Published on: July 12, 2013
Content Guy's Note: "The MNB Interview" is designed to engage with business thought leaders who I like and respect, and who have something to say. It has run each workday from July 1-12, while I have been on holiday, and has a simple format. I posed to each of the interviewees the same 13 questions and requested that they answer at least 10 of them; I told them that their answers could be as short or long as they wished, and as serious or irreverent as they liked. What I was looking for was a window into how they think and feel.
Today's MNB Interview features Senator Feargal Quinn, author, TV host, and founder of Ireland's iconic Superquinn grocery chain.
Feargal Quinn is many things. A business legend. A statesman. A dedicated public servant. An entrepreneur. A devoted family man. The list could go on and on. But when I think of Feargal - and I count myself privileged to be his friend and to be able to call him that - I think not of his accomplishments, but of the warmth of his personality that seems to envelop everyone he is with. Actually, "warmth" isn't the right word. "Sunny personality" would be more appropriate - from the smile on his face to the outrageously colored socks he always seems to be wearing. I've seen it first hand when I had the opportunity to walk stores with him ... how he seemed genuinely and fundamentally connected to the people who worked for Superquinn and the people who shopped there. (In America, this would make him wholly miscast for a career in politics; in Ireland, it has seemed to translate well to the public policy arena.) When I thought up this concept, I knew from the beginning that I wanted Feargal to be part of it. And I'm thrilled that he agreed.
The MNB Interview...
What's the most important thing you've learned in your career?
Feargal Quinn: The most important thing I have learned in my career is ensuring that my customers have such a good experience that they come back again. I call that the Boomerang Principle. Too many businesses spend their time and energy looking to attract new customers rather than making their existing customers into missionaries for your business. Missionaries spend their time recruiting new disciples to the cause – and if that cause is your business then it really is a win – win – win result.
What's the biggest - and in retrospect, the most important - mistake that you've ever made, and how did you grow from it?
Feargal Quinn: The biggest mistake I made occurred some years ago. WE had just developed our loyalty card and we now had great knowledge about our customers.
One occasion our major competitor had undergone an industrial dispute and was forced to cease trading whilst the strike continued for two weeks. WE gained a considerable increase in business during those two weeks and we signed up many new customers into our loyalty scheme. When the strike was over, many of those customers went back to their normal shopping venue. We made the mistake of trying to coax them back to us by bribing them with generous offers.However, we immediately alienated our regular loyal customers who could see their disloyal neighbours receiving deals that the customers who remained loyal did not receive. We never made that mistake again!
What is the most significant thing you do each week, and why?
Feargal Quinn: The most significant thing I do each week, in fact each day, is put a smile on my face and go to work looking forward to the day.Those of us who are fortunate enough to have a career that we enjoy can find that enthusiasm can be contagious and that smile can enthuse those with whom we come into contact.In recent years I have had my own TV show, ‘Feargal Quinn’s Retail Therapy,' on Irish National Television. I visit stores all around Ireland, big and small shops, garden centres, etc. and the most important message that I can give to the merchants is the influence each person has on the people they work with and the people e they do business with. That’s where the smile comes in!
What is the most irreplaceable or essential piece of technology you own, and why?
Feargal Quinn: The piece of technology I value most is the new American refrigerator we bought for our kitchen last year. The water filter means we drink far more water than ever, and the ice maker ensures that the water always tastes refreshing. There has to be a loser, and in this case the loser is the bottle water supplier who has lost the Quinn family business.However, the second piece of technology is the very efficient French corkscrew which can open a bottle of wine before you can say ‘Sláinte’ – the Irish word for ‘good health.'
What is your favorite movie (and is there a business lesson in it)?
Feargal Quinn: My favourite movie, and the business lesson in it, has to be Jaws. It is also the first chapter in ‘The Big Picture’ by Kevin Coupe and Michael Sansolo of MNB fame!In the film, the mayor of the seaside town refuses to close the beach because it would damage the tourist business. Kevin Coupe points out that ‘Denial is never a good idea’ yet we come across it regularly in every day business life. Developing trust in your customer’s perception is something we should put at the top of our priorities and sometimes that means taking a lower profit in the short-term creates a long-term gain.
Content Guy's Note: For the record, I did not ask Feargal to quote our book. But I obviously would not disagree with his conclusions ... and you can see the scene he refers to here.
Who has been the most influential person in your business life, and why?
Feargal Quinn: The most influential person in my business life has been my father without any doubt.
Not only did I learn the Boomerang Principle from him – he ran a holiday camp in Ireland where the objective was to give the customers such a good experience that they would come back the following year.However the business message that he stressed to me was that your good name is such a valuable asset that you should never risk it by giving your banker a bad surprise. In effect that means keeping your banker up to date with not just your trading successes but also the likely pitfalls. That advice has been of great value to me during my business career.
Keenest insight (so far) from your life and/or career?
Feargal Quinn: The value of a smile.Sometimes I speak to school children about the value of being generous. But sometimes they tell me they don’t have anything to give. And I tell them to give a STAR - Smile ... Time ... Approachability ... Recognition.
When it comes to food, what is your greatest pleasure and your greatest weakness?
Feargal Quinn: Cooking and eating scallops in good company.
Most memorable meal? Where & what & why?
Feargal Quinn: It was a Christmas dinner in our daughter Zoe’s home. I had a major worry that as she, her husband, four children and my wife are all vegetarian, that the Christmas meal would not be to my liking. Luckily her parents-in-law announced that they were visiting from the US and we had turkey and ham for 3. Zoe, and her French American husband, live in a house built in the 1840s and it is a replica of the sort of home in Gone with the Wind. What made the occasion was the constant interruptions from our excited grandchildren showing what Santa Claus had brought that day!
Favorite place to go to eat/drink, not your home?
Feargal Quinn: Gigi’s beach restaurant, Quinta do Lago in South Portugal. Denise and I have been going there for 20 years. The first time I spotted the restaurant I tried to coax Denise to go but she was reluctant. Finally she agreed to go there for lunch and when we got there we were asked if we had a reservation. As we had no reservation they told us to come back at 4 pm as they were packed out! But we got to know Gigi and Leonaora and it’s a very simple fish restaurant in what was originally a shack on the beach. It’s still a shack but has wonderful food.
What is the thing that you haven't yet done that you would most like to do?
Feargal Quinn: Welcome my great grandchildren … but no pressure!
If you had to define the most important aspect of leadership, what would it be and why?
Feargal Quinn: Setting the tone!
This is something I learned from Fred Meijer in his supermarket chain in Grand Rapids, Michigan. During my visit I asked Fred various questions about his way of doing business. One of my questions was about the intricacies of how his delivery trucks worked. His response remains with me to this day: “Feargal, I don’t know. When a company gets this big, sometimes all I can do is SET THE TONE”.
Fred was true to his word on this, in everything he did. As we went around his shops together, Fred never parked in a good car-parking space; he always parked at the back of the car park and walked up to the entrance. He never walked up without wheeling a couple of shopping carts with him. He never walked past a piece of litter or paper on the floor, even in the car park, without picking it up (much like President Hillery and me). (Content Guy's Note: Patrick John Hillery was the president of Ireland from 1976 until 1990.) And he never walked past one of his own employees without shaking hands with them, even though he couldn’t possibly know them all personally with such a huge number of people working there.
I remember being thoroughly impressed with all of this because essentially what he was doing was setting the tone that he wanted others within his company to follow. He was leading by example in the most wonderful way.
Monday: MNB returns to its usual mix of news and commentary, analysis with attitude, and one more MNB Interview.
- KC's View: