Read our Leinster Appointments Manager Mark Cosgrove’s interview with his inspirational Grandmother.
92 years young, and still the head, and guiding figure in my family’s business, after almost 65 years at the helm alongside my late Grandfather, Patrick Kavanagh.
Working still each day, purely for the love of her business, alongside a small, mostly family-based team covering three generations. Margaret has grown and continues to manage a thriving local business with both Irish and international clients within the automotive world, and has witnessed everything from the sale / restoration of a Fiat Panda to a Ferrari 512bb under her watch. Knowledgeable beyond belief, and more commercially astute than I could ever hope to be.
This short piece is intended to shed some light on a few things Margaret has learned during her life in business, and uncover the secrets that keep her motivated and youthful throughout.
How did you start out in business?
I was living and working in my native Galway at the time and replied to a newspaper advertisement for a Bookkeeper position within a Garage in Co Meath which I thankfully got. It was here I met my future husband, and your grandfather, Patrick “Paddy” Kavanagh. Paddy was the head mechanic in this garage and was widely known for his skill and ingenuity at a time when there weren’t as many advanced tools or mechanics to look after a rapidly evolving world of automobiles. I ran the office, prepared the accounts and worked closely with the business owner to maintain the smooth running of the business. After a number of years, both myself and Paddy realised that we were the sort of people who were destined to be their own bosses and decided to open up ourselves. We had thankfully built up an excellent relationship with a good number of customers, who we hoped would follow us to our new venture.
We identified a premises available for rent in the area, and thankfully Paddy knew the vendor having done work on some of his cars in the past, so we were able to negotiate a fare rate for the initial period whilst we got set up before purchasing the site outright. Thankfully our gamble paid off, and a large number of customers followed us from our previous employer, which ultimately closed down a couple of years later. A number of these customers became regular clients, and some with a couple of vehicles on their fleet if they were in business themselves.
Roughly 5 years into the business, an opportunity arose to install a petrol station to the front of the site, which helped massively to attract new passing business, and establish ongoing relationships with local people and it continued to grow from there becoming main dealers for various brands, and approved repairers for others.
How did you build a strong customer base and retain them ?
We were of the firm belief, and I still am, that quality customer care is the cornerstone of any business, regardless of if you’re selling cars or sweets. We were lucky that a large number of customers had followed us to our own business as a result of our personable approach and high levels of customer service, so we were always striving to maintain this over the years. Thankfully this good name has carried on over the years and we have retained the same customers throughout the last 60 plus years to the point where via word of mouth recommendation, we are now looking after the grandchildren of our original customers.
This level of service, with our reputation of having highly skilled mechanics who could work on anything from a vintage Rolls Royce to a brand new car of any make has thankfully sustained our customer base over the years. A friendly face when greeting customers and a bit of a laugh along the way doesn’t do any harm either. We are lucky to be able to call a number of our customers Friends at this point.
What obstacles / difficulties did you come across over the years ? (Recession, Advances in Technology, Being a woman in business)
As a business, we have seen a huge number of obstacles and challenges over the years as is the case with most businesses that last the test of time I think. When we first opened, times were very different, and offering credit to customers for petrol or repairs was a huge trend. Learning to manage finances appropriately was a big learning curve in the early days, as it may be months down the line before you would be paid for work done, when you had wages and other overheads to pay.
In the early 00’s one of the biggest challenges we faced was from those within our own industry. To operate as a main dealership under an automotive brand, huge pressure was put on garages to build state of the art, multi million euro showrooms, and hold huge stock levels, which may take months to sell ultimately. This was something I was against from the start, as our business was ticking along just fine as it was and I did not see the sense in sinking a huge portion of our hard earned money into unnecessary showrooms. We had many conversations with the car brands regarding this but could not come to an agreement leading to us splitting from main dealership motor sales which at the time we thought was a nightmare. Ultimately, this decision I think saved us in the coming years, when every second big garage was closing down having spent millions on showrooms and new premises.
In 1965, the premises fell victim to some of the worst flooding the area has ever seen, which totally destroyed both our home and the business premises. We had to temporarily relocate for a number of months, and business practically stopped. These were very tough times with a young family of 5 to support, and staff wages to pay but we struggled on. The house had to be completely gutted so we were forced to rent another house locally, and the workshop needed extensive repair following water damage. Thankfully, we managed to keep our heads above water, for use of a better phrase, and things went back to normal after a couple of months.
