Inside the home of businessman Fergal Doyle
Fergal Doyle avoided the family business when he was embarking on a career, but a life-changing event forced him to reassess, and now he lives minutes from its doors.
In families, we have a tendency to pigeonhole our offspring and siblings - the clever one, the pretty one, the strong one, the creative one. In his family, Fergal Doyle is regarded as the one who hasn't green fingers.
It's purely familial shorthand, but sometimes, inadvertently, we tend to take these labels as fact. National gardening guru Rachel Doyle has two sons, Fergal and Barry, and they now co-run Arboretum, the massive, award-winning store in Carlow, which Rachel and her husband, Frank, started 40 years ago. Barry is the gardening expert and Fergal the marketing genius, but that doesn't mean Fergal knows nothing about gardening, as Rachel herself discovered recently. "Rachel wanted a photo with my daughter, Blair, and I said to herself and Blair, 'Stand in there beside the chamaecyparis nootkatensis betula pendula'. Rachel nearly fell over when I used the Latin term for the plant," Fergal explains with a laugh.
Her reaction was natural - Fergal leaves the whole gardening side to Barry, while he is passionate about financial targets, customer incentives and expansion plans. Together, the brothers - with the blessing of Rachel, who is still chairperson of the company - have gradually turned Arboretum from a pure garden centre into one of Ireland's foremost destination stores, with the addition of a kitchen shop, a gift shop and, most recently, a fashion store selling top labels like Barbour.
Of course, what Rachel forgot was that Fergal was bound to pick up plant knowledge by osmosis, and, in any case, he says he did once toy with doing landscape design. "Mum and dad never forced us to get involved, never put us under pressure; we had to figure things out in our own heads," he recalls.
Fergal ultimately decided to leave home and go to CIT in Cork to study business. He worked in bars and deejayed throughout college, and might have pursued a career in one of those areas, had he not been stopped in his tracks by an accident when he was 21.
"I was involved in a car accident in 2000, in which I was nearly killed. It was a freak thing. I was driving, I skidded and went out through the windscreen of the car. It was one of those marginal things; it could have ended the wrong way," Fergal says, possibly underplaying the severity of the trauma, though he does add, "That kind of gave me a bit of perspective. I decided to come back to Carlow . . . I am a home person, anyway."
Shortly after coming back, Fergal met his delightful wife, Kim Mackenzie, an award-winning product designer who was born in Scotland but moved to Ireland when she was a teenager; she now works as an industry design specialist in Carlow IT. "He stalked me," Kim jokes. "I worked in a nightclub while I was in college, and I remember he had a big scar on his forehead and he ordered a drink and used my name. I was like, 'How does he know my name?'"
Like many an ardent suitor, Fergal had done his research. When the couple became an item, he also found out that Kim had a slightly similar background to his, in that her dad has been in forestry all her life.
She herself fell into product design. "I wanted to do design, but my parents were keen for me to do science. I started doing biology and hated it and dropped out, but I was really lucky to be living with a bunch of design students. I ended up helping them with their projects and thought, 'I could be really good at this', so I changed course," Kim, who hasn't a trace of a Scots burr, explains.
The couple married in 2006, and have two gorgeous daughters - Blair (5) and Bebhinn (3) - and a sweet-natured Rottweiler/lab mix called Rua.
In the meantime, Fergal worked his way up through the family business, starting with the most menial jobs, such as organising the car park and shifting gravel, and gradually getting more and more involved in the financial and marketing side of the business.
At that stage, it was a traditional gardening centre, but once Barry joined in 2006, the two brothers began to change and develop the business. They are constantly travelling, not only looking for the best stock but also soaking up new ideas and trends and keeping up with popular culture - Fergal's conversation is peppered with quotes from movies and literature.
He is intensely proud of the store and enthuses about the latest innovations, which include the garden centre's open-skies roof, which can be closed over in minutes depending on the weather; the restaurant with its tasty menu, and how they have an innovative rewards scheme involving random acts of kindness to customers. "We do things like email them on their birthdays, and send them vouchers for a coffee and cake. It's about surprising and delighting people, about engagement with customers, having a conversation with them," Fergal notes, adding that Arboretum won Retail Excellence's award for Overall National Company of the Year 2016.
And, building on their reputation for superb service and retail excellence, they've also recently taken over the garden centre at Kilquade, Co Wicklow, and are replicating their magic formula on the National Garden Exhibition Centre site.
Fergal admits the company is a 24/7 commitment, so fortunately he and Kim were able to build their home, a solid, detached modern house, mere minutes from the garden centre. Being so near meant Fergal could do the build by direct labour. "I got the structure up and the walls plastered, but after that I wasn't allowed to do anything," he jokes, adding that Kim put her considerable creative talent to work on the interior of the house. While they had to opt for a traditional exterior according to the planning regulations, the interior is very contemporary, and features clean lines and a light, airy feel, with touches of colour; Kim's favourite colour is grey.
The house, which they built in 2010, is very geared to family living and is largely open-plan. Comprising 3,500sq ft, it has a spacious hall, an expansive kitchen with double doors to a playroom/dining room and to the TV room. "I wanted simplicity and function, and it works well," Kim says, adding that her pet hate is cooker hoods, but she loves the particular hood their kitchen supplier, Peter Bernard, sourced for her.
The ground floor also has a utility area and an office for Kim. Upstairs, there are four bedrooms and a bathroom off a curved landing, with great views of the surrounding countryside. The staircase itself is also curved; it's a clever design detail, and softens the many straight lines imbued in the interior.
There's a large master bedroom, which was very much at Kim's insistence. "We moved a lot when I was young with my dad's work as a forester, and no matter where we went, as the younger of two girls I was always given the box room," she says, adding, "This is my dream bedroom."
Surprisingly, the garden is still a work in progress, but that'll happen; after all, the couple have Rachel and Barry to advise them, and, as Rachel discovered, Fergal is no slouch himself.
Edited by Mary O'Sullivan.
Photography by Tony Gavin
Sunday Indo Life Magazine