‘Work is not a burden – it is something you can find enjoyment in’

Former Dalata chief executive Pat McCann on the seven roles he has lined up for ‘retirement’

For the first time in 52 years, Pat McCann doesn’t have a full-time job.

It is not quite noon on the first Monday following his retirement as chief executive and director of the Dalata hotel group; the first day of the rest of his life. Yet McCann, who turned 70 last month, is in no mood to talk about slowing down. Instead, he wants to discuss the seven part-time gigs he hopes will keep him busy.

“I have had friends who could not wait to get to 65, to step back and play golf. I just can’t do it; I have to keep going. I’m that sort of person,” he says.

What does he think might happen if he stopped working?

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“I would have serious concerns about my health. Even my doctor said that – you’ve been going at such a pace all your life, he said to me, if you stop your system won’t cope with it. You see people like me who suddenly stop, and then their health deteriorates at a rapid rate. I am going to keep going as long as I physically and mentally can.”

McCann, a former president of the employers' lobby group Ibec and the founder of Ireland's biggest hotel company, Dalata, has sat at the top table of Irish business for decades. Today he is sitting in a small office over a pub at Skerries harbour, in the headquarters of Alkimii, a human resources software start-up where he is an investor and soon-to-be a director.

Outside the windows of the small boardroom, where we chat over coffee and biscuits, an angry sky over the harbour threatens to banish a fitful November sun. Inside, McCann’s demeanour is as bright as ever as he explains why he needs his business “fix”, and that retirement isn’t going to get in his way.

“Work is not a burden. It is something you can find enjoyment in. If you have that attitude, good things happen to you. If you spend your life whingeing and moaning, you begin to just exist instead of live.”

McCann insists he always chose to live.

Born the son of a small farmer and timber yard owner in Ballymote, Co Sligo, his early years were austere. It was not a wealthy community and his family didn’t have electricity until he was eight years old. The McCanns and their neighbours made do.

He trained in hotel management with the Ryan group, where he worked for 20 years, followed by 17 with the Jurys group, where he was chief executive when it was on the stock market during the Celtic Tiger years. After an unsatisfying year as a consultant, he founded Dalata 14 years ago with private equity backing, before taking it public in 2014.

He steps away from the business having built it into “the biggest and most profitable hotel company ever in Ireland” – it has about 45 properties here and in the UK. It has weathered the storm of the pandemic and is now valued at €860 million. McCann, who oversaw Dalata’s development from the ground up, walks away with 1.7 million shares, currently worth about €5.5 million.

Modest return

It is more money than most people will ever see. But in an age of red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalism, it seems a modest return for a man who built a stock market listed business. Does McCann regret not becoming even richer?

No way, he insists. It was a “conscious decision” to spread the wealth created in Dalata with as many people as possible among the team who helped him to build the company. He says about 110 executives earned shares in the business through its long-term incentive schemes.

“Not many companies do it like that. They prefer a bigger pot for a smaller number of people. I was determined when I set up Dalata that a much wider pool of people would share in the uplift,” he says.

“I could have done far better. I could have done founders’ shares and all sorts of things. But this idea that I might have a few more quid in my pocket, another €10 million or whatever – it’s irrelevant. I’ve more than enough money as it is.”

His insists his legacy at Dalata is the team of people he assembled. His successor, Dermot Crowley, was promoted from within, as was Crowley's successor as chief financial officer, Carol Phelan.

“It is a joy to behold to watch how people evolve and grow if you give them the right path. Sometimes people don’t realise what the joy of building something can be. It is when you see families growing up and you gave those people opportunities. Sometimes we miss the point of doing things.”

McCann might not be a rapacious billionaire, but he is still a wealthy man – he earned about €1.6 million in 2019, the last full year before the wrecking ball of the pandemic arrived. It is easy to care less about money when you already have plenty of it. Besides, isn’t money a good scorecard for success in business?

“I don’t think I’ve ever done anything for money. I love making money, but after a particular point, I’ve no use for it. That’s the way I look at life. I’ve met a lot of very wealthy people in my life. But I’m not sure if they are happy.”

After more than a half century indulging his “deep passion” for business, is McCann happy?

“I wouldn’t say I am ecstatically happy. But I am delighted from a physical and mental point of view to be where I am today. I have lived a great life. I am happy and lucky. I grew up in a good home. I married a great woman who raised our three children. I have my first grandchild. These are the joyous things in life.”

New challenges

Running a publicly listed company “eats your life”. He chose to step away now to “ease the demands” on his time, and to make room for new challenges.

“You think when you are a plc chief executive that you’re the boss and you control everything. But life is controlled for you, because you are controlled by events. Now, I want to settle into all the things I plan to do and find a new rhythm. I don’t also want to let anyone down. I will give 100 per cent.”

McCann’s seven retirement projects include three technology start-ups, a listed property business, a bust property business, a hospital and a lobby group.

