‘Get­ting up early to get there first is still the guid­ing prin­ci­ple in my life’

Irish Independent - Business Week - - Interview -

The Gal­way man is coy about nam­ing clients – but he’s been a di­rec­tor of a num­ber of what are now sub­stan­tial firms as they’ve grown, in­clud­ing James Mur­phy’s Lifes2Good, which last year sold its Vivis­cal hair ros­ter for €150m, as well as of the sports chain Elverys.

Sweeney and his long time le­gal part­ner Rory O’Don­nell had merged their firms in the mid-1990s and went onto build up what is now a ma­jor le­gal firm.

Hav­ing done that, and stepped back from busi­ness in his 60s, set­ting up a prac­tice again from scratch wasn’t Sweeney’s orig­i­nal plan.

“Be­tween 2006 and 2008 I had stages two and three of melanoma and de­cided to change pace, be­come a con­sul­tant, but that wasn’t nec­es­sar­ily... it didn’t turn out to be a great idea be­cause you were dragged back into the firm, or back into do­ing the same job, with the same pres­sures and every­thing,” he says.

“In the end I just de­cided it was more prac­ti­cal to de­velop a smaller law firm but fo­cused purely on the pri­vate client and owner-man­aged seg­ment.” Those Ir­ish-owned, of­ten fam­ily-con­trolled busi­ness had al­ways been Sweeney’s own fo­cus, he says.

The of­fice is in Dublin’s leafy Balls­bridge, a stone’s throw from the RDS, where some of his clients will be up to see the horses this week. Is it a lo­cal clien­tele I ask – this be­ing where a lot of Ire­land’s wealth ends up? He chuck­les at the sug­ges­tion. “It’s across the coun­try. We’d have a lot of clients who have been with me for up­wards of 40 years,” he says.

Over that time, Sweeney’s own base shifted, from a prac­tice in Lim­er­ick city to Dublin in the late 1980s – later form­ing the part­ner­ship with O’Don­nell and sub­se­quently, London-based le­gal gi­ant Ever­sheds.

The ini­tial move from Lim­er­ick was to fol­low clients. A clutch of busi­nesses from the re­gion had ex­panded into the cap­i­tal and found it be­com­ing the greater part of their busi­nesses.

Rather than see some of his best clients out­grow him, Sweeney ex­panded along­side them, stay­ing with them in some cases as their busi­ness went na­tional and in­ter­na­tional.

“When we opened the of­fice in Dublin in 1987 we found tech­nol­ogy was the huge driver,

“We had the first Wang OIS in a law prac­tice in Ire­land and a ded­i­cated phone line be­tween Lim­er­ick and Dublin, which gave us a great ad­van­tage.”

The prac­tice sub­se­quently built up scale through the merger to form O’Don­nell-Sweeney.

“Rory’s prac­tice was very sim­i­lar, it was pri­vate client and owner-man­aged busi­ness fo­cused,” he says.

The Ever­sheds con­nec­tion was dif­fer­ent, with the Ir­ish busi­ness strik­ing a fran­chise agree­ment, through per­sonal con­nec­tions be­tween the parters.

“I had a great shoot­ing friend – Cor­nelius Med­vei – he was se­nior part­ner of Ever­sheds in London and this sug­ges­tion came about be­tween us, that we might take a fran­chise, which I thought was a very good idea at the time and that’s where it devel­oped from there.”

Is it awk­ward, I won­der, to ser­vice clients over a long pe­riod through a va­ri­ety of en­ti­ties? “It’s not awk­ward for them and it’s not awk­ward for me,” he says sim­ply.

“I de­cided to go back into pri­vate prac­tice, con­cen­trat­ing on pri­vate clients and owner-man­aged busi­nesses be­cause they have par­tic­u­lar needs,” he says.

“At times they can be well ser­viced by the big law firms, but I do re­ally believe that if pri­vate clients and owner-man­aged busi­nesses have a good so­lic­i­tor – a trusted lawyer and a trusted ac­coun­tant – it can be very valu­able.”

