Wednesday 16 January 2019

The grocer who got on his bike

THE BUSINESS PROFILE When the business he inherited was forced to close, Alex Findlater simply started another, writes Charles LysaghtON Wednesday next, Bloomsday, around midday, a great horde of bicycles mounted by cyclists in Joycean messenger-boy garb and laden with wares in their baskets traverses the streets of Dublin. They ride out from the premises of Findlater's Wine Merchants in Harcourt Street and wobble down through St Stephen's Green to the Mansion House. There is much merriment and singing of Molly Malone before the Lord Mayor sends the cyclists, all 70 of them, on their way. Off they go, ringing their bells, down Dawson Street, through College Green, down O'Connell Street, on to the Joyce Centre in North Great George's Street and back to Temple Bar for a pit-stop, where they enjoy oysters washed down with Guinness. They then work their way back to the Shelbourne Hotel for a celebratory lunch.

It's all a splendid spectacle. It lends colour to a day that was previously short on pageant, apart from the ritual wanderings in period costume along the route taken by Leopold Bloom on Bloomsday 1904. And it raises a few bob £25,000 last year for the Irish Youth Foundation.

This event, known as the great Bloomsday Messenger Bike Rally, was the brainchild of Alex Findlater, a short, beaming, affable Dublin gentleman, now in his early 60s. Known to his familiars as the Grocer, Alex is chairman of one of the oldest family businesses in Dublin. The rally has been an annual event since 1994 when he sold the idea to Bill Cullen, chairman of Renault (Ireland) and of the Irish Youth Foundation, as well as a one-time messenger-boy at Findlater's grocery shop in O'Connell Street.

Gay Byrne, who in his youth had also done a few weeks' holiday work in the same capacity, launched it memorably on the Late Late Show. It has been going strong ever since, adding to the gaiety of life and reminding us that this was a fun city of great character long before the tourist trade and the Celtic Tiger set it in bright lights.

The festivities have something of the flavour of rag week in the Fifties at Trinity, where Alex went for a few years after school at Castle Park in Dalkey and Repton in Derbyshire. At that time the Findlater family business was thriving, with 20 large grocers' shops around Dublin where cash and bills whizzed along on overhead cables linking the counters and the accounts department. It was a far cry from self-service and check-outs.

But by 1962, when Alex, then aged 25, took over the business on the death of his father, new concerns with up-to-date retail methods and keener prices had begun to mount a challenge to the more old-fashioned Findlaters. There was a large overdraft and problems with management and labour. Cautious advisers, fearful for the family assets, counselled young Alex that the best course was to close down the shops and sell off the premises while the going was good. That was done in 1968.

It was a bitter-sweet moment. The money was good. But no money could compensate for giving up a position in the commercial life of Dublin slowly built up over the century and a half since another Alex Findlater (a cousin of the poet Robbie Burns) came from Grenock in the lowlands of Scotland to found his business.

Unlike most other heirs to old family businesses that sold out in these years, Alex was not content to take his money and live a leisured life on the proceeds. While, for a few years, he found an adequate outlet for his competitive instincts playing hockey with Three Rock Rovers Firsts, that could not go on forever. So he sent himself to a business school in Fontainebleau in France. In 1974, with the assistance of his Norwegian brother-in-law Frode Dahl, the Findlater business was reincarnated in Upper Rathmines as a wine merchants. It may have seemed small beer compared with what he had inherited and sold. But it was an expanding business as the new Dublin middle class learned the pleasure of sipping vintages that were unknown to their porter-swilling, whiskey-drinking or teetotal forebears.

Powerful British firms, later swallowed up in multinationals, were strong in the market. It was a hard grind to survive and expand. But expand Findlaters did.

Then, in 1992, Alex almost overran himself when he insisted on selling up in Rathmines and acquiring a lease of spacious vaults under the old Harcourt Street Railway station. No sooner had the firm spent all its reserves, and more, renovating it than the economy turned down and interest rates rocketed. Alex's partners may have agreed with him when he told them that business should be fun, but they found this scary. He recalls doing the rounds of his customers to produce the money to honour a cheque for £75,000 for the Excise before the bank closed one Friday afternoon. ``It needed an iron will,'' he recalls, ``and nerves of steel.''

Fortunately, deliverance was on hand in the form of the Celtic Tiger. Sales boomed. In 1993 Keith MacCarthy Morrogh joined the business, bringing with him an expertise acquired with Gilbeys and Baileys. David Millar, a scion of another old Dublin business house, and Nigel Werner, both of whom had been with Alex in Rathmines, complete the team. None of them can ever relax fully, confident that Alex will not go off on some new frolic of his own. In his teasing way, he talks impishly about flogging off some of the shares on the Junior Stock Exchange but his partners are not so keen. Perhaps they have had enough excitements for one lifetime.

Alex, who prides himself on having seen the opportunity that got it all going, is now happy to leave the day-to-day management of the business of which he remains chairman in the hands of his colleagues. He confesses to having reduced his consumption of his own and allied products, and now drinks only good white wine and tea. He lives happily on his own, surrounded by a few acres of beautifully tended gardens off Bushy Park Road in Rathgar. He does all the work in the garden himself, doubtless with advice from his mother and his 97-year-old aunt Shelia, both of whom have kept fine gardens in the Blackrock area. He makes regular trips to Mayo for the fishing and also has a solitary retreat on the island of Inishlacken off Galway.

Alex's house is lined with books and documents because he is beavering away on a history of the Findlaters in Ireland an interest first revealed when he created a museum in the Harcourt Street vaults composed of memorabilia of the business from its foundation.

There has been enough written on the landed gentry, he declares, and it is now time to record the old business and professional families, merchants and doctors like his own forebears.

THE Findlaters were in their heyday at the time of the original Bloomsday in 1904. His great-uncle Adam gets a mention from Joyce in Ulysses and again in Finnegans Wake. His grandfather spent Easter Week 1916 in O'Connell Street defending the shop against the looters. His mother's father, Harry De Courcy Wheeler, of the distinguished medical family, was ADC to General Lowe, who took the surrender from Pearse. As he writes, Alex is inspired by the thought that George Bernard Shaw was a cousin. Like Shaw, he speaks in tones unmistakably Dublin, although not perhaps always recognised as such by other Dubliners.

A 1985 Volvo sits outside the house. Like everything else about him, it has the unmistakable chic of understatement. ``People like me,'' he says with his inimitable twinkle, ``are never judged by the cars they drive.'' Or even, I suppose, by the bikes they ride.

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