Being good is good business (pt 2)
2007-08-16 14:56:51 -
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Why being responsible in your community gives you an edgeFounder of O’Briens Sandwich Bars, BRODY SWEENEY, continues his series on how to cope with the stresses and strains of starting a new enterprise 

It must have been around June 2001; I was watching a documentary one evening on TV about the Special Olympics World Summer Games, which had been held in North Carolina, USA, in 1999. The documentary was being shown because it had just been announced that Ireland had been awarded the games for the summer of 2003. A couple of years prior to this, one of my godchildren, Daniel, had been born with Down’s Syndrome. I also have another godson, Philip, who lives in Canada, who has a learning disability. I was interested in the subject because it was now part of my life.

I realised that the project was likely to have a huge impact in a small country like Ireland, and I felt that we could use our stores to publicise the event, raise money, or whatever. It didn’t escape me either that this project could also put a small company like O’Briens on the map and help take our brand into the big time.

The next day, I contacted the chairman of the organising committee, Denis O’Brien, offering our services. He told me later that I was the first person who had contacted him after the programme – which goes to show that the early bird catches the worm. Some months later, we signed up as one of the official sponsors, agreeing to donate the not-insignificant sum of 1.27m euro, partly in cash and partly by feeding the athletes and volunteers during the games themselves. We also lent our weight to the volunteer programme in particular: each of the main sponsors got to work with a particular aspect of the games management. There was no question of writing a cheque for 1.27m euro – we didn’t have that kind of money. But we did feel that, by being properly organised, leveraging our goodwill, and putting in a team effort, we could come up with the loot. I have no doubt that it was one of the best commercial decisions I ever took for O’Briens.

The Special Olympics is a sporting movement for people with learning disabilities. The movement is about inclusion, not exclusion, and about the athletes reaching their potential, not about trying to make them into something they’re not. Each year national games are held in the different participating countries, and every four years the World Games are held. The Irish games would be the first time the event had been held outside the United States. It was to be one of the biggest sporting events in the world in 2003.

Learning disability is one of those things that everybody’s aware of but that nobody outside those immediately in-volved talks about much. I realised that most people in the country must be touched by learning disability in some way. Everyone has a family member, relation or friend who either has to deal with this subject or knows someone who does.

As we got more involved with the Special Olympics, I became aware of the enormous amount of good that was being done by the parents, coaches and general volunteers who were working with the athletes. Most of the time they had a very hard job, with little public recognition. For the parents in particular, it is a lifetime commitment. Whereas in the normal course of events, you expect to rear your children and then see them move on, this will not be the experience of many people who have a child with a learning difficulty. Their child is likely to be with them until the parents die; there is no retirement. And there is also the problem for the parent of worrying about who will look after the child when they pass on. Despite this, the positive attitudes displayed by all these people really inspired me. It certainly put my own life – and those of most people –in perspective.

As is often the case, I bit off more than I could chew. Committing to provide 1.27m euro was the easy bit. As we didn’t have anything like that kind of money available, we agreed with the organisers that we would fund-raise for it. I persuaded my mother-in-law, Alyne Healy, who had experience of running the Migraine Association of Ireland, to head our Special Olympics project, and we spent the first six months after we had made the commitment planning what we would do – both in terms of getting the money and, just as importantly, figuring out how we would feed everyone.

I was really touched by the way in which my friends and business colleagues rallied around the cause. I know that, at the beginning, most of them didn’t really understand what they were getting involved in. Lulu and I had been to Alaska, and we knew how life-changing being involved in the games could be, but I didn’t think we could explain it to other people.

Next week: Brody continues his story of his first involvement in the Special Olympics Summer Games

n Taken from Making Bread – The Real Way To Start Up and Stay Up in Business by Brody Sweeney, published by Liberties Press – buy at www.libertiespress.com and get a 10 per cent discount
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