'The most important thing you ever do in business is choose the woman you marry'
Bobby Kerr has run MANY businesses, but as he tells andrea smith he could be facing his toughest test yet
'I'M married for the past 25 years to the Blessed Mary, or St Mary, as some people call her, for putting up with me.
Mary has a dry sense of humour, and she's as cool as ice, nothing fazes or bothers her. We were 20 when we met, and I was away working for a number of years after that. A friend who worked in the P and T used to connect the two of us for free for a chat every Friday evening, and my mother always said that was what "kept the relationship going".'
I'm having tea with personality and businessman, Bobby Kerr, 53, in Insomnia on St Stephen's Green, but sure where else would we go, given that he is chairman of the chain? It was while studying at Cathal Brugha Street that Bobby met Mary, and after they married, they had four daughters. So he truly is blessed among women. Meghan, 23, is doing her master's degree at Smurfit Business School, Emily, 18, is studying culinary entrepreneurship at Cathal Brugha Street, while Rebecca, 17, and Michaela, 14, are still at school.
So while their dad laments that the house in Sandycove is filled with fake tan, hair straighteners and many other girlie things that he hasn't got a clue about, what is it like for him living in a house filled with the fairer sex?
"It's great," he says. "My favourite thing is robbing the girls' deodorants, as that really pisses them off. They're like, 'Ugh, Dad used my deodorant. How gross is that?' I feel my role as a father is primarily to embarrass them, and I do it on a regular basis. I like joking around with them. I've always said that any guy who comes to the house comes through me, to the point where I wonder if they're terrified to bring guys home?"
As a former rugby player, Bobby is a very active guy, going to the gym, cycling, and running 12 km two mornings per week. His real passion is sailing, which he took up 25 years ago, and he races competitively in Dun Laoghaire during the season. For all of that activity, he isn't a paragon of virtue, though, and admits to loving food a bit too much.
Bobby is hoping to dance off a few calories as he is currently practising for his stint on the celebrity dance competition, Strictly Against Breast Cancer, where he will be competing against well-known personalities, including Nick Munier, Triona McCarthy, Mary Mitchell O'Connor TD, Sean Munsanje, Siobhan O'Connor and Finian McGrath TD. They will take to the dancefloor at the Convention Centre next month to raise funds for Breast Cancer Ireland, and the 12 celebs have been matched with volunteer supporters of the charity, some of whom are survivors of the disease. Bobby has been partnered with Mary Buckley, and says that she has her work cut out for her as he grapples with the two-and-a-half minute routine.
"I've built houses in Zambia, and sailed across the Irish Sea to Scotland, but this is the most daunting thing I've ever done for charity," he says. "I'm a real 'dad dancer,' and feel like a rhinoceros or a bull in a china shop trying to get the hang of these nimble moves. I was terrified on the first day, but Mary is great and we've been practising quietly by ourselves, so hopefully it will go okay on the night. My wife said, 'You never ask me to dance – will that change after this?' and I said, 'Probably not!'"
When he was growing up, Bobby's parents owned Newpark Hotel in Kilkenny, and the family lived in the house next door to it. He had a great relationship with both of his parents – his mother Moya, who is a wonderful and very young 80-year-old, and his father Bobby, who passed away from cancer. Looking back at the man he has become, Bobby says that the famous Mark Twain quote has a huge resonance for him these days. "When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.
"I had the usual difficult teenage years with my father, where you think he knows nothing and you know everything," says Bobby. "I used to think that I was nothing like him, but as I get older, I realise that I'm just like him."
Bobby went on to study catering management at Cathal Brugha Street, and then worked as a chef on an oil rig in the North Sea.
"I bullsh*tted my way into the job," he laughs, adding that while he had chef experience, he wasn't qualified. "It paid very well, so a lot of top chefs took the jobs. We used to joke that we had five-star chefs and one-star customers! It was great and I learned a lot there, and then I went to work in catering management in Canada, looking after the catering for big tourist parks and stadiums."
Upon his return to Ireland, Bobby joined Bewley's for 13 years, moving through various positions, including seven years as MD of the Campbell Bewley Group. With 59 shops, a bakery, and a turnover of 40 million, the empire was at its peak and required a lot of energy and commitment. It was a tough but wonderful time, he says, and he learned a lot through the hard school of knocks.
