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'I sold gifts to get back on my feet'


Struggles: Jackie Lavin,with her partner Bill Cullen, battled to get Bill Cullen Motors back in business. Photo: Collins

Struggles: Jackie Lavin,with her partner Bill Cullen, battled to get Bill Cullen Motors back in business. Photo: Collins

Struggles: Jackie Lavin,with her partner Bill Cullen, battled to get Bill Cullen Motors back in business. Photo: Collins

DETERMINATION: Jackie Lavin talks to Laura Butler about love and bouncing back from business disaster.

THEY say that behind every great man, there's an even greater woman.

While she traditionally took a backseat role to Bill Cullen in business, Jackie Lavin has sacrificed a lot to become the driving force in picking themselves up after their professional stumble.

The mother-of-two was even willing to give up personal possessions in the name of survival.

"My whole focus in 2013 was to get a fund together," she said. "I sold pieces of furniture that were dear to me, I sold artwork of mine and I borrowed from family members," Lavin tells me.

"There were no Picassos under the bed or anything, but it all amounted to something. Some presents were sold too, privately."

In 2012, life changed for Cullen and Lavin. The well-known Bill Cullen Renault dealership in Dublin went into receivership, followed by their five-star Muckross Hotel in Killarney.

"We sold our property in Florida and brought the money back to pay the banks," Jackie said.

"We were honest, we didn't put things in the other's name and we wanted a clear conscience. We could have left that money abroad but we didn't because we believed that the banks were going to support us. But obviously when push came to shove, they didn't.

"But you have to pick yourself back up and move on," she adds matter-of-factly.


Since then, everything else has been "pared back".

"It's a complete rebuild," explained Lavin, admitting that the couple still fear losing their home in Ireland.

"We had to rely on strength of mind. The focus last year was to get the funding together to get back in business."

Lavin spearheaded the campaign to get quintessential Dubliner Cullen back in motion and reinstalled as one of the country's leading car dealers.

The pair are now the official dealers of the SSangYong franchise in Ireland.

And although it has been no easy feat, Lavin's sacrifices alone are testament to her faith in their relationship, their longevity as entrepreneurs and also to their lasting brand.

And the Kerry-born businesswoman is willing to be the one to raise the capital needed.

"Bill has given so much over the years – he helped a lot of people and gave an awful lot to charities," she said.

"I was happy to do it. That's how a relationship works. I think people forget sometimes that Bill and I started from nothing. We know how to do it – how to work to achieve success."

As it stands, there is no pension pot for the pair as they put everything back into the company.

"Bill is almost 72 now," Jackie said. "When he came to the retiring age of 65, his pension matured, but that was also taken by the banks.

"Neither of us have a pension. It's about survival, relying on strength of mind."

If one thing is for certain, Lavin is the ultimate optimist. She radiates determination and positivity.

With a new business baby to nurture, she said she was looking forward to the challenge of building on the SSangYong client base here.

"I've discovered that I'm a great negotiator in the past few months," she added. "I suppose you don't know you have such skills until you have no option but to just get out there and use them."

It was she who rented the new premises on the Naas Road, refurbishing it and kitting it out as a high-quality dealership ready to throw opens its doors in a mere matter of weeks after getting the keys.

"I called on friends to help, people we know," said Jackie. "I got tiles from a friend in that business, for example. A lot of people even offered, called us and said that they would happily give us this or that – leeway to pay them back when we can.


"It's a wonderful Irish trait, the generosity people have. I think we have customers who would be loyal to us, too."

Despite a difficult couple of years, Cullen and Lavin are back on the market and back in the game – with as much gusto as two teens fresh out of college. They have hired a lot of their old Renault staff, a team trained by the Celebrity Apprentice boss himself.

"The mindset of an entrepreneur is not about money," Jackie told me.

"Their mindset is to have a successful company, put their own savings in and see it thrive. It's down to us – nothing ever came easily. Anything we had, we worked hard for."

Lavin and Cullen have been together nearly 35 years. When thrown a question about marriage to lighten the mood, Lavin – who laughs as she says she'd wear a ring on every finger if she could – insists their will never be wedding bells for the fearsome twosome.

"It's a question that has been asked many times, and people like yourself have put pressure on us about it over the years," she added.

"When Bill and I met we both had had our families separately, and there was no need.

"We never felt the need and we still don't. Anyway, I'm an independent spirit. I like it the way it is."