Tuesday 15 October 2019

'When my younger cousin was diagnosed with cancer, she told me I could go on living my life unfulfilled - or I could do something about it' - Interior designer Audrey Gaffney

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

Sean Gallagher with Audrey Gaffney of Audrey Gaffney and Associates. Photo: David Conachy
Sean Gallagher with Audrey Gaffney of Audrey Gaffney and Associates. Photo: David Conachy
Sean Gallagher

Sean Gallagher

Set up in 2008, Audrey Gaffney Associates provides interior architectural design solutions, mostly for the hospitality sector.

Located in Scurlockstown Business Park, Trim, Co Meath, owner Audrey Gaffney employs nine staff and has a turnover of €750,000. The projects she has completed include a variety of well-known hotels, bars, restaurants and nightclubs such as The Castleknock Hotel, Dublin's Skylon Hotel, Silverbirch Hotel in Omagh, the Oak Room Restaurant in Cavan, The Devon Inn in Limerick, and Stix & Stones restaurant in Belfast.

In addition, she also specialises in conservation work and has carried out works in some of the country's most historic hospitality venues including the Markree Castle, Sligo, Cabra Castle, Kingscourt, Bellingham Castle, Castlebellingham, Belleek Castle, Ballina and Customs House Restaurant & Wine Bar in Derry City Centre. She has even completed work on hotels in Spain, Scotland and England for FBD Hotels and Hetherley Capital Partners.

"Our vision is to capture the unique essence of each building as well as the client's own brand. As a result, all our concepts and finishes are bespoke to each property," says Audrey.

"A big part of what we do is spatial planning and designing the internal structure of each building to maximise the experience of customers using the facility as well as ensuring the operational flow works for staff and management, essential to the efficient running of the business. And we've also completed a number of retail projects as well as high end office fit-outs for large tech companies," she adds.

Audrey and her team can look after everything from the fit-out of carpets and flooring to fabrics and soft furnishings as well as managing all aspects of design from audio visual and lighting to furniture and landscapes. On the project management side, they provide services such as tender and cost analysis, site supervision and management. They'll even provide 3D visual presentations before carrying out the work and professional photography once a job is complete.

"For us, it's all about driving revenue for our clients through creating a unique customer experience that people want to return to time and time again," she adds.

Audrey grew up in the small community of Drumkilly in Co Cavan. As a child she developed a keen interest in arts and crafts and by her teens was even making her own clothes. While she initially wanted to study fashion design after school, her life took a more circuitous route.

"While I always wanted to get into fashion, I found myself directed by teachers to choose a more traditional industry so that's how I ended up studying computer programming," she admits.

However after a stint in the sector, she realised that it wasn't for her. "I hated being stuck in a tiny cubicle all day," says Audrey. "That's when I decided to focus more on the things I actually enjoyed and enrolled on an eight-week part-time course in interior design. I absolutely loved it," she adds.

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She then got a job as a retail manger with Hickey Fabrics when they opened their Home Focus store in Blanchardstown. While she enjoyed the work she realised that she was still not fulfilled.

"I knew that to get a job in design, I would have to return to college and I felt that at 24 I was too old to start over," explains Audrey.

However, the motivation she needed came from an unexpected source. "When my younger cousin was diagnosed with cancer, she gave me a piece of advice that changed my life. She told me that I could go on living my life as it was - unfulfilled - or I could do something about it."

It was the wake-up call she needed. She went to the credit union, took out a loan and went back to college part-time to study for her degree in Interior Architecture in Griffith College while continuing to work full-time. That's when things changed for her.

Once she had obtained her diploma, she managed to convince architecture firm Project Architects to hire her to work as an interior designer on Mahon Point Shopping Centre in Cork while she continued to complete her degree part-time.

In 2008, then qualified and with experience under her belt, she struck out on her own and set up Audrey Gaffney Associates.

"We started the business right at the beginning of the recession so we had to work hard to secure the jobs in the first place and then work even harder to deliver the right result within strict budgets," she says. "Today, we are approaching 10 years of being in business and I now have an amazing design team around me and it their combined effort and expertise that enables us to both grow and retain our loyal client base."

She has had her fair share of challenges, such as in 2012 when three large projects she was working on fell through. Her response was to share the problem with her senior team, who rowed in behind her and offered to work a five-day week for a three-day salary. While a difficult setback at the time, Audrey adjusted the company's strategy to the higher end of the design market, rebranded the company and effectively relaunched.

Her strategy proved correct and once the market began to improve, she found herself repositioned and primed for growth.

More recently, the struggle has been to find skilled staff with the right experience. So Audrey launched her own internship programme which has now become a valuable source of attracting and retaining quality staff.

"Our strategy for future growth is to continue to grow our high-end hospitality design within the Irish and European markets and to include spa resort design as an integral part of our portfolio.

"I see my role now as continuing to raise our profile and make clients more aware of the benefits of hiring an interior architectural practice for their project. In short, I want ours to be one of Ireland's leading interior architectural practices."

Having just won the All-Star Female Led Business of the Year and All-Star Interior Design Team of the Year at this years All Star Awards, Audrey looks well on her way to achieving her goal.


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