Alkimii, which sells technology to help hotels and other businesses manage their workforces, was set up by a former Jurys group general manager, Ronan McAuley. Dalata is a major client and also an investor, and McCann will join the board “just as soon as I am free of all my conflicts”.

“I’ve known Ronan for 30 years and I have been an adviser to him for about three. I plan to grow my investment,” McCann says.

He is also an investor and chairman of UK-focused online retail start-up, Ufurnish, which was set up by Ballymote woman Deirdre McGettrick and her husband, Ray Wright. It is an aggregator for furniture sales, in the same way that Skyscanner is for flights. Did McCann develop an interest in it simply because McGettrick, a former HSBC banker, is from his hometown?

“Nothing to do with it. I just liked the whole concept of it. I have just two investment criteria – I have to like the product, but more importantly, I have to like the people. All entrepreneurs have fantastic ideas. What they sometimes lack is how to build a structure of an organisation to keep pace with the growth – the financial structure and the people structure. That’s what I’ll bring to the pot.”

McCann is an investor and also will become a director of food-labelling start-up, Nutritics. It spies growth in the UK where 'Natasha's Law', a regime for allergen labelling that is named after a teenager who died after an acute reaction to a sandwich in Pret a Manger, recently came into force.

A director of Nutritics, Stephen Nolan, is a son of McCann’s neighbour: “I’ve known him since he was a baby.”

He clearly enjoys helping to grow young businesses. But McCann also keeps a foot in the door with the corporate establishment in his fourth role, as a member of the board of directors of Ibec, where he served as president for 2019.

The final three roles, however, all have the potential for more of an edge.

McCann is a bank-appointed director of the hospitality and property assets formerly owned by the bust Cavan industrialist Sean Quinn, whose assets were seized by State-owned IBRC.

“I’m mainly just involved now with the [Hilton] hotel in Prague, the Slieve Russell [in Cavan] and a few bits and bobs of property. My job is to maximise the position of the taxpayer. There is no other agenda.”

Great business

He also remains a non-executive director of the stock market-listed housebuilder Glenveagh Properties, whose board he joined in 2019. The political debate around housing and the involvement of institutional capital in the market has turned febrile in recent years.

McCann suggests some of the public debate is fuelled by “ideology” and says it has always been this way; the only difference now is social media: “Glenveagh is a great business and I love being on the board. It has to make money. That is what it is there to do. But it is providing homes at a price that people can reasonably afford.”

In July, McCann walked into the middle of another political bearpit – the debate surrounding the relocation of the National Maternity Hospital (NMH) to the St Vincent’s University Hospital (SVUH) campus, which is controversial due to concerns in some quarters that religious orders could influence it, especially when it comes to providing abortion services.

McCann has been appointed NMH’s deputy chairman, effectively performing the functions of board chair (the ex-officio official chairperson is the Archbishop of Dublin, who plays no part in the overseeing of the hospital). He is adamant that there is no reason for the concerns, and that the State is adequately protected by the ground lease being offered to the new hospital.

“When I was asked to do it, I had my misgivings,” he admits. “Then I met the people involved and that changed everything. I know deep down I’m doing the right thing. We need to move from Holles Street. The women and babies of Ireland need good care. We owe it to them to give them a first-class facility.”

Is there any risk that religious orders could have any influence over the services provided?

“None. Let me give you the facts. This is a property deal. SVUH and the nuns own the site. It will be handed over to SVUH, which will give a ground lease of 299 years to the State, which will build and own the hospital. The key element is: what does it say in that ground lease? Are there restrictive covenants? That’s the thing you look for. There is one – that is to simply state that the site can only be used for hospital activity. There is nothing else.”

He insists the project’s opponents simply do not understand how ground leases work. Such agreements are necessary when you have different parties on a shared campus, he says. “Otherwise the thing becomes a legal quagmire.”

Is he absolutely sure there is no risk that future decisions over, say, abortion services could fall under religious influence due to the property arrangements?

“It doesn’t matter who owns the site. The hospital building will be owned by the State. There is nothing in the ground lease that could stop NMH, as it does currently, from providing whatever services there are under Irish law, to the fullest extent. The debate about religious ethos – it doesn’t even enter the equation. It is a non event. I will stake my reputation on that.”

McCann has a reputation as an avuncular character, one of the friendliest guys on the corporate block. But at Glenveagh, Quinn and with the hospital, I suggest, there exists the possibility for attracting public opprobrium, or even the odd row. In his 71st year, I ask, is he still up for a few rows?

“Oh I have my rows. People think I’m a nice gentle person, and by and large I am. But in business I am an éclair – a hard outer shell with a soft centre. If I have to stand toe to toe with somebody, don’t underestimate that in me. I will do it and I have done it. You don’t survive as long as I have by being a shrinking violet. I will battle to the end for something I believe in. I’m not that soft.”

*******

Name: Pat McCann

Age: 70

Home: Foxrock, Dublin

Family: Married with three adult children and one grandchild

Something about him you might expect: He loves sports, although he supports Arsenal in football.

Something about him that might surprise: He claims he has "never met a politician I didn't like".