Banker, barista - breadwinner


WOMEN AT WORK: Out of recession-ridden Ireland, where one in six men is unemployed, a so-called ‘Mrs Big’ is emerging, writes AINE KERR

THE BRASH MRS BIG title, borne out of a recent women and work survey, carries hostile connotations that sit uncomfortably with today’s new generation of female entrepreneurs. But the sentiment is largely accurate at a time when international surveys, such as the Women and Work survey 2010, commissioned by Grazia magazine, suggest that almost a third of women in the workplace are now earning more than their partners.

Given the staggering unemployment figures for men, many women are now the sole breadwinner or bigger earner in their families. In turn, 5,600 men are now engaged in full-time home duties, according to the latest Quarterly Household Survey from the Central Statistics Office, while some are entering business with their wives. In many cases, a redundancy triggers a tumultuous period for couples, involving bank-loan applications, credit-flow problems, cancelled holidays and relationship adjustments.

But for many, it’s finally working out.

The banker and the barista

A banker turned full-time mother, turned business owner has turned Enniskerry into a town of coffee connoisseurs. “It’s an exception to the rule to ask for tea here. If they ask for tea, it’s normally because they’ve already had three cups of coffee,” says Santina Kennedy, the founder and owner, together with her husband Andrew, of Kennedy’s gourmet food shop in Enniskerry in Co Wicklow.

Andrew is the chief operator of the sophisticated Elektra coffee machine (upgraded on his insistence). When he lost his job as a print production manager in April 2009, Santina’s long-term aspiration of opening a “lovely little gourmet food shop” swiftly became a must-do reality. Her 10-year term as full-time mother and part-time foodie was at an end.

“I never expected to become the sole income provider. On the fateful day when Andrew was made redundant, I reassured him. I had small savings and this great business plan, but I was panicking inside. Rather than jump, we were pushed,” she says. “My husband signed-on and we went down together . It was the most distressing thing ever, to look around at people like us in their 30s and 40s who had worked all their lives, but who were suddenly waiting for a hand out. We decided there and then, this isn’t going to be us for long.”

A small loan to purchase necessary equipment was eventually secured, after Santina cogently argued that failure to establish a new income would endanger mortgage repayments. A month later, on the May Bank Holiday weekend, a small, understated food store selling local produce opened without fanfare. What followed were many moments of achievement and many despairing moments of gloom and doom.

The initial months involved rounds of financial fire-fighting, enduring sleepless nights and cash-flow problems. “The calculator beside the bed was constant, as I woke several nights worrying about how to keep it all afloat,” she says.

An elf and shoemaker approach was adopted: make a little, pay a little. These were “very dark times” but throughout the start-up period, Santina says she never lost faith in the concept and overriding plan. The husband and wife team continued to rise at 6.30am to start baking, one opening the shop at 8.30am, the other taking the children to school, one collecting the children from school, one closing up in the evenings.

Freshly baked bread arrives every day from Bretzel Bakery; desserts come from Fothergills; and take-home meals come in from Chef Creations, Bombay Pantry and Le Paysan. But many customers come for the homemade cupcakes, teabracks, muffins, meringues and scones baked by Santina every morning at 6.30am.

Take-away Java Republic organic fair-trade coffee was introduced, on the basis that “just a couple of cups” would be sold on occasion. “It went out of control. Often there can be so many out on the footpath drinking coffee that when you’re passing by, you’d think something was going on inside,” says Santina, who prides herself in enforcing her mother’s social rules. The three-pronged strategy is simple: Have a cup of tea and leave well fed, after you’ve had the chat. “I’ve unwittingly fostered those ways,” she says, when it comes to entertaining the cyclists, tourists, school-goers and mass-goers, locals and newcomers.

Andrew recently entered the National Barista Championship and has assumed responsibility for all aspects of accounting, stock-taking and ordering. “If someone told me three years ago he would be measuring the depths of cappuccino froth, I would have thought it was just off the wall. A year ago, he would have drank instant coffee, but not any more,” she says. “Now when some people come in and I’m standing to make their coffee, they’ll ask ‘Is Andrew around?’ ” Such comical moments are a reminder of their changing identities.

“While cash flow might have been the most obvious challenge, we had huge challenges personally, too. I had always relished my role as a full-time mother and really enjoyed being the nurturer while Andrew was the breadwinner. Andrew had lost his identity through losing his job, and I was haunted by the fact that I was leaving my children to work full-time,” she says. “For both of us, it was a massive identity crisis.”

That crisis has passed. Locally, there is no confusion about the identities. They’re known, after all, as “the baker and the barista”.

One salary for the pursuit of golden dreams

The first year of marriage for any young couple is normally one of new novelties and ambitious plans. But for Siobhan and Simon Stenson, the first year of marriage dealt them their toughest, most daunting challenge yet.

Just four months before their wedding, in September 2008, Stephen lost his job as a project manager in the construction sector, leaving them to rely solely on Siobhan’s salary from Hewlett Packard financial services. “We had just started our marriage and I suppose like every man, Simon wanted to be the breadwinner. And I expected, I suppose, that when I got married, even though I was very independent always, we would share the burden. That was turned on its head,” says Siobhan.

They pulled the plug on life in Dublin and moved to Simon’s native town of Castlebar in Co Mayo, in search of construction work, while Siobhan continued her full-time work from their rented Mayo home. Unable to sell their two houses in Dublin, the extra burden of renting and paying the mortgage balance loomed large every month. For 12 months, Siobhan and Simon shared the same workspace, one working full-time, the other searching for work.

