'I thought I'm actually f***ed... I didn't have any money left, a big mortgage, and a family' - Owner of Camile Thai on his low point
Natural resilience, a refusal to look back, and a 'solid' family have brought businessman Brody Sweeney through tough times to new beginnings
'I was probably a bit vainer and more egotistical when I was younger, and I liked publicity," says entrepreneur and businessman Brody Sweeney. It's pretty clear - despite the smile - that he doesn't much like it any more. However, if there is something to say, he is prepared to talk, and right now, there is plenty to say about his chain of restaurants, Camile Thai - including the recent arrival of a second one in London.
We'll get to that. First, there is a story-and-a-half about how he got this far. Brody was, as he puts it himself with some irony, the 'poster boy' for the Celtic Tiger. He started O'Brien's Sandwich Bars in the mid-1980s and ran it for 25 years. At its height, there were 340 restaurants in 16 countries, with 3,500 employees. And then, in 2009, one of the many casualties of the worst recession this country has seen, O'Brien's went into receivership and was bought by another company. "I had all my wealth tied up in it, so I was left with no money, and out of a job," Brody says matter-of-factly. "I had to start a new business, because we had no money and we had to pay our mortgage."
Brody is deeply impatient of the very Irish idea that failure cannot be forgiven - or followed by success - and frankly refuses to dwell on the bad times in his business career. And he is equally impatient of the notion that there is something extraordinary about him for picking himself up and going again. There are, he correctly insists, far worse things than losing a business. "Worse things happen. It wasn't the end of the world," he says. "I just didn't have any money left. And a big mortgage," he concedes. "And a worried family, with four kids. And yes, you get the b****cks knocked out of you, but you have to keep perspective - you don't have a monopoly on being crushed."
In general, he believes "there's a great level of resilience in people - something happens, it knocks the stuffing out of you, and then you get on with it. Sometimes people say 'oh you're so brave' to me. I don't feel that. But I'm lucky - I'm of a positive disposition."
And, he has good people around him, starting with his wife, Lulu O'Sullivan, herself a highly successful entrepreneur - she runs GiftsDirect.com. "Lulu just said, 'Right, what are we going to do now? How are we going to deal with this?' Other people, their wives left the minute the money went. That is crushing!"
And so he got on with it, and started over. "I'm a risk-taker," he says, "that's just my nature. I think we all have a predisposition to security or risk," adding with a laugh, "I always want security, but I never get it."
The business he started was Yum Ciao, "a modern version of a Chinese take-away. I spent months researching - and I was one of the people you would have backed to get it right - and I set this brand-new business up, and I got it wrong. It was a disaster! Awful!" He laughs, though I doubt it was remotely funny at the time.
The new business started in Dolphin's Barn; "I couldn't get anyone to let me a property, because I'd just been bust. This guy in Dolphin's Barn had a place, and all the way through the boom, he couldn't let it…" So a guy who couldn't find anywhere to rent, and a guy who couldn't find anyone to rent to, came together? "Yes. And Yum Ciao was the result. And no one wanted it."
Brody opened Yum Ciao on April 1, 2010. "When you get a bit older, you get a bit of wisdom, and I was sitting there, four weeks in, going, 'Right, I'm in double trouble here. I've just been bust publicly, and now I've scraped together the money to do this new one, and now that looks like it's going to go too… and I'm actually f**ed'."
But fate wasn't finished with the blows yet. "An article appeared about me in one of the papers, a real cynical pop, basically saying - 'here is this icon of the Celtic Tiger now reduced to working behind the counter of a Chinese take-way in Dolphin's Barn… how the mighty have fallen!'"
That, he agrees, was a pretty low point. And yet, his luck was about to change. "A business person who I didn't know read that article. He got in touch with me and said 'I've got a business, doing Thai food for home delivery, and we're out the door. I don't know how to expand it, or how to build a brand; why don't you come in with me?'"
Eight weeks later, Yum Chao changed to a high-end Thai take-out, "and it was like turning the lights on", Brody says. "Same kitchen, same location, we just changed the name, changed the menu, put the prices up, and it took off like a rocket." He was, he says, "ecstatic".
There are now 17 Camiles across the country, of which six are franchised, and two in London. In terms of jobs, that's "over 300 directly, with another 150 in the franchises". And he has no plans to stop. "This was always the game-plan."
And, of course, serendipity had - as it always does - a part to play in success. "We're in this really interesting space in food, which is home delivery," Brody explains. "There is a fundamental shift in eating habits going on. My generation would have had a take-away as an occasional treat. For this generation, it's a regular part of their diet. Our thing is, if you're going to eat that food regularly, well, we're the healthy guys. We'll calorie count it, we use great ingredients, like wild Atlantic prawns, with all sauces cooked ourselves. So we're taking the old concept of take-away, putting a 21st Century spin on it, and making it really easy. Our typical customer gets home from work, will flop on the couch, probably has three screens going, orders from us, and only has to get off the couch once, 30 minutes later, to go to the door to meet the delivery driver."
So, does he ever feel guilty that his business is feeding the growing addiction to screens and convenience food? "Yes, I do. But then you're saying, 'if that's reality, how can you make it better?' So we serve good food, we educate our customers about what they're eating - we do free cookery demos on Saturday mornings - and we encourage people to be active - we've started free lunchtime yoga classes in Merrion Square. I'm also proud that I have a young management team in there, and lots of them started in the business, maybe with a counter job. They have discovered that they are much more capable than they thought they were, and to see them flowering, realising the potential they have, realising their dreams - I love that. I get a great buzz out of building a team up."
There are reasons beyond being a "risk-taker" for starting your own business, of course. Not having a boss, for one, and "realising I was unemployable", for another. Brody figured that one out pretty early. "I didn't follow a conventional career path, because I knew that wasn't for me. After school - Blackrock College - I went into business more or less straight away. I went to DCU to study business, but dropped out in my second year and started working in a franchise my dad had bought."
That was prontaprint, and Brody's dad - a lawyer, but also an entrepreneur - had the rights for Ireland, and needed someone to manage it. Did he not try and persuade Brody to stay in college, get his degree and the bit of security that goes with that? "He did say, 'get your degree,' but I said no. He was a great fella, and he was very relaxed about academics. We were not an academic family. There are seven of us and none of us has ever had a proper job. We're all self-employed."
One of Brody's siblings is Nicki Creedon, owner of the glorious Havana boutique in Donnybrook - "she's stylish and gorgeous and glamorous; some people get a shock when they find out we're related", he laughs. Brody is fifth of seven, with two older brothers, but "my father's eldest son".
How does that work? "My mum was married twice. Her first husband died, so I have two older brothers who have a different dad. She was really beautiful when she was young. She was an air hostess with Aer Lingus, but had to leave when she got married. Her first husband was an engineer and went to Kenya working for the British Colonial Service, to get a house for them. The day before she was to leave, to join him, she got news that he'd died of malaria. She had two small boys, aged one and three at the time."
I wonder was it his mother he was thinking of when he said 'worse things happen'? Clearly, an entrepreneurial spirit ran strong in her too. "She got a job demonstrating Stork margarine in supermarkets, because she had to support her children. She got a flat in Sandycove, owned by my great-aunt. She was there, freshly widowed with two tiny boys, and my great-aunt was having a party one night and sent my father upstairs 'to get the little widow down', and that was it. My dad, then in his 20s, met this young widow with her two children, and they had a great love story. It was really romantic."
His was, he says, "a great family to grow up with in the sense that they were clearly in love with each other. We grew up in that rare thing - a really loving family". Was there any sense of the older brothers being different? "No. They were just our brothers. They were so small when my parents married; he was their dad, and he was mad about them and he was good with them."
The family grew up in Killiney, "in a gorgeous house. There were two mews and a basement, which were all let out - to a photographer, a landscape gardener; it was like a community, it was so cool. We were all the best of mates, there were creative, interesting, people around, it was really a buzzy, gorgeous environment". That house was sold when Brody was "19 or 20". Was he sad? "No, I'd moved out by then, and at that stage in my life I was very I-centred, very obsessive about business."
In fact, he doesn't seem to do the looking back thing much at all. I ask him about politics - Brody stood for Fine Gael in the 2007 General Election - and he says "I was attracted because I thought I had ideas, and that there are not enough people like me in politics. I was in a position at the time where I was financially independent, I had been successful, and I thought I could give something back. Now, there was a bit of ego mixed in there too… of course. So I took two years, and knocked on 25,000 doors, twice, and didn't get elected." Would he go again? "No, I don't think so. I think I've busted that flush. I'm 57 now."
Later, I ask if he ever feels a pang as he walks past an O'Brien's? "No. I feel nothing. I had a wonderful 20-25 years. It went pear-shaped at the end but it was really great and positive before that. I loved it, but now, I'm over it. I was never very precious in that sense."
I tell him he sounds like he has a ferocious amount of self-confidence, which he answers with commendable honesty: "Self-confidence mixed with terrible fear and self-doubt, and mistakes and silly errors, and that's just the way it is and I'm convinced it's the same for everybody."
It's a mix that I understand better when he describes how he met, and married, Lulu: "I wasn't that lucky in love until I met Lulu," he says. "I was no oil painting when I was younger, so I used to struggle. I'd be awkward and nervous. I'd actually be quite shy as a person. I have a public bit, and that's grand, but my idea of heaven is a boat on my own, not having to talk to anybody. When I met Lulu, I was going out with her best friend, and it was lust at first sight for me, and then love."
And he had to chase. He describes his pursuit as 'pragmatic', but it sounds romantic to me: "I found her, I got her, and I knew I wasn't going to get another like her. She went to New York for a year, and I went after her. Then she went to Australia and I went after her, and brought her back. I thought, 'I'm not going to get a chance like this again. Go for it. Be determined and resilient, notwithstanding that she's gone, which is a signal in itself...' He laughs, then says, "We've been lucky. We've had our bumps in the road of course, but we're strong. I do test her from time to time, but we're solid."
Would he say he's hard to live with? "I would. I read something the other day about holding people to a higher standard than I hold myself, and that really hit me. It really struck a chord with me - I'm saying 'do what I say, don't do what I do…' - and that's not really very good."
So what's next? "Right now, I'm looking forward to when I've built up the business, and can spend more time sailing." So he's not building a business to pass down through the generations? "No. The generations have no interest," he laughs. "I've no interest in leaving my kids any money either; 'spend your last penny with your last breath' - I think that's a lovely idea, giving while living - I've no desire to settle the kids. But what'll happen is, I'll die before Lulu and she'll give it to them!"
Walt Disney, Jeff Bezos and Isaac Newton are just some of those who reached success the hard way. Here are three others
* Tony Ryan. GPA was the wonder-business of 1980s Ireland, but its value collapsed dramatically after a failed IPO. Ryan then fought his way back with an idea for a budget airline, Ryanair.
* Minister for Employment and Social Affairs Regina Doherty claims that the failure of an IT company she was director of in 2009, taught her more than "the success of all of the others combined".
* Raymond Coyle, founder of Tayto Park, started out selling potatoes to Tayto crisps, but lost the contract and his business. A series of clever ideas allowed him to start his own crisp-making company, Hunky Dory, and ultimately to buy the Tayto brand.
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