When the chips are down

In this new series, Padraic O Maille sits down and has a chat with some of the doers and achievers of the city and county. This week, he meets Supermac’s supremo Pat McDonagh.

Pat McDonagh MD of Supermacs with Padraic O'Maille. 

Photo:-Mike Shaughnessy

Pat McDonagh MD of Supermacs with Padraic O'Maille. Photo:-Mike Shaughnessy

St. Jarlath’s College was, as it is today, quite simply the best Gaelic football school in the world.

Few opponents could expect to live with them for long, least of all the Carmelite College in Moate.

That would have been the case too one blustery spring day in the late sixties but for the presence of an unknown centre half forward on the Moate team. He saw opportunities where none existed. He believed implicitly that they could win irrespective of tradition and the odds. He brought others into the game to play the match of their lives. And the crowd liked him.

As the game ended in the most unlikely of victories for the Carmelites, one wag was clearly overheard shouting from the sideline “Supermac, you’re mighty”.

He wouldn’t realise it at the time but he had just given name to what would become the iconic indigenous brand name for fast food in Ireland. A brand in the mould of the young footballer that day, that would in time take on the best known business brands of its type in the world, and have the attitude, the belief, the vision and the charisma to win.

Pat Mc Donagh grew up where he still resides today, in Kiltulla Co. Galway, midway between Athenry and Loughrea. It will give encouragement to dossers everywhere, and to their parents and teachers, that as a young teenager Pat’s parent deemed it necessary to send him boarding to the Carmelite College in Moate.

It would teach him amongst other things the value of “self-discipline”, a characteristic that he would later describe as “one of the most important attributes of successful people the world over”. Inadvertently, it would also provide him with what would become his driving and guiding philosophy in life.

“We were in study this evening when I leaned over to get something from the fella in front of me. Unbeknownst to me the guy behind me, a Finian Darby from Mullingar, had positioned the needle of a compass under my seat. Needless to say, when I sat down I let a roar out of me that would have woken the dead. Both Darby and I were duly summoned up to the podium and a Fr. Langan meted out the punishment. We were to memorise and write out a hundred times the following lines from Shakespeare”.

“There is a tide in the affairs of men,

Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune”.

“That became my mantra. I discovered that at any one time there are always loads of opportunities out there. The trick is to be awake and hungry and ready. And in order to be ready you have to become a great learner.”

“My mother used say that ‘When you’re old enough to die you’re wise enough to live’. What she meant by that was that life is one great opportunity to learn”.

‘A farm is a great teacher. I learned about the law of the farm – that what you sow is what you reap.’

“I learned from everyone and everything. During school I used help a local farmer called Bill Staunton. A farm is a great teacher. I learned about the law of the farm – that what you sow is what you reap. There’s no point expecting to harvest in the autumn if you haven’t sown in the spring. I learned later that sometimes even if you do sow in the spring it can still rain on your parade and you may not actually get rewarded, but that’s the price you have to pay. More than anything else I learned from farming that you have to be multi-skilled. This is crucial in running a business.”

“I was mad to learn and it didn’t matter what job I did I learned something from it. I started taking photographs at events and functions and festivals. I remember one night down at The Rose of Tralee. It was lashing rain and bad for business. I figured if I could only get inside “The Dome” I’d be elected but I didn’t have a press card. I went up to the doorman, flashed my camera, and when he asked “Press”, I replied “No, Independent” and got admitted straight away”.

“The next night the Wolfe Tones were playing and as I was standing outside wondering how I’d get in who pulled up but the Wolfe Tones themselves and they laden down with heavy equipment. Quick as a wink I said to them “Lad’s, d’ye want a hand? As I said Padraic, there are always opportunities if you’re on the look out”

“Another summer I cottoned on to candy floss. Don’t quote me on this but there must have been a 1000% margin on candy floss. The problem was to get people to know about you. I discovered that it had little to do with the taste but everything to do with the noise. I got this big generator to power the little machine to make the floss. The great thing was when you revved up that generator you were heard for miles around”.

Back at school Pat identified three choices following his Leaving Certificate. He could join the army, go to college or, like his mother and sisters before him, do national school teaching. He opted for the latter on the basis that he felt that it would be good to have a qualification, that it was only two years, and that he would have long summer holidays in which to pursue a myriad of business ideas.

At the tender age of twenty years Pat was appointed as Principal of Kilrickle National School. He is suitably humble to admit that “Mrs Regan and I were the only teachers but I learned a lot about business and life from teaching. You have to plan, prepare, deal with difficult situations on the hop, and always be on top of your game. I learned that every kid has a talent for something. Finding that out is your job. I’d love to be back teaching – specifically teaching entrepreneurism. National School is the time to be building their dreams. You have time to experiment which you don’t always get in the real world”.

