Lessons from life experience


A NEW LIFEOwen O'Brien made millions, then went back to university to find out how, writes Michaelle McDonagh

WHEN OWEN O'Brien left school at 17, a university education was out of the question. Having lost his father at an early age and grown up in the 1950s and 1960s when money was tight, going into a full-time job was his only option.

Having experienced poverty at a young age, O'Brien was determined to succeed - and he eventually became a multimillionaire, through years of hard work. Although his company was flying, he didn't think of himself as a great manager, so decided to do an executive MBA at University College Cork (UCC) in 2004, a move that turned out to be life-changing.

It is said jokingly in UCC that, having made it, O'Brien went back to university to find out how he had done it.

But he enjoyed the academic life so much that, after finishing the MBA, he decided to sell his business and properties. He was offered a lectureship in the Department of Economics at UCC, where he now teaches entrepreneurship.

Born and bred in Cork, O'Brien was only six when his father died and his mother had to work full-time to support herself and four children. He was working part-time from the age of 13 while also going to school.

He muses: "It was hard in emotional terms but it probably gave me my independent streak and the confidence to survive in the adversarial environment of business. It gave me the toughness to stand up to my competitors and get through those first years of business."

An accomplished musician and prolific songwriter, O'Brien enjoyed a brief period of bohemian life, travelling around France with a guitar strapped on his back and supported bands such as Planxty in the National Stadium. However, he couldn't face the thought of being poor for the rest of his life so he got a day job as a sales representative in the heating and plumbing business.

"I didn't even know how a central heating system worked and here I was driving the byways of Ireland selling boilers to shops,'' he laughs.

He turned out to be a natural salesman who believed he could sell anything. He worked for several companies and would often clear their stocks of old produce that had been there for years. In the early 1980s, he decided to set up his own plumbing distribution business, working from his garage and a leased van.

"It was 1983 and times were hard in Ireland. The economy was in recession and interest rates were 15 per cent. I would approach manufacturers and wholesalers and take stock from them and drive around in my van selling to anyone who would buy. It was survival from week to week."

It was at an international trade fair in Birmingham that O'Brien came across a plumbing product that would change his life. Instead of the copper and brass fittings system that all plumbers were using at the time, this was a flexible plastic push-fit system called Acorn that made the job much easier.

He got the distribution for Ireland and went for it, but there was huge resistance at first from a conservative building industry and it took a few years of hard work before the product took off.

"I worked the whole country from Malin to Mizen Head and called into every huckster store on the way. If they couldn't sell the product, I went into the shops, stood behind the counters and sold them myself. I knew if they sold, the orders would be repeated."

Eventually, every hardware shop and builders' merchants was stocking the product and finally, O'Brien was making real money. In the early 1990s, he started investing in commercial property, in time for the boom.

Then in 2004, he decided to go to UCC to do an MBA, an experience he would highly recommend to any business owner. He developed a huge understanding of markets and assets and, in 2005, before the property crash, he sold his business to a multinational and cashed in all his properties.

At 53, O'Brien embarked on his new career as a part-time lecturer in entrepreneurship and also started a doctorate in business administration. He was asked by the head of the Department of Economics to develop an innovation module as part of the Postgraduate Diploma in Business Economics. The combination of his experience and his MBA gives a unique insight to the students of the course on how business works in the real world.

O'Brien remarks: "My life has dramatically changed . . . The academic life is very challenging. This department and its staff are incredibly dynamic and innovative and I have found it very challenging and exciting.

"Living with business is very stressful, I think there's only so long you can take it. The responsibility and worry is with you seven days a week. My feeling when everything was sold was one of huge relief."

He is glad that his children have the freedom to follow their own paths without the burden of an inherited business.

Outside work, he is doing a lot of writing and recording with Declan Synott and has released a couple of CDs in the past few years - just for fun. An avid sailor, he has sailed all over the Mediterranean and enjoys spending time in France where he has a home.

The former managing director found teaching difficult at the start, but six months into his new career, it is getting easier. Unlike many of his academic colleagues, O'Brien still wears a suit, shirt and tie every day.

"From being in charge of everything to being part of a team in a large institution does require mental adjustment. I sometimes get frustrated at how slowly things move, but this department seems to find a way of doing things quickly.

"I don't miss anything about my old career. It was a fantastic experience and hugely rewarding but I am happy now to move on."