We witnessed many ups and downs in the country’s economy throughout the years which of course effected everybody, and effected new car sales, people’s ability to pay and general consumer spending, but thankfully none of these had a huge effect on us, as I always believed in being extremely mindful when times are good, that this may not always be the case, so to never overstretch the finances or spend frivolously.
There have been many other challenges throughout the years with local authorities trying to acquire the site and build roads through it etc which were all very stressful, but this is not only our business it’s our home so we were determined not to be uprooted.
As far as being a woman in business goes, I am happy to say I never really had any issues in this area. There were of course a few occasions where I had to talk very straight to a customer, or a bank manager but ultimately it was nothing I could not manage. Plus, Paddy was always there for support if anybody overstepped the mark.
What would you say are your top 3 skills that have made you successful ?
Resilience; As a company and a family we have been through the mill but always stayed strong and stuck together. It’s been essential over the years to keep going no matter the challenge. If everybody stays calm and works together anything can be overcome. We are lucky to have three of our children working and running the business nowadays also in both the office and workshop.
Prudence; Starting my working life as a bookkeeper, I was always aware of how important it is to a business to be prudent with the finances. It’s important to not live beyond your means when times are good, as things can change so quickly in business.
Diversification; In any business it’s so important to stay current and up to date with the latest trends. Staff should be trained on the latest technologies and experts in their area. Following our move away from main dealer car sales, we focused for a time on specialist car repairs and light restoration work. This was in the early days of the Celtic Tiger, when every second person had a sports or vintage car. We were lucky that the garage staff were experts on older, specialist cars such as Alfa Romeo, Lancia, Fiat, Maserati and Ferrari. This repair work for some of our great regular clients, was a massive boost for our business during these times.
What is your daily routine ?
I am a morning person, so I am usually up around 7 am and start my day off by baking. It’s a real passion for me and I love making bread, scones or cakes. Around 8.30 Maureen our office assistant / housekeeper and lifelong friend arrives in for the day with the newspaper. I spend an hour catching up with the latest news and love to know what’s going on in the world. After this around 9am the post arrives, and I go through this and action anything needed along with my daughter Dolores who runs the main office and accounts nowadays.
I then get around to some proper work and continue with the company accounts. Despite the advances in technology and computers, I enjoy preparing my accounts manually to be handed over to our accountant firm. I think this sort of work has kept me sharp and engaged with what’s happening in the business.
The afternoons are leisure time, where I either go to the hairdressers, or shopping and relax in the evening with some reading or a decent TV show.
What are the biggest changes you’ve witnessed in business ?
So much has changed over the years it would be impossible to name them all but for me the main ones are probably changes in currency firstly, from pre – decimal to decimal punt, and to the Euro thereafter.
Changes in Taxation were big, from Turnover Tax to VAT in 1972 for example.
Obviously there have been huge changes in technology also like internet, online banking, cloud-based bookkeeping and accounts. I’m glad I’ve kept up to date with a lot of these changes, but like anybody of my generation, some of them still escape me.
What advice would you give to those in business today?
I think being an expert in your chosen field is really important these days as it’s so competitive in every industry. Educate yourself as much as possible in whatever you are doing. Keep up to date with current market trends and try to be one step ahead of the curve to keep your USP.
Be mindful to make time for leisure activities and switch off from work. Looking after yourself mentally and physically is very important to be at your best each day and keep you healthy. Stress and worry achieve nothing, so try to stay on top of that.
Have a hobby. I’m lucky to have a few hobbies I love including Baking, Reading and what’s been described by certain family members as an addiction – Shopping.
Most importantly; look after your staff and they will look after the customers for you. I think Richard Branson claims that phrase, but it is very true. Treat them well and they will want to do good work for you.
Is there any businessperson you admire ?
There are plenty I admire and enjoy reading about but probably Margaret Heffernan of Dunnes Stores. She completely turned that business around and reinvented their image as a more upmarket supermarket similar to M&S that champion Irish design and production.