Career surfing: why Mark took gamble on different life
In many ways Mark Mulvihill had landed in his dream job - as a sub-editor with RTE Sport. The job wasn't full-time but based on contract work. However, it was regular, well-paid and brimming with potential. It was the kind of opportunity which presents itself once in a life time and the then 24-year-old from Kerry had to pinch himself to think he'd landed such a role.
"One day I'd be editing packages for Formula One coverage, another working with John Giles on RTE's Premiership programme selecting specific footage for the pundits to comment on and on another day I might be out at the Curragh in an outside broadcast unit with Tracy Piggott. I'm a sports nut anyway so this really was dream territory," the 38-year-old recalls.
"It was hard work, but very rewarding. You'd be putting down 13 and 14-hour days but I loved it. The industry was, and is, very competitive but if you're willing to work very hard and put up with differing work patterns then it's a fantastic career, no doubt."
Growing up in the small north Kerry town of Ballybunion, the prospect of making sports reports for RTE was once nothing more than a daydream.
Mark completed a FAS course in video production in Tralee in 1998 and within months was working on the sporting frontline with the state broadcaster - but despite enjoying the buzz of a busy and fast-paced sports studio, he had a burning desire to start his own business and in late 2001 made the biggest decision of his working life.
"The work in RTE was great but sporadic. You might be on an eight-month contract but then that would end and you'd be waiting for the next contract to come along. That's par for the course for freelance production staff in broadcasting these days. Also I found living in Dublin so expensive and I realised that the industry was very competitive so I decided to try something completely new. I knew I was turning my back on one way of life to take on another but I was ready for it. Of course it was a big call but it was one I needed to make," says Mark.
A keen surfer since the age of 14, Mark decided to jump on the wave of interest in surfing which gathered strength in recent years and set up his own surf school. He believed there was an opening for such a venture in north Kerry and went with his gut.
"It was a gamble of course but I could see economic merit in it and also it delivered a quality of life which I couldn't put a price on. The waves off our western coast have become so well-known across the world now but back in the early 2000s few knew about them internationally and Irish people weren't really surfing in massive numbers. I felt I needed to get in before the sport took off in a big way. The key, of course, was to generate interest and structure the business in such a way that we could cater for large numbers of people at one time," he said.
Initial investment in the business was substantial with equipment, insurance and stock costing thousands of euro. It took a number of years before Mark could pocket substantial profit after months of hard graft with the sand and water between his feet. Much of that profit ended up being re-invested in the surf school. He was able to take out a long-term lease of a building owned by Kerry County Council in which to store boards and surf gear and has recently re-negotiated the terms of that lease.
Soon the surf school started to make a splash. "I suppose word got around about what we were doing and year on year since 2004, when we officially opened, it has grown. In the busiest summer months I'll now have four other instructors working with me. Ireland has become such a popular surfing destination now that it's a good industry to be in. We have an awful lot of repeat business too, which means we're doing something right, "says Mark.
The spectrum of surfers using the Surf School on Ballybunion's south beach is as varied as Mark's career (before RTE he worked on Oil Rigs and in Australia).
"Yeah, we'll have everyone from school children to those on corporate events, serious surfers and also hen and stag parties. Ballybunion offers waves for beginners, intermediates and the Atlantic cliff break provides exhilarating surf for the seriously advanced so we can cater for all."
But the father of four - Summer (7), Brody (5), Daisy (3) and Penny (2) - says the seasonal nature of the work is far from ideal. Once the storm clouds gather out in the Atlantic Ballybunion, like most other towns in the West of Ireland during the winter, falls quiet and the surfers prefer to warm their feet by the fire.
"We'll go from May to October but in the intervening months I sometimes pick up some construction work too to tide us over. All in all though my wife Aimee and I are very happy with how the surf school is going. Our plan and hope is that, in time, we'll have a little hostel and run the surf school as part of it. We also run a little café and shop on site and now my eldest, Summer, helps out so she's getting into the family business," jokes Mark.
The work here on the Kerry coast is hard, the hours long and when someone rings to make a booking, Mark must drop everything - turning down work is not an option. He left the comfort and warmth of a studio in Donnybrook for the harsh winds on a beach in Kerry, not to mention the chilly waters.
In many ways his work is weather dependent and he constantly needs to find ways of attracting new customers but still he tells me that he has no regrets about changing career mid-stream.
He told Weekend Review: "By leaving RTE and setting up the surf school I not only changed jobs but was able to move out of Dublin and back to the countryside. I really don't know how some people can live and work in Dublin with the costs involved, whether that's rent, buying a house or just day-to-day living"
"It was more than just a career change and my children love growing up in Ballybunion, as I did. Nowadays the most lucrative careers on paper aren't necessarily the ones which will result in more money in your pocket at the end of the week, a lot depends on where you live and your lifestyle. For me this was the right choice at the right time and I'm confident that the surf school will continue to flourish in the years ahead."