My favourite room: Dermot Hanley's haven with a view
When banker-turned-food-entrepreneur Dermot Hanley was looking for a home for himself and his teenage son, a good kitchen and a sea view were at the top of the list.
It’s almost D-Day, with just over three weeks to go before the Leaving Cert results, and thousands of students are pinning their hopes on a CAO points drop. If only they really knew how, in so many cases, it doesn’t matter what course they study.
Of course, there are people who go to university and are wildly successful in their area of study. Some, however, never go on to third level and manage to forge great careers. Then there are those who gain degrees and branch off successfully into a completely different field.
Entrepreneur Dermot Hanley is a perfect example of the last type — he spent 18 years in banking in North America and reached the top, becoming a vice president by the time he was 30.
A million miles away from his days as a banker, Dermot has now started his own business, with the creation of a cereal brand called Nusli, which is on sale in all the big multiples.
If anything, it’s his hobbies and love of the outdoors that have had the biggest impact on Dermot’s career and, indeed, personal life — he got the idea for Nusli while skiing, and he met his wife, Paula, during a white-water rafting adventure.
That science degree he obtained from University College Dublin hasn’t figured much since he graduated. “What I learned at UCD was that I didn’t want to be a scientist,” the engaging Dubliner says with a laugh, adding he went on to do an MBA at Queen’s in Belfast, which also bore little relation to his subsequent career in banking. His MBA thesis was on the future of growing willow trees in the Border Counties!
Banking still didn’t register as a possible career, but he decided to spend a summer in Canada, as he was born there — his father, a civil engineer, was doing a postgrad there at the time of Dermot’s arrival — but Dermot was taken to Ireland while still a baby.
His ultimate plan was to go to London to work after the summer break, and he decided to do some interviews while in Toronto, for practice. “When you don’t care too much, it’s very easy,” he says. “I got a job in Citibank, so I stayed, and I really enjoyed it. It was a fantastic job for a young person. Every year was a promotion; I was really on fire there.” After seven years with Citibank, he joined Deutsche Bank and was sent to work in their New York offices, each move bringing him further up the corporate ladder.
It was during his time with Citibank that he met Paula. “We were rafting and she was in my raft. She was tall, green eyes, blonde — the works — and I was immediately intrigued. She was super,” Dermot explains, adding that, after they met, she joined Citibank. “She moved
to the trading floor up to my old desk, right down to having my old phone number,” Dermot recalls with a smile.
Sadly, Paula was diagnosed with breast cancer 13 years ago and died after five years of treatment. It’s a great comfort to Dermot that they managed to spend a lot of time together before her diagnosis. The reason, bizarrely, was the Twin Towers and 9/11. “We had moved to Manhattan and Pierce was born in April 2001. When 9/11 happened, Paula and
I said, ‘We don’t fancy this.’ I remember sitting in work and reading all the obituary pages of the people who died, and we made a decision to take some time out,” says Dermot, adding that they decided to move to France for a year.
“We basically put all our possessions in the back of our car and headed off.”
The couple based themselves in Provence and made their way through the cheese-producing areas and got into food — now a firm passion of Dermot’s.
“Pierce had his first taste of chocolate there,” recalls Dermot. “I remember going to a fancy patisserie four villages away and the expression on his little face as he had his first dip,” Dermot continues. “We had a great time. We were happy, happy, happy.”
Eventually, the real world called, but not before they did a full ski season in Chamonix. While there, Dermot recalls getting a call on the slopes, realising it was probably work-related and debating whether he’d take it or not. It was a job offer from JP Morgan — too good to refuse — and they decided it was time to head back to North America.
They were only back six weeks when Paula got her breast-cancer diagnosis, which makes Dermot all the more glad that they took that year out. The following five years were hard, but Paula, he says, was tremendous throughout. “She spent a huge amount of time with Pierce, was a fabulous mother and she bore her illness with so much courage. She died at 39. She didn’t even make it to her 40th birthday,” he notes sadly, adding that, before she passed away, she encouraged him to move back to Ireland. He worked at Barclays in Dublin, but, after 18 months, he left. “I felt I needed a change from banking and, in terms of single parenthood, the banking schedule was very intense. It was time to do something different,” he says.
It was then that an idea, which had bubbled up while he was skiing with Paula, started to surface again. He had loved Bircher muesli, which is a mix of grains, yoghurts and fruit, and he decided to develop a similar product — one that would be ready-to-eat and be as nice as the muesli in Switzerland.
Because he’s the kind of guy who does nothing by halves, he did a postgrad in UCC, specialising in food production, and then worked with Enterprise Ireland, UCC, Teagasc and Bord Bia putting the whole concept together.
He’s also sunk his life savings — Pierce’s college fund, he says, only half joking — into the product, but he’s got huge confidence in it. Nusli, he says proudly, is made with the best Ireland has to offer, including Flahavan’s oats, Ballycross apples and award-winning yoghurts made by the Dunnes of Killowen, sixth-generation dairy farmers in Wexford. “I found them by eating every yoghurt in Ireland and deciding ‘this is the best,’” he says.
Branding was also important, and examples of the different packaging prototypes line the shelves of Dermot’s study in his south-Dublin-coast home.
It’s a period cottage, which had been completely renovated before Dermot and Pierce moved in a year ago, and it’s ideal for their needs, with two bedrooms, a study, a living room and an extremely large kitchen-dining room.
Its proximity to the sea is one of its biggest assets, so Dermot and Pierce can continue to windsurf, paddleboard and kayak. Dermot is also big into triathlons and has done three this year already.
His passion for the outdoors is matched by his enthusiasm for healthy eating, and Nusli feeds into that. It’s all still a long way from the science degree, though getting closer to those willow trees of the MBA. “It’s the decisions you think least about that often have the most effect. It’s important to look at opportunities in a positive way,” he says.
“It would be a shame if you get to the end of your life, and all you’d done was the one thing and you wonder, ‘What if? Coulda, woulda, shoulda.’”
Some food for thought for budding college students.