Siblings: the Fitzpatrick hoteliers

 

Hotelier Paddy Fitzpatrick made his name in the Gresham, the Old Stand in Ennis and the Talbot Hotel in Wexford, then started his empire with the Fitzpatrick Castle Hotel, Killiney, in 1970. He and his wife Eithne had five children.

Notably, he ensured his estate was equitably divided before he died, to avoid the destructive battles that had pulled other prominent Irish family businesses apart. All five continue to banter and barter to this day with regular, formalised meetings. 

Patrick and Tony went into property. Eithne Scott Lennon now runs the Fitzpatrick Castle Hotel and, with her husband James, has four sons. John is chief executive of the Fitzpatrick Hotel Group in North America. Paul opened the Beacon Hotel in Sandyford, Co Dublin, last week. He also owns The Morgan in Temple Bar. He and his wife, Sharon, have a 20-month-old daughter, Sophie.

JOHN

The turning point for us came when we went to a conference in Geneva devoted to family businesses. It was run by John Davis of Harvard University. That was eight years ago. There were a number of highly publicised family rows in Ireland at the time ... Dad was adamant that we wouldn't go the same way.

The idea was to get the family issues on the table, the personal issues, and for each of us to say what we wanted. To Dad's credit, he listened to us. I'll never forget him looking across the table at us in Geneva and saying: "You're all talking as if I'm not here, as if I'm gone already." And I said: "As long as you're alive, you'll always be chairman." Twelve months later, he died.

Now we are all doing our own thing. We figured out a way to do it and eventually it all fell into place. Eithne and Paul run great hotels. The fact that Pat and Tony are involved in property works out really well, and they give advice on building plans and construction. I wanted the hotels in America, and stipulated that I did not want to employ anyone else from the family.

You have to set up structures for a family business. We keep up quarterly meetings - we sometimes go to Hunter's Hotel in Wicklow, for instance, without spouses. John Davis was a great help throughout. The first day, we'd go around the table and talk about current problems - problems of that very week. Brother to sister. This puts feelings back on the table.

Brittas Bay was our haven, and my fondest family memories come from there. Dad taught us to love the sea. The boys bought Jack's Hole and helped reclaim the beach. There are caravans down there now with satellite TVs, dishwashers and maids - a big change from the old days.

I have an apartment in New York and I usually work three days in New York and three in Chicago. People ask me why I work like this, and I tell them it's because I've never known anything else. Dad always said: "Just remember no matter big you get, you've got to be seen. It's all about personal service."

EITHNE

Listen, I had a terrible time as the eldest sister, the surrogate mum. I was often left to baby-sit, and the divils would get up to terrible things - there were usually animals involved: guinea pigs and pigeons and dogs, all picked up somewhere or other. I remember walking down the garden path to school and seeing white mice racing up and down a rope to the tree house. They'd been left up there and were breeding like mad. Once they locked me in the kitchen with guinea pigs on the loose.

The best times we had were on the strand in Rosslare - such craic - and we were at our happiest in Brittas, where we still get together. Our father would get us up at 6.30 a.m. ("I want my crew!") and we'd catch crabs or go out in the boat to find the biggest lobster.

I love work, and even my sons know that I'd be unbearable if I gave it up. The seed was planted when I was eight or nine and I used to plague the switchboard operator to let me help her. I was a wizard at pulling out all the plugs and saying "Good morning. Talbot Hotel!" I remember my father coming in the front hall and catching me. His eyes nearly popped out. In the kitchen, there was a woman who looked after the huge vats of stock and she used to let me test the stock with bread, but she also used to threaten to throw me in if I wasn't good. I think she was half-witch.

As the eldest, with four fellas coming up behind me, I had to prove myself. I went to a hotel training school in Switzerland after school, then studied commerce in college and went to train with the Radisson group - first in Minnesota and then two years in Kansas City, a great, great, great experience. When I came home I became the sales and marketing executive for the group, a novelty in the 1970s. Now I'm managing director of the Killiney hotel and having a ball. We have a good support team - our chef Sean Dempsey is with us 35 years.

When there are assets to be divided, it has to be clearly structured. Our joint decision to sit down and argue it out was a life decision and a very prudent one. We still have rows but they are on the surface. We've all made concessions, and it certainly makes for better relationships.

One last story? There was the boyfriend who didn't meet with my brothers' approval. One day he pulled up to the house in his sports car - I thought I'd struck gold - and stepped up to the front door looking very smart. And then I remember seeing this huge, blue bubble of water burst over his head. Three of them had hurled a bucket of water from the window over the portico. The relationship didn't last much longer.

But I always had something on them, too. There's always someone who needs attention, who's in the wars, someone having a row. The alliances are always changing, even to this day.

PAUL

I came in the middle. That makes me the balanced one.We are lucky. We had a great dad who had the foresight to let us write his will. John Davis was superb as a facilitator at the family meetings. One of the first things we learned was that our problems were not unique but typical of every family.

It was Freda Hayes [of Kilkenny Design and Blarney Woollen Mills] who actually told me about John Davis - which is ironic because her family have had their difficulties. Once you lose your mentor - bang! - you can lose everything, your family and your business.

I'm now involved in the YPO - the Young Presidents' Organisation. You qualify as "young" until you are 50. It's an international network for public and private businesses, and we meet once a month. If you get a call from a fellow member you are supposed to answer it straightaway. It's highly confidential, and friends think it's something like the Ku Klux Klan. We discuss personal and business issues. There are eight to 10 members in the Dublin chapter.

The best thing about sorting out our family business is that it gave us control over our destinies. It eliminated all the petty stuff ("I'm working harder than you" and so on). There is always a bit of friction but we depend on one another now.

Patrick and I are very close - there is a year in the difference - and I'm close to Tony, too. Eithne was the second mum and John was the bossy older brother, very determined, very stubborn, independent. Still is.

We were real country kids, and I remember not wanting to leave Rosslare. People came to buy our house and we lit a fire out the back hoping the smoke would put them off.

But Killiney wasn't a bad alternative. I went to the national school in Ballybrack, which was in the middle of the fields in those days - now there's a housing estate. I was an altar boy and would get out of school for an hour by serving 10 o'clock Mass. We went to Willow Park and then Blackrock College where Dad had gone. I was no good at rugby. We always preferred work to school. John broke his arm coming up to the Leaving Cert but talked them into letting him take the exams in hospital because he didn't want to have to repeat the year.

We did the classic four-year training. First you worked as a chef and spent a year in the kitchen, then you'd spend six months in other departments: the restaurant, bar, accounts, back office operations. You couldn't claim to know everything but you certainly learned from the inside and knew if your instincts were right for the job.

We have one daughter - Sophie - and she is only 20 months, but I think I'll do everything to discourage her from walking into her dad's business. She'd really want to prove it to me.

But then I got the buzz early on. I remember the taoiseach was coming to a VIP function at the Talbot, and everyone was all geared up and I put on a porter's uniform. I was ready for action. I was about six. Opening the new hotel last week, I guess you could say I still have that buzz.