Our trade is about building relationships – I love to chat so I didn’t have to change’
My family business is 75 years old this year, it’s fourth generation but growing up I never expected to get involved. I never worked there part-time and instead worked in a pizza restaurant. I studied politics and business at Trinity and then went travelling with my best friend, Suzanne Tierney. We went to South America and Australia and then I headed to New Zealand. I managed a couple of music venues there and liked the late shifts, though it was high tempo – I would be too old to work that way now. An hour of clear-up and a social drink with colleagues meant I would head to bed at 2am and sleep in till 10am. During the day I volunteered in a rescue centre before my shift at 5pm. When I came home for a holiday my family sat me down and asked if I would come into the business. My jaw hit the floor I was that surprised. I took a few months to decide. I loved New Zealand, but wanted to be close to friends and family and realised it was my best opportunity to come home; Ireland was just emerging from recession and things were bleak.
Learning the drill
I started in cash and invoicing where two wonderful ladies took me under their wing. I moved on to the trade counter and lasted five minutes – there was so much knowledge I needed. There were no barcodes to scan. I had to know the name of nearly 10,000 products – nobody can teach you. I headed to our warehouse and timber yard and stayed until I learned the ropes. I made a general nuisance of myself for months asking “what’s this product?” and “what’s that?”. I returned to the shop – slowly, slowly – and started with stacking shelves, reading the names on the boxes. Builders are very supportive; at the start they would give me advice. They are down-to earth and personable. It took a year or two for the knowledge to click into place and then the builders were coming to me for guidance.
A man’s world
I was the first woman to visibly work in the business since my grandmother Veronica who ran the show. It’s a male-dominated industry and I thought I had to become more masculine but realised that tactic was only hurting myself. The business is all about building relationships and winning loyalty and my strength is talking to people – there was no need to change who I was. Many builders are from Romania and we got lucky with Laura, she is from there and her family owns a builders provider, so she knows the trade and deals with our Romanian customers. We help locally as much as we can; we run a community garden and take on apprenticeships from the local area at our tool hire service.
My fiance Mark is a building contractor and we met in the shop six years ago. He did not ask me there – I would have been insulted and never would have accepted a proposal over the trade counter. Mark would usually buy his supplies elsewhere but was passing one day. He says it was love at first sight and suddenly he was in every other day buying things he did not need. Before Covid, we had a tea station and we would chat by the coffee machine for ages. He ended up working on a friend’s house and we all went out for dinner and have been inseparable since. We talk construction at home non-stop – I never stop learning because there are always new ways of doing things.
Rise and shine
I’m a night owl and construction is all early starts – after nine years I’m still not used to it. The alarm goes off at 5.30am and I take my time getting ready and having breakfast. It’s a twenty-minute drive into work and I’m in for 7am. Everyone’s temperature gets taken and I do a circuit and turn on the kettle, the lights, the computer and heating. The business comes in waves. There is a set crowd for the early birds, then the nine o’clock covers. Many contractors, electricians, plumbers or business owners use their lunch to leave the site and pop down. My job involves running around and putting stocks away. I spend a lot of time doing orders and preparing dockets at the counter. We share duties and everyone mucks in.
Out of sight
I can switch off completely when I head home at five and as I turn up my drive I’ll see my dog Millie, a cockapoo, waiting for me in the window and trembling with excitement, I am grateful for this strict division. There is nothing I can do from home – I can’t access my database – and I want to keep it that way. I am glad I can go into work in lockdown – it gives me an anchor to normality and my colleagues keep me sane. We have good fun, we work hard but there are always pranks.
Keeping the head
The best advice I was given was: “things will go wrong and when they do, just keep calm”. There is no point in losing it. There is a steep learning curve in construction; you need a lot of knowledge getting to know the names of plumbing fittings etc and mistakes happen until you get up to speed. I tell the junior staff we can fix anything. If someone gives you a long order for a bathroom measurement and you give the wrong stuff, sometimes this is only discovered after it has been drilled into place; it’s annoying for everyone but we can sort it.
As a manager on a very busy trade counter, my day is ten hours of interaction with the builders and tradespeople and I love it. Working in hospitality was great training. I like the Buddhist concept you should approach the people you are currently talking to with the view that they are the most important person in the universe. Showing respect and punctuality are two great traits in any job.
When I see companies closed for good because of Covid, it breaks my heart. Behind those shutters are many family businesses and people’s hopes and dreams shut down. I find it easier being part of a family business because you can be honest, I can show vulnerability without being worried what it looks like. In the first lockdown, the DIY business was crazy, but overall this year is going to be tough. Builders were, very quietly allowed to finish what they are doing up to last Friday, but they can’t start new jobs and there are fines if they do. The plumbers are busy, and there are refurbs going for the council. But we expect it to be quiet now. We will get some stocktaking done.
The power of OM
I’m the eldest and the only one in the business. My father and uncle are still very heavily involved. They are cool guys, very easy to work for. We place a lot of trust in our staff; I think that’s one of the reasons they stay so long – some have been with us for 32 years, we never micromanage. I have gotten really into Buddist chanting. Ten minutes makes a difference. I am a huge stress-head and this stills my mind. And when Millie jumps into my lap when I get home – five minutes of stroking her and all the pressure melts away. ‘When I see family firms closed for good because of Covid it just breaks my heart’.