Try and try again . . . the Brody motto for success
The former O'Brien's chief has had to reinvent himself several times -- but believes success inevitably comes from the learning process that comes with business failure. By Mark Keenan
WORKING the late night shift in a Dublin takeaway, serial entrepreneur Brody Sweeney wears a catering hat as he packs Thai food cartons into carrier bags for delivery -- or doing whatever is required on any given evening to keep the food deliveries running smoothly.
Last time we heard from Brody, he was riding high as the multi-millionaire founder and chairman of the worldwide O'Brien's sandwich bars franchise.
The former poster boy for the Celtic Tiger sold us how-to books like "Making Bread -- The Real Way To Start Up and Stay in Business" and ran for the Dail -- gleaning 3,500 votes for a Fine Gael seat in Dublin in the 2007 election.
Then the crash kicked in and, like so many other Irish businessmen, Brody found himself swiftly disenfranchised. His sandwich chain went into liquidation in 2009 and was bought by Abrakebabra. Brody was left on the outside, broke and looking in.
"I wasn't bankrupt but I had been completely wiped out. I had a Celtic Tiger-era mortgage and no money coming in at all. Not a penny. All I had was an old Toyota Prius with a prang in one side.
"I had been hanging on to O'Brien's by my fingernails. I really thought I could turn it around and it was completely crushing when in the end I had to let go. Of course, O'Briens is still trading today.
"I had lost my battle, I had no money to live on and worst of all was the complete absence of a compelling future. I was at wits' end. For a time I just couldn't see a way forward. I got depressed." This period in Mr Sweeney's life appears to have lasted a few weeks.
"But you can't sit there moping. Eventually you get the bones of an idea and you start trying to build around it again. I decided that it would be a good idea to start a Chinese takeaway.
"The difference would be a higher grade of food -- to restaurant standard -- and that there would be a brand, a Domino's for Chinese food.
"But after O'Brien's I couldn't get anyone to give me a shop. Finally, someone agreed to let me a premises at Dolphin's Barn on the South Circular Road (in Dublin)."
Getting that first shop wasn't the first time Brody Sweeney had experienced trouble persuading someone to give him a break in business. The very first time, he had to pitch against the tide was with his dad. Brody grew up in Monkstown, Dublin, the third child of six siblings and the son of a lawyer who liked to dabble in business.
"Dad was always investing in projects here and there. He'd bought the Prontaprint franchise for Ireland with a franchisee in Tara Street and no one to look after it.
"I was in college studying business and doing badly and was just about to drop out. He was looking around for someone to run the franchise. I asked him if I could take it on. Initially he was very reluctant."
Sweeney senior had reason to be. Brash young Brody had by then already started two business enterprises in his teens which had ended in disaster. His first -- a tree-pruning operation came crashing down when one of his trees, ended up falling across Sorrento Road and nearly killed his brother.
"It blocked all the traffic and the fire brigade had to be called to clean up the mess."
His second enterprise, a home improvement outfit ("I'd get the jobs and then hire my friends who were carpenters and plumbers to do them") went awry when one of his plumbers knocked a tap off a wall, flooding a client's house completely. "I was paying back the damage for quite some time," he recalls.
In the end, he talked his dad around -- "I told him I was dropping out of college anyway" -- and Sweeney jnr, then in his 20s, took over Prontaprint -- then with just two Dublin shops. He eventually built up a nationwide franchise."
After a 1980s trip to the US, he noted the success of 'Subway' and reckoned a localised sandwich franchise for Ireland could work.
He sold Prontaprint and concentrated on his new enterprise which he called O'Brien's -- the most common name in the Irish phone book.
Starting in 1988 with one outlet on George's Street in Dublin, three more city centre locations followed and he struggled to make a profit.
In 1994, when "there were no more mistakes to make" the business finally turned a corner. Eventually it would have more than 300 outlets spread over 13 countries.
So where did O'Brien's go wrong for Brody Sweeney?
"The high rents were a factor but it's not the full story. Basically, I failed to react quickly enough to the changes that were talking place in the market. Suddenly, people were trying to save money and we were still selling a sandwich for a fiver when the opposition was throwing in a bag of crisps and a soft drink for the same money. By the time we had started to make changes, it was too late."
Which takes him to the takeaway or takeaways -- he now has four operating successfully in Dublin. Just three months after being dropped from O'Briens, Sweeney was once again back in business with his new quality Chinese take-away called Yum Chow in Dolphin's Barn. Was it successful?
"Not at all. I soon realised that people expect their Chinese food to be cheap and that they weren't going to pay the premium for a higher quality dish." And so Brody quickly switched to a different tack. "People did expect to pay a premium for Thai food. "
He approached the owner of the Diep restaurant chain and offered to run the deliveries arm.
"I pretty much worked for free and turned the Yum Chow into a Diep. We tried that for a couple of months but it didn't really work out for me."
That was when he rebranded again. "I chose the name Camile because it's French and we wanted a kind of atmospheric French Thai fusion. If Camile is a lady, she'd be an elegant Asian European living in Bangkok or Shanghai in the 1930s at a time when these cities were so glamorous. We didn't want to call it the Thai Palace, if you know what I mean."
So who would be the target market for this exotic lady?
"Sticking a Tesco ready meal in a microwave is considered 'cooking' for the under-35s, the Twitter and Facebook generation who come home from work and log on to their social media. They want good, healthy food, they want it ready to eat and they want it delivered to their laptop."
The Camile concept is one of restaurant quality food which is also a healthier option. "It's good for you and it's healthy, not like a big pizza that you won't feel right after."
Within the past two years he opened additional branches in Dun Laoghaire, Phibsborough, and most recently in Rathmines. Recently, Michelin-chef Kevin Thornton designed some dishes especially for the Camile menu to add some extra glamour.
"The difference now is that I don't have much cash, so every single step I've made has had to be considered. I did manage to get a loan from AIB, which explodes the myth that the banks aren't lending.
"As a new business, I probably stood a better chance but it's a lesson for other people like me who are getting back on their feet -- put a good plan together and approach the bank."
And it seems the punters love his Camile concept -- he now employs 50 people. "I wouldn't say it is a successful business just yet -- but we're progressing steadily and it's showing great promise. We're now at the stage where we're going to start franchising out." Brody's plans are to open 100 Camiles and then sell the franchise.
"For a new franchisee, you're looking at an initial investment of about €200,000.
"To anyone who's being knocked out of business I'd say this: you can't sit on your arse feeling sorry for yourself. Trying out new ideas, even if they don't initially work out, will get you out and about, teach you new things and bring the new opportunities that will eventually make you successful.
"If I hadn't tried the Chinese takeaway and failed, I wouldn't have progressed to the Camile concept and I wouldn't be back in business today."
Can we smell the ingredients cooking for a new book?