As we so often say on That Great Business Show, when you want something done, ask someone who is already busy doing it.
In addition to leading his 20 year company, he is a former Lord Mayor of Dublin Gerry Breen is also Secretary of My Drumcondra Business Group and Board Member of Dublin City LEO. Although he has left politics behind, Breen is open to sharing his advice with those seeking political solutions to local and national problems.
Breen, 64, owns and operates First Aid Supplies with his wife Maeve Breen, while daughter Niamh became director last year. Balbriggan Company is a leading provider of first aid products and PPE for schools and workplaces. It stocks hundreds of first aid products and has approximately 4,000 customers. The company is a very solid SME that offers a good income to its owners and Gerry Breen appreciates his situation very much.
“It’s a fantastic business,” he says. “I have excellent employees and four sales representatives. I am truly privileged to have secured the business from a previous employer, Smith and Nephew, and I believe anyone who works for themselves is fortunate.
“I often say that some people go from the tyranny of school to the tyranny of employment to the tyranny of retirement. I don’t pinch myself every morning. The business is relentless and demands a lot from you, but it’s also great fun and energetic.
“You have to focus on the business, and the more you focus on it, the more successful you become. You’ll see what should be done, what can’t be done, and what could be done. All the time you’re iterating with the company to see what’s working and what’s not working.
“I often think how smart the Covid tribe is. He doesn’t copy identically every time – he mutates easily. That’s what companies should be doing, because you’re constantly trying to anticipate the threats and opportunities to your business and build your capital reserves and also your managerial capacity.”
In his twenties, Breen found the appeal of politics and joined Fine Gael. He was elected to Dublin City Council as Clontarf’s representative in 1999 and was elected Lord Mayor of Dublin in June 2010. He had two unsuccessful elections for a D il seat and left active politics after the 2014 local elections.
Gerry Breen was once a political insider, and although he has retired from that system to run his successful SME, his views on what the public expects of our politicians are interesting, particularly as he blames some politicians for to raise expectations.
“I think that politicians are trying to pretend that the government, in the broadest sense, should deliver everything,” he notes. “They can’t. Even at the low level that I was on Dublin City Council, one could see how inertia resists change. The government is good at regulation but not good at enforcement. It’s not like there are bad people in public service. My point would be that if you are an official at the local government level, you will get very frustrated.
One of the issues affecting Breen right now is the Remote Work Request Right Act. As an entrepreneur who understands the practicalities of hiring and retaining employees, Breen points to a number of contradictions within the draft, issues that could mean SMEs have to spend time and money fighting labor relationship claims.
Gerry Breen is a man who loves a good play on words and a pithy line. “A wise man once told me that the first item on the agenda should be doing nothing,” he notes. “Unfortunately, sometimes Irish politicians – possibly because of the Irish public – have to be seen to do something.”
Breen believes that’s what happened with remote work rights. With the post-Covid return to the workplace, he believes politicians have opted to do something to allow staff to work from home, as many had done over the past two years, even if the employer considered this to be inappropriate. A case of lawmakers who know how to run a business better than the business owner.
Here’s the catch, according to the former mayor. Employers in Ireland know that significant rights arise after 52 weeks of employment. However, a worker under this proposed legislation could apply for remote work after 26 weeks. “I would urge the government to step out of the way and let companies handle their relationship with their workers. With a valued employee, employers let them work from home or elsewhere as long as they deliver the goods.”
Gerry Breen would prefer remote work legislation to wither on the vine. However, he doesn’t want total inaction from the legislature, especially when it comes to another of his hot topics. According to Breen: “Entering the Irish legal system is like walking into a restaurant blindfolded and with no prices on the menu.
He cites the example of a friend who was charged with dangerous driving and had to appear in court about 20 times before the charges were dismissed. “At one point the Garda who carried out the technical assessment of the accident was in Australia on a secondment or sabbatical. My mate incurred enormous costs before he was found innocent. I was foaming at the mouth for him.”
Breen welcomes the government’s progress in reforming insurance claims. “Now they have to go to the next phase by beating the insurance companies and pushing premiums down,” he adds. “This will be solid work that will benefit not only employers and businesses, but consumers as well.”
Although Breen is not actively involved in politics, she remains involved in the community through the networking group Drumcondra, which meets once a month at the Skylon Hotel. “After a certain age, it’s very difficult to learn new tricks,” admits Breen. “I think it’s crucial to appreciate what you don’t know and then access the information. When you work in a company, you can get caught in a mental tunnel because it’s so relentless.”
Gerry Breen’s top business tip? Simplicity. In his role on the judging panel for his Local Enterprise Office for grant applications, Breen’s mantra is KISS – keep it simple stupid. For example, don’t mention a Minimum Viable Product to Gerry. He just wants to know, in the simplest language, what your business is doing and how it will be successful.
Applicants hiding behind language worries this entrepreneur that the applicant lacks confidence in their own business. Worse, they might be hiding something. And since it’s public money he’s distributing, Gerry Breen wouldn’t like it.