'I’m hard on myself and sometimes I expect too much from others'

Inside Track: Kevin O’Connor, managing director of General Paints

Kevin O'Connor of General Paints, which is based in a former Famine workhouse on a five-acre site in Celbridge. The company produces the well-known Colourtrend brand of paint, as well as the newer Curator brand, which looks to Irish craft and design for inspiration.

What sets your business apart from the competition?

The leading paint companies on the planet are also the leading brands in Ireland. Colourtrend colours and the Curator range of paints are inspired by Ireland and are high-performance paints that are available in select stores around the country, many of which are also independent, family-run businesses. So we are very much an Irish family business.

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

Jim Collins’ book Good to Great has become something of a bible for me. I’m paraphrasing, but it says: “Get the right people on the bus and in the right seats and your bus can go anywhere.” Collins identifies this as a common trait in those companies that have successfully and sustainably made the transition from “good” to “great”. We’ve taken a lot of nuggets from the book and tried to implement them in our own business.

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

I’m hard on myself and sometimes I expect too much from others and expect everyone to have the same passion as me – that is probably my biggest issue. I can perhaps be overly critical and overly demanding, but I am the same on myself. I don’t ask anyone to do anything I wouldn’t do myself – but sometimes that expectation may be too high.

And your major success to date?

Building an agile and dedicated management team who, in turn, have built our business from humble beginnings to being leaders in much of what we do. Together, we have maintained a company culture which is built on integrity, respect, ambition, teamwork and relationships these words all genuinely mean something in our business and we try to operate on their intent.

Who do you most admire in business and why?

Our chairman, Tommy Murray, is a former Diageo senior executive with the ability to cut through the noise and identify the core issues. He is a real can-do person who is supportive and humble. He's one of two non-executive directors on the board and his external, unbiased perspective on the business has been very valuable over the past 10 years or so.

Based on your experience in the downturn, are the banks in Ireland open for business to SMEs?

One senses that the Irish banks are attempting to re-engage with business – albeit under stricter regulatory controls. The downturn put manners on us all and many lessons were learned, probably most especially by the banks.

I also think businesses are a bit more cautious of banks today than they were in the past because I think they weren’t expecting to have as much trouble from their banks as they did.

We try to work without bank financing and have mostly self-financed over the years. We run our finances conservatively so, if we can’t afford to buy something, we wait until we have the funds to buy it. This probably means that we have grown more slowly over the years but we’ve also grown more steadily.

What one piece of advice would you give the Government to help stimulate the economy?

Be more attentive to the SME sector, especially to indigenous family businesses which are the backbone of the Irish economy. I would love to see the Government support initiatives like DCU’s National Centre for Family Business which has so much to offer by way of research, advice and workshops.

What’s been the biggest challenge you have had to face?

I would say, from a personal perspective, my biggest challenge was taking over the reigns from my father in 1985 and now finding a way to let go of those same reigns and hand them to my daughter Rachel.

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

This month, we are shipping our first container of Curator paints to California and Oregon, and by year-end we will be in 20 US stores. It's about getting the product in there, the displays, training the staff – it's a massive role for us.

We are very proud that our small company has managed to win shelf space in the very competitive and advanced US market. That said, our primary market is, and will likely always be, Ireland, so we are careful to separately resource our export business and so maintain focus on our Irish business.

What’s your business worth and would you sell it?

We are not looking to sell our business and are having too much fun developing it. We are in the middle of a company rebrand as a result of our growth and success over the last decade.

We were the first to introduce both tinting and acrylic technology to Ireland, we have opened six paint shops since 2000, we have introduced a brand new Irish designer paint brand and are now entering the US market, so we felt it was time to rebrand. We are also looking to double the size of our business within the next 10 years.

We are now engaged in a third generation family succession which is a really exciting process and our goal is to be among the single-digit number of companies that successfully make it to a third generation with my daughter Rachel O’Connor at the helm.