Bobby left Bewley's in 1998, aged 38, partly because he had seen the coffee explosion in the US and wanted to explore this area. "We only had two types of coffee in Ireland at that time, he says – black or white!" He opened his first coffee shop, Perk, in 1999, in the basement underneath Laura Ashley on Grafton Street. He opened six outlets in total, and sold Perk to Insomnia in 2003 – it also acquired the Bendini & Shaw sandwich chain. He then became a shareholder, and Insomnia is now owned by himself, Harry O'Kelly (who owned Bendini & Shaw) and John Clohisey (of BWG, which owns the Spar and Mace groups)
With 76 outlets, 13 of which have opened this year, how have they managed to buck the trend of the recession in recent years?
"I'm not saying we haven't had our difficulties, because we are on the front end of the high street and anything that happens there affects us," he says. "We re-organised our business, took costs out and renegotiated a lot of our leases, where we could. The biggest single thing we did was introducing strong value offers where you can get any sandwich and coffee together for a fiver, or pastry and coffee for €3.75. These two promotions represent 50pc of our sales, so we've managed to keep the same number of people coming across the door, although they're spending less."
Bobby held the position of CEO of Insomnia from 1998 to 2010, and is now its chairman. This, presumably, has been a very challenging and time-consuming job, so how has he managed to balance his family and work life?
"My father said to me that the most important thing you ever do in business is choose the woman you marry," he says. "When a business starts off it really has to take centre stage in the early days, and Mary has been great because she has never given me any grief over my work.
"However, I remember being an hour late for my daughter's communion and she went absolutely ballistic with me."
Bobby says that he changed his position from CEO to chairman as he has about five jobs now. There's Insomnia, his stake in Bang restaurant, plus his public speaking and his broadcasting commitments. He took over hosting Newstalk's Down to Business show in October 2010, and says that radio is his true love.
"There was only about 20 people listening at the start, but it's now a two-hour show on Saturday mornings and we have grown the listenership massively," he says. "It's a huge part of my life with all the books I have to read and the research I do, but I absolutely love it." And what of Dragon's Den, the RTE investment show that he did for four seasons, alongside Niall O'Farrell, Norah Casey and Sarah Newman. Does he miss that?
"I loved the banter and interaction and seeing people coming on with a vision and dream," he says. "I decided to leave after four seasons, as I had made nine investments in the series by then. I'm not hugely involved in the day-to-day running of them, but I meet all of them every month, or chat by phone. Some have done great, like Bin Trasher, Uncle Aidan's Flour, Surf Seeds, and Prevent-A-Puncture, and of course, there have been a few dogs as well but we won't go there! That's always the way, though, and hopefully the ones that are good will cover the losses of the others."
One of the things that upsets the affable Bobby is the changing face of the high street, where the upwards-only rent reviews have caused the demise of many second and third-generation firms.
As he correctly points out, if you have a business that has been there for 70-100 years with the rent being reviewed upwards every five years, the reality is that new businesses can go in next door for probably a third of the rent and decimate the existing competition.
"I'd be a real advocate that market rents should be what people are prepared to pay," he says. "I was also particularly upset that the pre-election political promise to change the situation came to nothing, and feel we were sold a pup on that basis."
Bobby says that his best quality is not taking himself too seriously, and his ability to "spot the bullsh*tters", and his worst is that he is impetuous. He may have rode out the recession, but when asked about what the biggest challenge was in his life, the answer is closer to home.
"My daughter Emily was born with a hole in her heart and spent the first two years of her life in hospital," says Bobby. "I was working day and night at the time, so Mary was really the one who took care of everything. When you come close to losing a child, everything else is insignificant. Thankfully she's 100pc right now, because surgeon Maurice Neligan, God rest him, sorted her out. I've also had a few business hiccups along the way, but never really got involved in property, thank God, which is probably the only reason I'm solvent. I try to be positive and deal with things head- on. As long as Mary and the girls are okay and I have my health, what else is there?"
Down To Business, Saturdays, 11am - 1pm, Newstalk. Strictly Against Breast Cancer takes place at the Convention Centre, Dublin, on December 7. Tickets for the gala dinner and evening of entertainment are €120 per person (€1,200 for table of 10) and are on sale at www.breastcancerireland.com