“The Best Time I ever had at work…”
Frank Fell, the LVA’s much-esteemed previous Chief Executive (now enjoying retirement) admits to knowing very little about the Association before joining it in 1979.
18 April 2017 | 0
“I was head-hunted,” he tells me as we sit in the comfort of his spacious Ranelagh house with a wonderful view up the back garden.
“I was interviewed by three people,” he recalls, “Kevin Molloy, Ted McGovern and Phil McGrath”.
Up to then he’d been in the dairy industry, heavily involved in domestic pricing for dairy products: butter, cheese, liquid milk, caesin and skimmed powder.
An economist with “a good job in the diary industry” it took him some time to come around to the recruitment agency’s blandishments to join the LVA as its Chief Executive.
The Association’s fortunes were at a low ebb when Frank joined.
“Price control was one of the main challenges while the LVA’s relationship with the Government was not good. Its relationship with ‘Uncle Arthur’ was not as good as it could be either,” he adds.
On the other hand, shiny new Chief Executive Frank had a great deal of experience in dealing with civil servants thanks to his work with the Common Agricultural Policy, the green pound devaluations etc.
He recalls the LVA having three major challenges during his time in office, one of which was Price Freeze Orders and price controls (which continued to be renewed up to the mid-80s).
The 80s also witnessed a high degree of unionisation in the trade coupled with a fair bit of inflation.
In greater Dublin 80% of the pubs were unionised and a £5 increase in a barman’s pay meant a one pence rise in the price of a pint.
“I remember margins back then were only around 20% and we were hemmed in by price control.”
The LVA held a very important place in Dublin life in those days, very central to it. Today’s Dublin pub trade seems very different to when Frank joined.
“The whole drinking culture has changed for one thing,” he tells me, “The on-trade was supreme in those days without the threat from the off-trade which became much more prominent in the 90s.
“This changed the impetus and emphasis on the on-trade which has led to considerable change since my retirement. Dónall O’Keeffe’s skills are much more relevant than mine would have been. Now, the emphasis has to be on marketing. The State has receded to a great degree from where they were when I came in.
“The emphasis now is on making the pub relevant,” he tells me, “In those days it was never about relevance. Today, it’s unkonwn for customers to sit at the bar and buy six pints as they did back then.
“Unionisation is also more or less non-existent in the bar trade,” he says.
The building of Anglesea House followed demolition of the old building and was officially opened in 1986 by the then Minister for Justice Alan Dukes (who Frank had got to know when he was an economist to the Irish Farmers Association and Frank was in the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society).
Frank describes Kevin Molloy as being one of the “great innovators” in the Association at that time, someone very structured in his approach to what he felt the LVA should be doing.
“Kevin would have been the LVA’s leading light in that he was involved in all the important matters of the day, taking over what was then the most important LVA sub-committee – Economics – and shaping this into a very powerful tool. Along with others, he was instrumental in getting Anglesea House underway, a status HQ for any organisation.”
Senator Eddie Bohan also played a large part in LVA affairs during Frank’s time.
“Elected in 1987 he’d a huge bearing on licensing law in Ireland during his 20 years in the Senate,” says Frank.
The pair would have been instrumental in building up and rebuilding the undoubted power and influence that the LVA has come to enjoy down through the years.
“Eddie and Kevin came at things from very different perspectives,” he recalls, “Both had a very big – if not governing – influence over many years. Eddie knew everybody and he played the politician while I played the civil servant.
“Eddie was brilliant at networking and both of us enjoyed it.”
Effectively, the Association always had a lot of good people around, willing to give their time, he says, “….. like Michael Madigan and other strong publicans who also had an influence.”
Kevin Molloy and Frank were responsible for the coming into being of the Drinks Industry Group of Ireland in 1981, he remembers.
“At that time the level of tax on alcohol was vicious. It was a big job to get everybody involved as the brewers had a different agenda to the wine suppliers and distillers. We wanted to forge a united front from the industry as a whole and to pursue the objective of lower alcohol taxation.
“Alcohol tax is a tax on tax because excise duty attracts VAT. The tax level was a major impinger on profit for the whole drinks industry because suppliers were price-controlled too.”
The DIGI became – and remains – a very powerful lobby. It got the industry – distillers, brewers, wine importers and the licensed trade – to produce a unified submission to Government, especially on tax matters.
“Taxation was a big issue. The Government was the trade’s biggest partner as they were taking so much in in tax. It was a very easy thing to do in the run-up to a Budget, to put a few pence on excise tax.”
Frank smiles at the fiscal simplicity of it all back then before summing up his career there: “I look back on the LVA as being the best time I ever had at work – I enjoyed it enormously.”
How many of us could say that, I thought, as I took my leave.