‘In business, adversity is normal’

Small Business Inside Track Q&APatricia McGrath, Hewitt College, Cork

Patricia McGrath: “There should be more support for female entrepreneurs.”

Patricia McGrath: “There should be more support for female entrepreneurs.”


Hewitt College in Cork city provides private education for students preparing for their Leaving Cert. Patricia McGrath started the company in 2000 after teaching in private education for seven years. Now the college has grown to over 200 pupils and 30 staff.

What distinguishes your business from those of your competitors?

What makes us different is that it’s a very individualised and personal service. We meet the students, look at their strengths and pick out subjects to suit them. They have an individualised and personalised timetable. Their experience of school is very personal and tailored to play to their strengths.

What’s been your biggest challenge in business?

One of the main challenges was the transition from being a teacher to being a principal and running the school. When you are a teacher your tasks and challenges are very manageable and your syllabus is set out for the year. In business, there are always challenges and that’s very normal. Adversity is normal.

What is your major success to date?

Establishing ourselves as one of the top feeder schools to universities in Ireland and the UK. Our progression rate to university and third level is over 90 per cent. Not only is our progression rate very high, a lot of our students are going into very direct courses because we do quite a lot of work on career preparation. There’s no point getting into college to drop out three months later. Quite a lot of our students head towards Stem [science, technology, engineering and maths] careers.

What could the Government do to help SMEs?

Personally I found Local Enterprise an invaluable source of support and excellent courses. I think the Government should be spending more money on promoting the services that are available.

At the head of lots of SMEs, you are going to find an extremely busy person. Letting them know these supports are there can enhance their business. There should be more support for female entrepreneurs – perhaps seminars, conferences and webinars.

Do you think that banks are open to business?

What I find at the moment are the banks are depersonalising. There isn’t a manager to deal with anymore. You ring a number and it’s a centralised service. Personally I don’t like that. I think it’s a pity and a huge mistake. They are isolating their customers.

What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made in business?

The biggest mistake I’ve made is not doing enough training before entering into it. If someone was starting into a business and I was to give them one piece of advice I’d say, before you start, do your courses, meet people and meet an accountant. Local Enterprise offers excellent “start your own business” courses that are very reasonably priced. The one thing I would have done differently is employ a business manager to work beside me until I had learned the skills I have now.

Whom do you admire most in business and why?

The person I admire most in business isn’t actually a business person at all. It’s Victor Frankel, a survivor of the Holocaust. The message I take from him is none of us can control events but you can control your reaction. In business, there are challenges; you can’t avoid them but you can learn how to deal with them.

What’s the best piece of business advice you’ve ever received?

It was from my parents. When I was thinking about setting up my business in 2000, I was a teacher and I had a school that was very interested in offering me a permanent job. At the time my choices were to accept the permanent job or try and set up a business.

What my parents said is, if you take a permanent job, you’ve the permanent job for the rest of your life. If you set up in business either it will work and you won’t ever be taking that permanent job or it doesn’t work and you can take the permanent job next year so try it, what have you got to lose?

How do you see the short-term future of your business?

This summer we are launching a new product called École de Mer. It’s a residential one-week course for first- and second-year secondary students who want to learn French. There is 25 hours of French tuition but then there’s water sports and activities. The students will take away an experience of French culture. Also there is huge development in technologies particularly in the field of education. Next year, we will be very well-supported by technology.

What is your business worth and would you sell it?

Our turnover is about €1 million. It’s hard to place a value on it. I wouldn’t sell it because I see myself in this business for the next 30 years When I look back on the business I see that I have grown a lot and learned a lot. For me it’s a very personal journey.