a sense of work ethic in us," she adds.

And it obviously worked. Her brother John owns Fitzpatrick in New York. Her brother Paul went on to launch the Morgan and Beacon hotels in Dublin while her other brothers, Paddy and Tony, went into property development.

After school, Eithne worked for a time in Lausanne in Switzerland where she got the opportunity to broaden her experience. There, she realised her real passion lay in the sales and marketing side of the business and so, on the advice of her father, she headed next to the US, where she worked in banqueting and conference sales, first in Minneapolis and then, Kansas.

Having returned to Ireland, she set up a new sales and marketing division in the family business which had by then, expanded to include the Shannon Shamrock hotel in Bunratty.

They would later add the Silver Springs hotel in Cork city and Fitzpatrick in Manhattan to the group.

After her father's death in 2002, Eithne decided to buy out her siblings' share in the hotel.

"I managed to raise the money from a bank but then the recession hit," says Eithne. "Revenues tanked overnight and it felt as if someone just turned the tap off." Instead of offering support, her bank wanted its money back. But with business down, she simply couldn't afford to pay it back at the time.

"They just abandoned us," she says. "It was the worst time ever - hell, in fact. It was nothing short of pure determination that got us through in the end," she says.

At the time she drew on advice she had once received from her late father.

"When I was a child, we found a rat in my grandparents' home. Seeing how frightened I was, my father explained that a rat would only ever attack if it was cornered. He then took me aside and told that if I ever found myself cornered that, I too should fight for my life, just like a rat," she recalls.

And fight she did, even slashing staff numbers to as low as 42 in order to survive.

Eventually, she was able to raise short-term finance to pay back the bank and as revenues improved, she was able to secure support from another bank.

With the economy now on the up, corporates spending again and tourism numbers increasing steadily, Eithne has once again begun investing in the hotel's facilities with more than €1.5m earmarked for projects over the next 36 months.

With four sons, two of which are in the hotel business, including Mark who is the hotel's general manager, she now finds herself at a point where she has to consider if she will expand further or consolidate the current business. For now though, it's business as usual at Fitzpatrick Castle hotel.

Related: Use our calculator to estimate your small business loan repayments

Meeting Eithne Scott Lennon, you cannot but be impressed by her incredible commitment to her staff, her guests and to the business itself.

The personification of everything you might expect an entrepreneur to be, I leave with a feeling that customers and banks alike could benefit from having an understanding of just how much blood, sweat and tears go into running any business - especially a hotel.

www.fitzpatrickcastle.com

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