“I simply walked across the street to another bank and got the loan there.’

As planned, the long summers afforded Pat the opportunity to build other businesses. At this time, pool had begun to become fashionable as a game and Pat seized on the opportunity to install pool tables in pubs. The business flourished and it occurred to Pat that there was a great opportunity to open a pool hall in Ballinasloe.

Not totally unsurprisingly – him being all of 22 years young, the bank refused him a loan. “I simply walked across the street to another one and got it there. That’s why I always use two banks ever since”.

The next issue was “a small one concerning planning permission. We were refused it for the pool hall. We appealed it and that too was turned down. I learned at that young age a great lesson – that very often when your back is to the wall is when you are at your most powerful. I had no option but to look around and see what else Ballinasloe needed. I identified a need for a nightclub, a furniture shop and a fast food restaurant. Not being able to afford the first two I resolved to open the first Supermac’s”.

Opening a fast food outlet was one thing if you knew something about it. Pat didn’t, but he found someone who did and that is another of his core mindsets – “You should always surround yourself with people who are smarter than yourself. At a very minimum you need a great accountant; a great HR person; a great solicitor; and great managers. There are lots of better managers in Supermacs than me”.

His first hire was Michael Carroll, a chef from Haydens Hotel who would later go on to open three restaurants in New York. From Michael he learned about food and food preparation and recipes. The rest he learned from that master trainer – trial and error.

Shortly after opening, his regular potato supplier ran out of spuds. Pat heard that there were great potatoes in Turloughmore and duly went down there with a trailer and purchased a ton of the most fantastic looking spuds. As he was blanching them that night for chips he knew there was something amiss. What he discovered later was that he’d just been sold a ton of Aran Banners, a potato normally used for fattening cattle. “When I didn’t poison Ballinasloe that night I never will”.

A few weeks later, with the Ballinasloe Horse Fair kicking in business was booming. Pat recalls a Saturday night when “there was a queue a mile long down the street. We were bombing it, really flying it. And all of a sudden, darkness. I had a shop full of hungry customers who wouldn’t take no for an answer. With that I wrapped some cigarette paper around a fuse and sure enough we were back in business. About an hour later it went out again and this time “I made sure to be sure”. I wrapped a full sheet of tinfoil paper around the fuse and it lasted ‘till about half three in the morning. Then the whole street went out.”

For most people, holding down a demanding job and opening a new business would be the apex of their dreams. Not so for Pat. His vision always was “to build a business that you could replicate”. “In order to do that you need to first and foremost develop great systems and then support them with great people”. Ballinasloe was to be where he would fine-tune his first franchise prototype, that would in time form the basis of the highly profitable business model that drives all of the current 90 Supermacs shops.

‘there’s a bit more money in chips than in algebra’

As the shops increased he choose to retire from teaching, explaining to his employer Bishop Kirby that “there’s a bit more money in chips than in algebra”. For all that, his management style hasn’t changed an iota. He still positively loves the hustle and bustle of being on the shop floor.

It’s a pity they don’t make cameras like Pat Mc Donagh because in one you would have a wide angle lens capable of capturing the most expansive of visions and at the same time a zoom lens capable of zooming in on the most forensic of details. I was minded of Tom Peters, in the seminal work “In Search of Excellence” where he said “Excellence can be measured in inches or millimetres”. Or as Uncle Stiofain would have put it “The divil is in the detail”.

I suspect we’d still be talking but for two things. “Padraic, I have to go. One of the lads is playing a hurling match in Ardrahan at six”. The other was his wife Una calling him to say there was a traders’ meeting on in Loughrea later that night and “it might be no harm to shove your head in”.

Despite the ninety shops, and the myriad of detail involved in running them, Pat has never lost sight of the core values of family and sport and making time for both. His wife Una has walked every inch of the journey with him since she first started helping in Ballinasloe all those years ago. Great businesses, similar to great families, rely on great mothers and through thick and thin Una has been Supermacs mother. Pat is fond of a saying that goes “Some people talk a great shop. Other people work a great shop”. Una is clearly in the latter. Her humility, her warmth and her willingness to “work” a great shop have contributed hugely to the integrity of the Supermacs brand.

The final lines of Brutus’ advice to Caesar in Act 4, Scene 3 of that infamous speech were

“On such a full sea are we now afloat.

And we must take the current when it serves,

Or lose our ventures”.

It’s apposite that Pat believes we are now on a tide of massive opportunity. “I have seen more opportunities in the last six months than I have in the previous six years”.

Hard to improve on the wag’s comment from the sideline all those years ago.


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