When Siobhan wasn’t working, she was studying for a diploma in psychotherapy. “Being the breadwinner was a huge strain in our first year of marriage. We were lucky we were the people we are, because we could have easily been a failed marriage if we didn’t work and support each other.”

Their lives irrevocably changed when Siobhan noticed a cookery course in Ballymaloe, due to start exactly 12 months after Simon had first lost his job. One bank loan later and one successful course application, Simon was on his way to Cork for a three-month intensive grind in professional cooking. Their new enterprise, Cherry Blossom Bakery opened on December 1st, 2010 in Ballyvary.

Their artisan-bakery products, made using all natural ingredients, are now sold in 60 shops. Spelt breads, gluten-free breads, treacle and mixed spice breads, corn breads, traditional brown breads, carrot cakes, chocolate cakes and cupcakes are created by Simon every day from 4am onwards. Food stores are approaching the bakery from across Ireland and the UK, asking in particular for their increasingly popular crusty spelt bread. In one Galway shop, it has climbed the ranks to become the most purchased item, immediately after grocery staples such as milk and butter.

But such is their determination to grow and expand the business that Simon is only drawing the “bare minimum” salary. This way, they can employ nine people, and revert to Siobhan’s salary for general financial survival. She has now cut her work week down to three days, giving her more time to focus on the marketing and sales aspect of the bakery business. This way, she says, she remains the “main breadwinner while the company gets off the ground”.

Crucially, with their new-found success, a new sense of pride has followed: “Once Simon went to Ballymaloe, he came alive again, the sparkle was back in his eyes. From there, I knew this was the Simon he’d always been talking about.”

Cometh the recession, cometh the opportunity

Many innovative women are proving that new businesses can prosper in recessionary times when other revenue incomes have run dry. Having been involved in media projects, Mairead Ní Mhaoilchiaráin and her husband Piaras were quick to notice the fall-off in funding for Irish productions as the recession took hold.

A self-confessed risk-taker, Mairead pursued her dream of creating in Westport, Co Mayo. Their first foray into the world of live TV broadcasts came with the recent general election. On February 21st, broadcast a political debate between the local election candidates and followed up days later with a 10-hour live broadcast from the count centre. “You had all the Fine Gael ones in the count centre and Fianna Fáil at home watching it on Mayo TV,” she says.

Samantha Kelly (40), from Rosslare Harbour in Co Wexford has developed a brand called Funky Princess and launched her first product, Welcome to Womanhood. The information and gift box aims to prepare teenage girls for their first period, and also assist parents and teachers who conduct Relationship and Sexuality Education classes.

Intent on also embracing the recession, Morag Kelly in Athenry, Co Galway, has launched, the main focus of which is a published book called Gordon goes to Greenieland.

This new generation of entrepreneurs are pursuing different aspirations, targets and products but there is a common theme running throughout their brave new ventures: an anxiety to ensure their partners are never outshone or diminished in purpose and equal billing.

Stay-at-home father Nick Cullen from Celbridge, Co Kildare, who took on the full-time job of caring for his four-year-old and 19-month old sons after losing his job as an IT consultant, says the title of “breadwinner” doesn’t bother him when people start asking questions.

A whole community of men on forums such as agree. “More and more at the school gates, someone will say to you ‘such and such is going to start doing what you’re doing’,” says Cullen.

The transition from breadwinner to full-time homecare dealt a “huge psychological impact” but it’s been the revelation of the recession for Cullen.

A new club of innovative women, with husbands prepared to support them in that last line of defence, means that Mrs Big could yet become the positive turn-around story of the gloomy recession.

When losing customers is a sign of success

Most entrepreneurs operate on the business philosophy of “happy returns”: keep the customer happy so they return forever more. But the success rate of Mella Malone’s new business is judged on customers never returning. The overriding objective is to ensure learner drivers pass their tests first time. And with a 97 per cent first-time pass rate, Malone is used to losing customers.

Only 17 months ago, Malone was alone in a driving test centre in Limerick when her job as a test instructor came to a shuddering halt, leaving her to pack up her professional life of three years, say sorrowful goodbyes to colleagues by phone, and lock-up for the last time. SGS Ireland had lost its contract with the Road Safety Authority to provide private driver testing, leading to the loss of 26 driver testers. Malone was unemployed for the first time in 16 years.

Her husband had also seen his work as an accounting technician reduced, from three days to one day per week. A “little break” followed for Malone, before she undertook intensive training to become an RSA-approved driving instructor, and then establishing Mella’s School of Motoring, in Ennis, Co Clare, in May 2010.

Distribution of colourful leaflets and advertisements abounded, but word-of-mouth was central to the launch strategy. “My first customer was a friend’s child; another was my son’s friend. It’s what you do, you tell everyone you meet, you give them a card. You tell people in your home doing work, you tell people fixing the car, you tell new people you meet in a pub,” she says. “You tell everybody.”

Changing the family car to a dual-control Toyota Yaris, which her 20-year-old and 26-year-old sons aren’t allowed drive, and putting comprehensive insurance in place were the main overheads for the new entrepreneur. On a good week, Malone will have four or five lessons every day. On a bad week, there will be just four or five lessons in the entire week.

“I will go anywhere in Co Clare. I’m even going as far as Galway once a week at the moment,” she says. Having two sons with lots of friends exactly in Malone’s target market, is an advantage – and one her own sons has become one of those customers who never came back.

“You get a great sense of achievement. You get someone who can’t move two inches at the start and then within six months, they’ve passed their test and you’ve helped someone with a major life skill,” she says.