My biggest challenge was how to reinvent the business

Inside Track: Nicola McGrane, managing director and founder, Conference Partners

Nicola McGrane doesn’t think the Government supports service companies enough.

Nicola McGrane doesn’t think the Government supports service companies enough.


When her business suffered a huge hit during the recession, Nicola McGrane locked herself away in a room in the Burlington. She emerged three days later with a plan to grow her business and ride out the recession. The brave move has paid off.

McGrane had founded Conference Partners in 1998, bringing international conferences to Ireland. The result of that brainstorming, Event Partners, targeting the corporate incentive market, came later, adding to her business when so many others were losing theirs. Connect Showcase makes up her trio of companies, all headquartered in Dublin with offices in Belfast, Edinburgh and Manchester.

What distinguishes your business from those of your competitors?

We are the ones that are going to make you so proud of what you do, yourself and your country because you are showing off the talent of your country. It’s the knowledge economy of Ireland that we are representing when you bring an international meeting.

What has been your biggest challenge to date?

If you are bidding for a conference, you are booking two to three years in advance. So in 2008, when everyone else was suffering, we tripled our turnover; 2009 came, and we had the banking crisis, and I very nearly lost my business.

The biggest challenge was how to deal with our lack of credibility internationally and how to reinvent the business so that I would never be in that position again.

What has your major success to date?

Surviving that and achieving double-digit growth in a recessionary period in Ireland. I’m incredibly proud of Connect 16 – a conference for the events industry – because that was bringing a whole industry together to learn, it was the hardest thing I’ve done in all of my 20 years in business.

What do you think that the Government could do to help SMEs?

There is always talk of tech companies and manufacturing companies, I don’t think the Government supports service companies enough. I did try to export my service and I didn’t get the support. I would like to see there being more support for service industries, particularly exporting service industries.

Do you think that the banks are open for business?

The banks need to look at companies, particularly established companies, that want growth. All of them are advertising these brand new start-ups and saying, “We are open for business” and “If you’ve got a good idea come to us”. What about the companies who are established, who are secure, who want to grow their business and increase employment? They are the safe bets.

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

Putting all my eggs in one basket. I was only doing international association congresses, which are very reliant on me taking the money from delegates, exhibitors and sponsors. That’s why that whole risk thing happened to me in 2009 because the money wasn’t secure.

What I did was said I need to diversify now, I need to set up a separate business, get into different markets.

Whom do you admire most in business and why?

My hero is Nelson Mandela. He built a country through the respectful dealing with people, I’ve learned that from him. I think there are ways to build confidence in a company – you have to find pride.

In business, Jules Coleman of Hassle. com. I admire people who look at where the need is, ideas of making life easier for people.

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

My father said to me never to be afraid of what you can’t do because you’ll always find somebody that can do it better. Try to find people who are better than you when you are employing. Figure out what you are not good at and find people who are. Someone else gave me that advice, Terri Cullinane of Cape Clear Investing.

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

Because we grew so much in the past two years – I mean literally tripled our business – we’ve a lot of new people who have come on board. So for the next few months I’m in consolidation period.

As we are in the service industry and have a lot of new people, we developed a training programme that started in December and will go on until May – making them the very best that they can be.

What is your business worth and would you sell it?

I don’t know how much my business is worth. I’ve had two offers in the last five years. I did go through that process of figuring out would I sell it. What made me not sell and will make me not sell for probably another 10 years is that I haven’t reached my growth potential within my business.