He has a par­tic­u­lar fo­cus on the crit­i­cal junc­tures for a busi­ness – whether to buy or sell, and po­ten­tially most dif­fi­cult of all, pass­ing con­trol through gen­er­a­tions. For found­ing en­trepreneurs, that mix of fam­ily and busi­ness dy­nam­ics cre­ates big chal­lenges, which Sweeney has seen play out many times through the years.

The re­al­ity can very tough at a hu­man level.

“The skills of the en­tre­pre­neur may not pass to the next gen­er­a­tions. The first ques­tion is to de­cide whether the fam­ily are ca­pa­ble of run­ning the busi­ness.

“There are some fam­i­lies where some, but not all mem­bers, could con­tinue the busi­ness and there are some fam­i­lies where no mem­ber can con­tinue the busi­ness, and then it is wise to sell the busi­ness,” he says.

If pass­ing a busi­ness from the founders to their own chil­dren is tough, suc­cess­fully hand­ing on a fam­ily busi­ness through suc­ceed­ing gen­er­a­tions is even trick­ier.

“It is a very rare fam­ily busi­ness that will go through two gen­er­a­tions,” he says. If it does, that usu­ally means it ends up go­ing to one side of a fam­ily,” he says.

“I think the ben­e­fit of 40-odd years of prac­tice is I have seen many busi­nesses face those chal­lenges.”

The other big chal­lenge he sees clients fac­ing over the past decade is fi­nance – the ratch­et­ing up of debt lev­els be­fore the crash, and the sub­se­quent scram­ble to get out from un­der it.

Even now, with the crash over and a re­cov­ery ap­par­ently in full swing, Sweeney thinks the bank­ing sys­tem re­mains dys­func­tional, and fears in par­tic­u­lar the lack of ded­i­cated, re­la­tion­ship-based, lenders to the com­mer­cial sec­tor.

“We don’t have mer­chant banks, or in­dus­trial banks. We could badly do with an ICC (the for­mer In­dus­trial Credit Cor­po­ra­tion) in busi­ness,” he says.

The main banks, he says have be­come too ob­sessed by se­cu­rity, hav­ing mas­sively pulled away from busi­ness lend­ing dur­ing the crash.

As some­one whose fo­cus is on busi­nesses over the long-term, Sweeney doesn’t see the new class of lend­ing funds as a cred­i­ble al­ter­na­tive.

“The ven­ture funds are geared to se­cured lend­ing – they lend, but they cherry pick as­sets and lend against them. It would con­cern me be­cause of the rates they are charg­ing – any­where be­tween 8pc and 12pc in­ter­est rates on short-term loans. They are pro­vid­ing a much-needed ser­vice, but even­tu­ally they will have to be re­placed by or­di­nary bank­ing firms – and there is a huge short­age of or­di­nary bank­ing,” he says.

Prop­erty, in­clud­ing deal­ing with the US pri­vate equity funds that have bought loans se­cured on it, re­mains a huge fo­cus for do­mes­tic firms, he says.

“What you are find­ing is that a lot of busi­nesses and in­di­vid­u­als are buy­ing back as­sets from the vul­ture funds, but with high-rate money.

“On the plus side they are get­ting the huge debt right down, if the as­sets are good qual­ity you can turn them around and thus exit the ex­pen­sive bor­row­ings.”

While the debt costs re­main high, that’s not pro­duc­ing busi­ness wealth, but its help­ing some firms re­cover from the after­math of the fi­nan­cial cri­sis, he says.

More broadly, he sees the econ­omy, and Dublin in par­tic­u­lar, in re­cov­ery.

“It is cer­tainly changed times. Prop­erty val­ues have come back and it is mak­ing peo­ple feel much more se­cure in their homes and in their in­vest­ments.”

Where does that leave his own firm? “At 67, I’m for­tu­nate in hav­ing two younger part­ners and a young team and I’m en­joy­ing watch­ing the busi­ness grow. There’s am­bi­tion for the busi­ness. Grow­ing up in Athenry, I learned an ex­pres­sion: ‘You’ve got to get up early to get there be­fore the Loughrea lads’.

“This was in shoot­ing terms but that prin­ci­ple has, and still does, guide my life.”

Be­tween 2006 and 2008 I had stages two and three of melanoma and de­cided to change pace

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