Caveat: Booze-cruise musings as business gets political

Nervousness over the outcome of today's general election, together with the opening salvos of the UK's referendum debate on European Union membership, had business leaders in a tizzy on both sides of the Irish Sea this week.

Executives in both countries spent the week dashing off letters to newspapers, practising their serious face and pleading with voters not to mess things up.

In its Wednesday economic report on the ramifications of a potential Brexit, however, Investec honed in on the big business issue occupying most people's minds: the possible return of the Holyhead booze cruise.

Investec boffins Philip O'Sullivan and Gerard Moore weighed up the potential Irish winners and losers if the UK was to leave the EU. Chief among the winners, they reckon, would be Irish Continental Group, the owner of Irish Ferries.


“In the late 90s when [intra-European] duty free was last in existence, ICG generated roughly half” its profits from duty-free activities, they wrote.

A vote for a Brexit might devastate essential Irish trade links with Britain, but at least we might be able to once again pile on to the boat for Welsh day trips to stock up on Blue Nun, Paddy whiskey, John Player Blue and the big Toblerones.

The thought would almost make you nostalgic for the sound of the old booze cruise symphony: that rhythmic clinking of the bottles in the on-board duty-free shop as the ship rolled on the waves. If you think it was easy getting six slabs of Carling to a till while the floor was moving, think again.

Meanwhile, despite warnings from IAG boss Willie Walsh on the dangers of foreign business leaders being seen to interfere in the UK vote, Ryanair's Michael O'Leary went in feet first this week to campaign against a Brexit.

O’Leary has a certain tub-thumping cachet among the public in Ireland and Britain that ensures they will listen to what he has to say, even when he is propagating a nakedly self-serving argument.

Ryanair flies 35 million passengers from the UK to the rest of Europe. As Investec notes, "any impediment to the free movement of passengers would likely add costs" for the airline.

At a routine press conference in Stockholm on Tuesday, the day before it formally launched its very own “stay” campaign, O’Leary openly accepted it would be much better for his business if a Brexit did not occur.

He also couldn’t help himself facetiously skewering the Swedish authorities for their proposal to introduce a travel tax: “You’ve got good football teams and generally attractive ladies, but other than that, I don’t want to go here.”

O’Leary, ever the European diplomat.

A smattering of other Irish-born executives were among the 200 UK business leaders who joined him in signing a letter to the Times newspaper in London on Tuesday, calling on British voters to reject an EU exit.

Blackrock College boy Ronan Dunne, who runs the mobile company Telefónica O2 UK, signed the letter. Former Bank of Ireland deputy governor Patrick O'Sullivan, who now chairs ERS, a Lloyds of London syndicate, also put his name down in a personal capacity.

Aidan Heavey, the Tullow Oil boss who has previously signed group letters to UK newspapers endorsing the Conservative party, was noticeable by his absence as a signatory to the latest Tory leadership- whipped missive.

Business leaders making such public exhortations to voters to go one way or another at the polls is old hat in the UK, but it is still a relatively novel concept in this country. Remember the furore that greeted Twitter’s local managing director, Stephen McIntyre, last summer when he called for a Yes vote in the marriage referendum?

The US company was accused of interfering in Irish constitutional affairs.

IDA Ireland boss Martin Shanahan also went on something of a solo run and was accused of overstepping the mark with a similar call to McIntyre's in the pages of this newspaper.

It was noteworthy, then, that 11 Irish business leaders, including Paddy Power Betfair chairman Gary McGann, Glen Dimplex's Seán O'Driscoll, Dublin Airport's Kevin Toland and Dawn Farm Foods boss Larry Murrin, wrote to the Irish Independent on Tuesday to warn voters of "political instability" after the election. The letter effectively warned voters not to give left-wing "fringe groups" too much influence over recovery policymaking after today's vote. It wasn't a direct call to vote Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, but it wasn't a million miles away from it.

McGann was predictably criticised in some quarters for the intervention. The former Anglo Irish Bank director was scolded over the reference to "political instability" by a left-wing councillor from Limerick.

Like O’Leary, however, McGann isn’t generally the sort to keep his head down in a public debate.

Footnotes . . .

Dunnes Stores is continuing its drive to introduce more upmarket concepts to its stores by opening a Baxter & Greene cafe at its Henry Street outlet in Dublin. You see, even northsiders are legitimate targets for the poshing up of Ireland's biggest indigenous retailer.

For weeks, Dunnes has operated a Café Sol outlet in the basement of its St Stephen’s Green store in the more salubrious south side of the city and also in the flagship Cornelscourt store, as the chain toys with its instore design strategy to capture the attention of the more confident post-recession shoppers.

Baxter & Greene is a design-led brand owned by the Café Sol chain that Dunnes, led by chief executive Margaret Heffernan, bought late last year. It serves hot lunches such as Thai curries and healthy vegetarian dishes.

It sure beats the sausage, beans and chips that used to be the staple of Henry Street store cafes.

“Change is good,” exclaims the Dunnes email heralding the new cafe opening. Indeed it is. And change for Dunnes Stores is unlikely to stop there, if the industry jungle drums are correct.

The rumour is that Dunnes is planning a major revamp of the Cornelscourt outlet near Cabinteely in Dublin. It will also complete the last stage of the makeover of its Stephen’s Green store next month

It will be interesting to see whether Heffernan, who turns 74 in less than a fortnight, stays on to see the change strategy through to its conclusion, or whether the next generation of the Dunne family steps up to drive it forward.

Lean in. The 30% Club, a group campaigning to increase female participation on corporate boards, was hosted by the UCD Smurfit School for a discussion on "inclusion, diversity and unconscious bias" in business.

Speakers included Niamh Brennan, the UCD management professor who specialises in corporate governance, Dell's diversity executive Ingrid Devin, Gina Quin of the Dublin Chamber and Garda Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan. For a bit of gender balance, former Accenture head Mark Ryan and UCD's business dean, Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh, were also heard.

Whatever about the 30% Club, O’Sullivan is a member of the near 100 per cent club that oversees the administration of justice here. As well as a woman Garda Commissioner, we also have a female Director of Public Prosecutions, Chief State Solicitor, Chief Justice, Attorney General and Minister for Justice (for a few more days, anyway).

Talk turned to the notion that it isn’t enough to gerrymander a certain percentage of board seats for women – companies also need to have a steady supply of female executives running things day to day.

My tuppence worth? If women are discriminated against in the workplace, it is partly because men are disadvantaged in the home.

Strive to equalise paternity/maternity leave rights and foster a culture where new fathers aren’t made feel like turnips for taking time off to care for their kids, and you’ll eventually see more women in senior positions in the workplace.

My Facebook feed is littered with ads for Web Summiteer Paddy Cosgrave's Collision Conference, which takes place in April in New Orleans.

Aside from the obvious travel and accommodation costs, conference packages for start-ups “selected” to attend cost $1,950 for the three-day event.

Attendee tickets run from $550 for a single early-bird ticket, up to $5,799 for a last-minute pass that also provides backstage access to the VIP lounges. How many cash-strapped start-ups could justify coughing up that sort of wonga?