Never be afraid to take risks ... or make mistakes

Never be afraid to take risks ... or make mistakes

At the EY CEO Retreat in Germany, chief executives are unanimous in the view that no one can succeed in business without taking risking and sometimes failing


Amelio Group managing director Catherine O’Neill, CD Group chief executive Terry Knox and Vita Liberata chief executive Alyson Hogg at the EY CEO Retreat in Germany

Amelio Group managing director Catherine O’Neill, CD Group chief executive Terry Knox and Vita Liberata chief executive Alyson Hogg at the EY CEO Retreat in Germany


“I worked for Apple for eight years, but thought they were going nowhere. So I left them. Even worse, I sold all my shares. If I hadn’t, I’d be the richest person in this room,” Crest Solutions founder Frank Madden tells a room of more than 100 entrepreneurs.

Madden, a finalist in the EY Entrepreneur of the Year competition, is speaking at the EY CEO Retreat in Germany. His business provides machine-vision inspection and track-and-trace solutions to companies such as Pfizer, Pepsico, Glanbia, Alkermes, Medtronic and Allergan.

“We track every vial of Botox around the world,” he says.

Madden isn’t the only person in the room who sold Apple shares early. His fellow finalist, SOSventures managing director Sean O’Sullivan also sold his shares. Had he not, they’d probably be worth more than half a billion dollars now.

These entrepreneurs are not afraid to take risks or to fail. In fact, risktaking is one personality trait that all the entrepreneurs on the retreat share. While entrepreneurs reap all the rewards that come with setting up a business, they also bear all the risk.

“I gave up a job with a salary of £200,000 a year to set up my business in 1984,” Ergo founder John Purdy says. “When my wife had our first child, I had to borrow money off my sister to buy her flowers.”

Ergo is now bringing in revenues of more than €24 million a year, and Purdy was named EY Entrepreneur of the Year in the industry category last year.

It was in 1984, too, that Dunbia co-founder Jack Dobson, another entrepreneur at the retreat, took a risk, asking the bank for a million-pound loan.

“I remember going to the local bank manager and asking him for a loan,” he says. “He initially agreed because he knew me personally, but he didn’t know the value of the loan. When I told him I wanted £1 million sterling to build an abattoir, he was shocked, and strongly refused.”

At this time, interest rates were at 15 per cent, so Dobson would be paying a hefty price for the loan.

“I was persistent, so he sought approval from head office. A week later the loan was approved and he made me promise “not to f***ing let him down”.


While they might not always like to admit it, all entrepreneurs – even the most experienced and successful ones – make mistakes throughout their careers.

Dobson, who employs more than 4,000 people at Dunbia, says one of the mistakes he made was getting caught up in the property boom, buying sites.

“Like so many, we followed the herd mentality,” he says. “We learnt that the sites were contaminated and needed a lot of money spent on them before a development project could begin. Then the market crashed and we lost money.”

Dobson, who dropped out of school aged 15, said he also made the mistake of being too reliant on one customer.

“We lost two-thirds of the business overnight in 2005 when we lost the J Sainsbury contract,” he says.

The whole beef business for Sainsbury’s was put out to tender, and Dunbia was unsuccessful.

“The biggest blow for me was walking into my own production plant, which was two-thirds empty of product,” Dobson says.

Alyson Hogg borrowed money from her father to set up Vita Liberata, a business that specialises in the manufacture, sale and distribution of tanning and skincare products. It was a risk that paid off. The company made more money per minute in April 2014, when it debuted on the QVC shopping channel, than it did in the first year of operations.

“Our greatest sales achievement is selling $2.6 million (€2.35 million) in 24 hours on QVC . . . In April 2014, the brand debuted on QVC USA with $46,000 (€42,000) of sales per minute.”

Not afraid

Tommy Griffith, the founder and chief executive of manufacturing company PEL Waste Reduction Equipment, says entrepreneurs shouldn’t be afraid to ask for business. “My dad always said excuse is another word for failure . . . I went into the Hilton Hotel in Chicago and asked to speak to the general manager. I was supposed to meet a guy in Kelly’s bar, but he wasn’t there. I got business as a result. The general manager couldn’t believe I effectively cold-called.”

Griffith’s company makes a range of glass-crushing machines, such as Mega Jaws, which can crush 4,000 bottles an hour. “The Dorchester in London uses that. They do around 60,000 bottles a week. The Ritz in London and the Shelbourne in Dublin also use it,” he says.

He adds that “there is no such thing as a problem” and explains how this attitude led to him doing bottle crushers in the first place.

“I had gone into a nightclub in Letterkenny to give them a baler. While there, I asked them if they had any other problems with regard to waste and recycling,” he says. “They brought me out the back and showed me huge piles of bottles. I set about designing a product to help them reduce it. That’s how the bottle crusher was born.”

In terms of risk, Griffith once pretended he spoke German in order to get a job. It nearly backfired, but luckily it didn’t.

“One day at work, they received a contract by fax from Germany. It was all in German, so they asked me to translate it by the next morning. I went and bought a German dictionary and spent the night translating it word by word.”


Previously published in The Irish Times.


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