Saturday 15 December 2018

Former Anglo banker who rolled the dice on an innovative idea

Greg Dooley introduced a South African game called 30 Seconds to the Irish market

Former Anglo Irish banker Greg Dooley who set up Woodland Games. Picture Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
Former Anglo Irish banker Greg Dooley who set up Woodland Games. Picture Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

Gabrielle Monaghan

In 2002, Anglo Irish Bank was the darling of the European banking sector. But after a 12-year stint working there, Greg Dooley decided it was time to leave his role as an area credit controller with the bank.

"Anglo was changing," he says. "I had been doing small loans to businesses, but the property side was getting bigger and bigger and my division knew our time was coming to an end. Anglo was no longer interested in giving out small loans - they thought giving €20 million to one person was not as risky as €20,000 loans to businesses for cars and photocopiers.

"I thought 'I could leave now and take my clients with me'. So I set myself up as a financial broker working from home and did that for six years until the crash."

Greg's intuition proved prescient. Anglo's heavy exposure to property lending meant it was badly affected by the slump in the property market. By December 2008, chief executive David Drumm had resigned and Anglo was about to be nationalised.

Greg and Drumm's fortunes are now reversed: the disgraced former Anglo CEO has been found guilty of conspiracy to defraud and false accounting for his role in a €7.2bn "con job" aimed at deceiving the markets, while Greg heads the fastest-growing board game ever to be published in Ireland. Greg is the founder of Woodland Games, the maker of 30 Seconds, which has sold more than 50,000 units in Ireland and to young Irish expats around the globe since the former banker set up the operation in 2010.

30 Seconds, which is sold online and in 140 stores in Ireland, including at Smyths Toys and Easons, is a fast-paced general knowledge game that's been likened to a mix of charades and Trivial Pursuit. Using their teammate's clues, each player has 30 seconds to guess five words on a card picked by their team. The names can include celebrities, TV shows, films, songs and places.

Last year, Woodland Games sold 18,000 units of the board game, compared to 14,000 the previous year and just 2,800 in 2013, and Greg expects to sell 20,000 games by the end of 2018.

"Board games have become cool again, with board game cafes starting up and board games societies in colleges now more popular than they ever were," the 56-year-old says.

The genesis of 30 Seconds is rooted in the Corkman's ability to seamlessly switch careers - and countries - when the need arises. After spending teenage summers picking stones in fields for relatives in Co Clare, he started his professional life as a teacher after graduating from his higher diploma in education at University College Cork during the recession of the mid-1980s.

"Jobs were hard to come by, so I went to London for eight months and, while I was there, I applied for a teaching job in Zimbabwe," he says. "About 15 of us went out there through an Irish government aid agency."

Between 1986 and 1989, Greg taught at a high school in the city of Bulawayo. "Even though we didn't like Robert Mugabe, at the time the country still worked - education worked, the roads worked," he says. "Then Mugabe lost his way."

In 1990, the year the late Nelson Mandela was released from prison, Greg moved to Pretoria to teach at a Christian Brothers College in the city. While in South Africa, when the country was poised to dismantle apartheid, he shared a house with fellow teacher Liam Ryan. After Greg returned to Ireland in 1991 and went to work for Anglo, he and Liam kept in touch.

In 2007, while Greg was still working as a broker, Liam told him about a popular South African board game called 30 Seconds.

"He said 'it's a national brand, every second house has one, and it's really popular with college students and young people. Would you be interested in researching the market and bringing it to Ireland?'," Greg says. "I said, 'Liam, I'm into serious financial stuff now - and do people even play board games any more?'

Greg had barely stepped into a toy shop before, because his wife Eileen usually bought the Christmas presents for their sons, Niall and Sean, at Smyths Toys every year.

"Liam couriered me over a few games and I got the gist of it and I realised a lot of the material in the game is global. I gave one to my accountant and one to someone else and said, 'play them and see what you think'. They got back to me and they said 'this kind of works'.

"I did my research on it on and off during my spare time. The original plan was that we would do it gradually and then I would get out of finance. But the crash came, and all of a sudden, I was getting letters from the banks saying they were stopping lending immediately. My income as a broker fell 85pc.

"I was looking at eventually going back into a bank, but I knew I had put a lot of work into this game and if I went back into banking, it would never happen because the South African inventor wasn't going to allow someone to do it part-time. We had to be very serious about it.

"In 2009, I met the inventor for the first time. Liam flew over for one night from South Africa and the three of us ended up drinking pints. We eventually paid for the licence agreement to launch the game in Ireland. I had to convert the game from the South African version to an Irish version, which took me nearly a year."

Greg kept himself financially afloat by spending 2009 working as a teacher in Cork. But after almost two years of preparations, the Irish edition of 30 Seconds was ready to launch in 2010.

"When we got the first 5,000 published in Waterford that year, I was elated," Greg says. "I was down there at seven in the morning, but driving back through Dungarvan, that elation turned to horror. I started bricking myself, thinking 'there are 5,000 games coming up in an articulated lorry and I've got to sell them all'."

Smyths, however, was willing to give Greg a break and invited him to their Galway headquarters to discuss the possibility of selling 30 Seconds in its stores. But Mother Nature intervened.

"This was during the bad snow before Christmas 2010," Greg recalls. "I got an email from them saying 'the weather is too bad in Galway - let's meet in the new year and discuss it then'. But I couldn't afford to wait for another Christmas to start selling the game.

"Then someone heard a Smyths spokesperson being interviewed on The Neil Prendeville Show in Cork to talk about new toys for that Christmas. A caller rang in and said, 'are you getting in this new 30 Seconds game?'. Smyths said 'I don't think so' and Neil said, 'if anyone knows about this 30 Seconds game, ring in'.

"So I rang the researcher and he asked me to come on the show but said he couldn't do a piece on it unless the game was for sale. I called Smyths straight away and said, 'I'll be on radio for 15 minutes - would you put the game on the shelves for a week?' They agreed to put it in two stores in Cork and it sold out within a day. That Christmas Eve, I got an email from Smyths saying they were ordering 300 games for the new year. It was a fantastic Christmas present.

"Now, when I walk into a shop and see 30 Seconds in the party games section next to Pictionary and Monopoly, it's quite sobering."

30seconds.ie

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