Family firms ‘must stand up for themselves’ (SBP – 24th September 2006)

An aritcle of mine from today’s Sunday Business Post:

Hotelier Liam Griffin believes that the concerns of family businesses are going unnoticed because the sector has failed to represent itself until now.

The Wexford man, who owns a chain of hotels in the southeast of the country, said that while business owners were probably the hardest working in the country, the commitment they make to their companies has made them miss the trend of co-operation and unity seen elsewhere.

‘‘Over the years, all of society has got itself organised in some way,” said Griffin. ‘‘Big business has its own organisations and workers have trade unions. But because family business is so diverse and people have their heads down, they haven’t created an individual voice in the same way.”

Griffin, the former Wexford hurling manager, will be speaking on ‘‘the difficulties and challenges of the long distance business’’ at the Irish Family Business Conference 2006, which will be held in University College Cork this Friday.

Other speakers at the conference include Bob Geldof and Superquinn president Feargal Quinn.

Part of the third generation of his family’s hotel business, Griffin is a stalwart of the Irish hotel industry. When he was 11, his parents bought a small hotel in Rosslare harbour, having spent years previously keeping guests in their house.

‘‘We moved in there and I started living in a hotel from that moment, and I haven’t left since,” he said, adding that his whole career has been tied to hospitality.

Griffin was the first member of his family to study hotel management, at Shannon College of Hotel Management.

Now working with two of his sons in the family business, the Griffin Group has three properties – the Hotel Kilkenny, the Ferrycarrig Hotel in Wexford, and the Monart Spa, Ireland’s first purpose-built destination spa, which opened recently outside Enniscorthy in Co Wexford.

Griffin feels that a lack of unified representation has made it harder for family businesses to be heard on the important issues that can impact on the work they do.

‘‘It’s very difficult to get individual business people to lead the way forward but it is probably something that is very necessary if small business wants to affect changes that might be made on them,” he said. He points out that legislation, especially at an EU level, is usually implemented without consultation and the only way to be noticed is through the political and lobby process.

Griffin feels better communication can help keep small businesses competitive in an increasingly globalised Irish market. ‘‘People in business are often very lonely – they feel threatened and besieged, and because they’re not part of big organisations they tend to suffer in silence. Any forum that attempts to get them together would be of enormous benefit,” he said.

On an individual level, other issues can also arise in family businesses that others may not have to deal with – succession being one example.

‘‘With a family business all family members have some relationship with it, but as the family broadens out and starts to marry, the needs become different and it can cause major conflict,” he said.

Griffin himself was on the receiving end of this pressure when he was starting his career.

‘‘I felt a sense of obligation to go into my own family business because I knew what effort had gone into establishing it, but lots of people sacrificed things in those days, and I was no different,” he said.

However, Griffin is quick to note that he is in the job out of a love for what he does, and not because he has no other choice.

But his decisions have left him with some regrets, specifically from the sacrifice he made in sport.

‘‘The minute I got onto the hotel track , it did impact on my sporting career and I regret that very much. Hotel work was different in those days; you would seldom get any Sunday free,” he said.

While Griffin missed the chance to reach his potential on the field, he has gone some way to compensating from the sidelines. In 1996, he guided the Wexford hurlers to their first All-Ireland win in 28 years. He is still involved in coaching at club and county level.

At present, 75 per cent of all Irish businesses are family owned. This accounts for half of the country’s employment.

Through increased co-operation and the creation of a common voice Griffin feels that family businesses can also get the recognition they deserve.

‘‘It is important to put the contribution of family businesses into perspective, and maybe it needs to be appreciated a bit more,” he said.

The Irish Family Business Conference is being organised by the John C Kelleher Family Business Centre in UCC and is sponsored by Thomas Crosbie Holdings, owners of The Sunday Business Post, Davy Stockbrokers, Enterprise Ireland, PricewaterhouseCoopers and solicitors Ronan Daly Jermyn. For further information, call Judith Muir at 021–4902940. Email family business@ucc.ie

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