Talking Trade

Noreen O’Sullivan – ‘Supporting local’ works both ways

Noreen O’Sullivan, the VFI’s new President, is the first woman to hold the post. She talks to Pat Nolan about the challenges ahead.

The VFI’s first-ever woman PresidentNoreen O’Sullivan has been involved in the pub trade for the past 25 years – ever since the former nurse and midwife married her husband Jim, in fact.

Their pub, Rocky’s in Nenagh’s Kickham Street, has been a family-run establishment for four generations now and she’d be just delighted if either of her two daughters were to contemplate taking up the running of the bar.

“Women have always been involved in bars down through the ages” she reminds me, “so it’s great to have it recognised and be the first lady President. It’s all about looking after our 4,200 members but it’s also about getting people interested and involved in promoting themselves as vintners.”
And is being a woman likely to make any difference to her approach as VFI President?
“No,” she responds, “It’s the same approach whether you’re male or female. We’re still looking for Government to address one of our biggest problems – cheap alcohol.”

Cheap alcohol must be tackled
From her own neck of the woods she cites: “Taxi-drivers are telling me that they’re driving people into town drunk now. It’s sad to see them so intoxicated. This is going on a lot and is an issue that has to be looked at by all of us in society.”

And excise increases are not the answer either.

“Every citizen has done his or her bit for the recession and we don’t need to see any more taxes taking money out of their pocket.
“We had two increases in the last two years. The Government will kill the goose that lays the golden egg if there are any more. Tourists now see Ireland as expensive. It’s not good for our ordinary people either, it’s not good for jobs or employment.”

Publicans as job creators
The Government has stated that it’s going to create and look after jobs but the on-trade provides a lot of these jobs yet the message seems to have been lost on our legislators.

“We have to constantly drive home to them the importance of the pub as a business in the local community and how much pubs give the Government as well as the role we play in providing full-time jobs, Summer jobs, part-time jobs, jobs that are a huge part of keeping a community viable and preventing people from falling onto the dole.

“They’ve given a commitment to address this issue but they’ve been talking about it for long enough. We need to see a bit of action on this. The pub industry provides 50,000 jobs. That’s not something to be taken lightly.

“Also, tourists are a growing force in this country and some 80% of them have voted the pub as the Number One tourist attraction. We therefore play a huge part in our tourism industry.”

But the pub also plays a role in the local community, through local sponsorships etc.

“It’s all about supporting local, buying local and growing our communities – the publican plays a huge part in that. Pubs are generally family-owned and support local jobs, often in places where there’s little alternative.”

Promoting the positive
During her two-year term she’d like Federation members to see what they themselves can do in promoting a more positive image of the publican going forward through facebook and other social media.

“The last few years have been very difficult for the pub and it’s important therefore to get the message out there about what a great place the pub is,” she says, “There has been a focus on the major issues facing our members but there are amazing pubs out there providing great value and we need to shout about all that is good.

“At home, where I come from, in the evening-time we have people coming in on a bus into town to do a shop and they’ll come into the pub for a drink or whatever, but really it’s to meet-up with others and to socialise as they’re isolated out in the country.

Tackling rural isolation
“Alan Kelly in my part of the country has introduced a rural hackney scheme and I think it’s important to have this running and working successfully for it’s great to get people out and about as they can be a bit forgotten about in rural Ireland – especially if they don’t have a car.

“If only the Government realised this act of keeping communities alive and vibrant… They need to sit up and take notice of us more – and they haven’t been doing this. But now that councillors are calling to our door, it seems a good time to tell them….”

Tackling business costs
She’d love to see Government look at the real cost of running a business, at the cost of rates for small businesses in Ireland, for example.

“In the past, rateable valuation was based on square footage. Now they’re looking for a set of accounts and basing the valuation on earnings. These have taken a nosedive.

So unless the premises was added to or renovated, no revaluations have been carried out. It’s good to see this changing but it’s been very slow and I hope it won’t take a couple of years to get to all counties – that needs to be speeded up”.

She points out too that staff costs and PRSI going back from 4% to 8% are causing a lot of hardship at a time when people are trying to grow their business.

“So overall, the Government has a huge role to play and need to realise it,” she says, “The government has got a good deal right but they need to now support small businesses and help instil more consumer confidence.”

Green shoots
And she sees little difference between the challenges facing her and those facing her counterpart in Dublin’s LVA.

“Cheap drink, business costs – the city would have a higher population, possibly, but there is a pickup and you can definitely see that in Dublin 1. It will probably take a bit longer to reach rural communities as we haven’t seen it to the same extent.”
But things do seem to be looking up in the trade.

“They may be only small green shoots but when I go to Dublin or Galway I can see it and this should come down to the countryside in due course,” she explains.

Pubs & the tourist
To Noreen, the future is tourism.

“The Wild Atlantic Way touring route has great potential for publicans from Malin Head to Kinsale” she explains, “as the tourist will be entertained, fed, get directions and enjoy the pub experience.

“Pubs have a role to play in showing tourists all the positives about Ireland and the ‘Cead Mile Fáilte’.  We’ve to help ourselves as well, get involved in all that’s good about the pub and get people back into the pub, putting on events, making use of facebook and twitter and getting familiar with how to use it.”

Card-playing is back in her pub on a Wednesday night “… and so you know you’ll have at least 10 people there playing cards. At the weekend we’ve cocktail offerings and special cocktail nights during the week.”

She’s looking too at the wine market down to the size of the glasses – women love the larger size of glass, she says.
“People will come out if you put on an atmosphere and an offering. I’m a big believer in ‘supporting local’ working both ways.”

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