Contributing to community crucial to surviving recession

Mon, Nov 29, 2010, 00:00

BOUNCING BACK: RECESSION RECOVERIES:Cat hospital is flourishing, despite floods and downturn

HOW ON earth can a branding business, a food company, a cat hospital (yes, you read correctly) and community activism rest happily together in the hands of one couple? When you are William Healy and Claire Meade, brand consultant and vet respectively, anything is possible.

In the pretty village of Glanmire on the outskirts of Cork city, this multitasking couple have survived business failures and biblical floods, learnt some harsh lessons and are now flourishing in the teeth of a savage recession.

Healy originally trained as a graphic designer. For many years, he ran a successful small branding business called V12 Design from Dublin’s Capel Street. Meade established her first veterinary practice in Terenure, Dublin, at the tender age of 24.

Healy, who has retail in the blood, had also invested both financially and practically in Urru, an artisan food business, set up by his sister Ruth, in Bandon, west Cork.

Urru is based on the philosophy of a sustainable local food industry, moving food from farm to fork, a business showcasing the best of Irish cheeses, charcuterie, bakery and other products.

As the boom gathered pace, the couple yearned to go back to their roots and sold their businesses in Dublin.

The well-branded Urru (courtesy of Healy’s skills) was thriving, so it made sense to him to expand. He did a cookery course in Ballymaloe and in 2006, investing all his savings, opened a second state of the art Urru shop in Mallow Co Cork.

He worked 80 to 90-hour weeks and started the Mallow Food Festival at the same time, by all accounts a festival that gave any authentic French food market a good run for their money.

But then, as with all perfect fairy tales, le merde hit le proverbial fan. “The great recession arrived. I had overextended myself, but sure everyone was at it back then. I was paralysed by fear for up to a year, unable to work out how to change tack. I knew the business wasn’t working, but I had no energy or commitment to doing things differently. There was a level of depression going on.”

Healy praises his staff and their efforts to keep the venture alive. In January 2008, he closed the Mallow branch of Urru.

“When that business finally folded, there was a massive sense of relief. I could begin to think of a future, take time out and re-evaluate.”

Healy took over the childcare at home, set up William Healy Branding and also helped with developing his wife Claire’s nascent business The Cat Hospital.

The idea of cat-only practices originated in the US in the 1970s and by the mid-1980s, there were 45 cat hospitals in the UK. But there were none in Ireland. The trend in veterinary medicine as in other professions is specialisation.

“I knew I’d have a better chance of success by working with my passion, which is small animal welfare.”

So off to the bank went the pair. When Claire explained her vision one bank manager sat stoney-faced, while luckily, the other was a cat lover. It seems the world really is divided into those who find felines fascinating and those who don’t. Meade got her loan.

She explains: “It may be odd but it’s uplifting, I employ people and I also train nurses. It is heartwarming to get involved with people and their pets.”

Claire has feline patients from as far away as Cavan, Tipperary, Limerick and Waterford, who are treated in a purpose-built facility, which has everything a good veterinary practice should have, even a . . . cat scan . . . just in miniature. And though times are tight, the progress made during the good times regarding small animal care is so far continuing.

“The animal’s welfare comes first, fees are affordable, we have long-term payment plans and owners can get assistance from charities. I also do pro bono work.”

In November 2009, William Healy worked on the Bandon It’s Alive campaign to get people into the town for a series of free family days, farmers’ markets, craft fairs and roadshows.

Because the community had established close business ties, they were then better placed to deal with the decimation that followed the November floods.

“We worked together in small ways to survive the deluge. Community groups may not be sophisticated, but we help each other. And that may be key to community success in surviving this recession.”

Healy and Meade may have been a typical success story of the boom, but their life philosophy has since shifted.

Says Healy: “We would have been ambitious, but when things go downhill, you are driven by necessity to effect change. Our attitude has changed. It’s about being part of something, being positive and contributing whatever way we can. We are lucky to have the skills to do so.”


Further information from: www.urru.ie, and www.thecathospital.ie