From Tina to turnover — LEO boss looks back on a decade of encouragement

Breda Fox: Photo: Martina Regan

Breda Fox: Photo: Martina Regan

From organising a string of Eurovision Song Contests to booking the likes of Tina Turner, there isn’t much that Breda Fox is adverse to turning her hand to, but Tina’s mantra of Simply The Best would be a theme that would run throughout her career.

The popular and personable Breda has been at the coal face of Galway business and the region’s start-up community for more than a decade and has brought to fruition the dreams and aspirations of hundreds of businesses that have gone on to create thousands of jobs in Galway city and county.

She retired from the post last week but I am sure that her experience and competency will not be lost to the region.

But first, a well deserved break. When I sat down to chat with Breda this week in the lobby of the Connacht Hotel, she was looking forward to doing some travelling with her husband Gordon and having a break.

“I’ve been working since I was 15 when I was a nurses’ aide in Merlin Park, so it will be nice to have a break, do some travelling and see what life brings,” she said.

And it is richly deserved.

Breda Fox has been synonymous with the resurgence in entrepreneurship in the west since she has been at the helm of the Local Enterprise Office over the past decade. Taking over the role of the former County Enterprise Boards, LEO has been at the forefront of encouragement for people with ideas and energy.

The road to LEO has been a varied one for Leitrim-born Breda. Her family moved to Galway in 1973 when her father started working for Shell at Galway Docks. She started in secondary school in Taylor’s Hill.

“So I consider Galway as home. When we go over to Leitrim, it is to see the graves, unfortunately.”

When she graduated from the now University of Galway, she went to work with Galway accountant Jim Cormican. Fresh from learning to drive, she recalls with delight the days of taking the company Hiace van to go out to work in Inverin. An article clerk, she completed her training and moved to SKC (now KPMG ). It was in this job that she began to see the world, with assignments in Brisbane, New York and London. A post with Securicor for three years gave her further insight into financial management and planning.

Riverdance

It was her next post that seemed the most unusual — at the Point Depot, then Ireland’s fledgling concert and event venue.

“Yes, that was fascinating. I had to manage the venue for the Eurovision, working with Moya Doherty on Riverdance. I remember the hairs standing up on my neck when we saw the first rehearsal of that performance.

“Hosting the Eurovisions and doing them so well was crucial to the Point getting the credibilty with the establishment was key to us for our licensing and our development. We turned from being loss making. That year we had the Eurovision, we also had five nights of Garth Brooks and it was the first year we made a profit. It was exciting and transformational.

“An English leisure management company took over the control of the venue and invested a lot in the Point. At that stage, it was still the basic warehouse, but the investment allowed us to have the fly towers that enabled us to stage the big productions, the West End shows, the operas. That was huge in terms of cash flow.

“At the time there was only one promoter, Jim Aiken. The change we brought around was that we wouldn’t hire the promoter. We would hire the acts, for example if Mick Jagger or Tina Turner was coming. Back then, normally Ireland, because of the logistics was at the beginning or the end of a tour. So we’d say we have a window or four days for Tina or whoever, and we would book the act and we would allow two promoters to fight over the deal.

It must have been an exciting time to make the crossover from accounting to the high wire act of dealing with top international rock acts. But it was an experience that stood to her, learning lessons that she would eventually pass on to the companies and entrepreneurs she went on to help through LEO and the County Enterprise Board.

“It was very exciting, but it was hugely entrepreneurial as well. Because, it was was hand to mouth, negotiating loans during the currency crisis. There are 365 days in the year, but the theatre was dark for a lot of those nights. If we had 80 active nights, we’d be doing well.

“People often give out about the price of tickets and so on, but there is a window of opportunity, so you have to get as much as you can to maximise the income. The branding, the naming rights were all key to that.”

Balancing act

Working at the Point gave Breda an insight into the balancing act of running a unique business and an insight into the minds of new entrepreneurs coming to her with ideas in later life.

“It game me huge empathy for people in that situation. one thing I am very keen on when dealing with potential entrepreneurs is to give a decision on something quickly.

“I suppose one of the things that I would be very, have been very careful on is you give them the decision as quickly as you can you don’t make them fill out forms. And you try and pay them as quickly as possible. Because it is difficult at that stage of a business. Typically, if we go in and if we’re able to finance a proposal, it allows them to finance it from the bank. Then they have their own vision as well. So we take the burden off.”

When she left the Point, she took a finance role in Transitions Optical in Tuam, and later joined the County Enterprise Board which evolved into LEO.

“When I joined there in 2010, it was just at the time of the financial crisis, so it was really important to help these small companies and get them off the ground.”

Back then, the outlook for Ireland looked bleak for a generation, but Breda felt that this was a fertile environment for start-up opportunities.

“Noel Treacy set up the enterprise boards and that has become the envy of a lot of European countries. There is an impression that Ireland’s economy is based on foreign direct investment, but actually, 80 per cent of the jobs in this country are from indigenous companies.

“Since the LEO was set up, in a three year period, we funded €6.2 million in business development and marketing grants and created 400 jobs.

“The results show or the stats would show, if you do engage with the likes of LEO or Enterprise Ireland and avail of the wider supports, the advisory supports such as implementing lean practices, making yourself more competitive during the export development, you’re more likely to be successful.”

Creating these jobs and boosting these companies must have been very fulfilling.

“Yes, that is the bit I will miss most. You get so embedded in your clients and their stories and their journey and you get a great sense of satisfaction. I would have pushed a lot of clients for competitions, and we have had a lot of Galway winners come through.

“The majority of our supports are not even financial, but would be mainly advisory and nurturing,” she said.

Under her tutelage, the LEO in Galway (which is the only LEO to look after two local authorities ) has a team of eight qualified client-focused staff.

“We have a very strong team. For businesses to be successful, you have to build a team of knowledge and capability. It’s no use having somebody who doesn’t want your job. I think you need energy, and you need that hunger. And so I’m leaving them in a good space.”

What Breda Fox brought to LEO and through that, to the start-ups seeking her advice was a lifetime of lived experiences in businesses in varied fields. Her role in building up an entrepreneurial environment in Galway, (along with the likes of the Galway Technology Centre, the hubs at ATU and University of Galway, and Portershed ) has played a key role in helping Galway Chamber and the IDA attract companies to the region.

This expertise is crucial to the development of a Galway where the next ten years will shape the next hundred. Surely, this expertise will still be available to the region?

“Yes, I hope to continue to offer my knowledge. I find when you are over 50, it is very difficult to get interviews for jobs, but I know I have a lot of knowledge and am able to contribute. I am on a couple of boards and find that rewarding, so I would like to continue having that sort of role.”

She is very excited by the development of the start-up sector, in particular the Bia Innovator project in Athenry which she feels will revolutionise small food production companies.

But first, some travel and a well-deserved break with Gordon, and a visit to her daughter in Australia.

“I have been working since I was 15, when I got my first job as a nurse’s aide in Merlin Park. I soon discovered that I was not cut out for that,” she joked.

However, what was nursing’s loss was enterprise’s gain, and she went on to nurture the bulk of Galway’s fledgeling entrepreneurs.

The region is indebted to her for her efforts.

 

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