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Featured Business: Celtic Rider
Name: Paul Rawlins, Founder and Managing Director, Celtic Rider Motorcycle Rental & Tours.
When 16-year-old Paul Rawlins got his first full-time job as a dispatch rider, little did he know this was the kernel of an idea for a business he’d go on to set up 30 years later.
It was 1976 when Paul was trained by an Irish Army instructor for three months to deliver urgent telegrams around the country. Within two years he knew the country well.
He got a love for touring and recalls that during the 19-week strike in 1979, he did a 14-week tour of Europe.
Now, Paul runs a motorcycle tours company offering tourists an alternative route around Ireland, and also has a motorcycle training company, M50 Driving School.
Never shy of enterprise, it all started for Paul when he was ten years old and started selling imperfect brillo pads door-to-door in his neighbourhood.
With his wife Siobhan, Paul set up a company A-One Blinds & Curtains in 1983, which closed in late 2012. He retired from the business in 2007 to concentrate on Celtic Rider.
Celtic Rider is “the type of service that can only be run by enthusiasts and not a car hire company. It is a whole different way of touring,” says Paul.
Paul spent one and a half years, on and off, touring by motorbike, riding the country inside-out, in order to pick the routes he wanted his clients to experience.
This business has been complimented by other offshoots: Celtic Rider sells its own merchandise, which in turn acts as a marketing tool: “We have thousands of people wearing our branded clothing around the world,” says Paul.
Celtic Rider also has the agency for Schuberth Helmets, the world’s “lightest and quietest” helmet.
That’s not all. 2014 is going to be a big year. Celtic Rider is expanding into a base in Shannon, as it will be involved in the Wild Atlantic Way, a major tourism initiative that will be rolled out next March. It is the longest coastal drive in the world – almost 2,400km from Donegal to Kinsale in Cork.
Interview with Paul Rawlins
What was the inspiration for setting up your business?
In the 1990s my wife and I were in the window blind business. We had a very successful 30 years in that business. We used to go abroad on our own motorcycle in the past, but with three teenage children, we didn’t have a lot of time anymore. To get to where we wanted to go took three days, so we looked at motorcycle rental in the South of France. I said to Siobhan: “There is no one doing this in Ireland. We have to create a rental company.” I finally got a breakthrough in 2007 in getting an insurance company that would give fully comprehensive insurance to overseas clients while riding our motorcycles around Ireland.
How did you initially fund your business?
We lived in a house that I built on land in Ladytown in Naas, Co Kildare. I wanted to have the business onsite, so I remortgaged the house and the shop because it took a lot of money to start up. I invested in bikes and beautiful show rooms – that’s how we started. I knew from the word go we’d be getting in high-flyers. Particularly being the first company in Ireland to offer this service, I didn’t want an amateur set-up.
Have you diversified your offering from your original focus or set up other businesses?
Last year, we opened up a driving school here to teach motorcyclists how to ride – the M50 Driving School. I am immensely proud of how successful that has become. We are looked upon as a dedicated motorcycle training station. We also created a road safety orientation course for overseas tourists, to get them familiar with riding on the left before they set out. I rolled out self-guided tour packages last year. I was advised, “to ride this country inside-out and backwards, and handpick all the routes you want your clients to ride.” The type of roads that bikers want are not what car drivers want. We want twisty, narrow, bendy, pain-in-the-neck roads.
What have been the highlights to date?
One thing that stands out was when the King of Jordan and Crown Prince of Bahrain came over. Looking back over the last six years, one of the things I’m proud of is that our bank manager in AIB, Tony Walsh, recommended us to go forward for the SFA Small Business Awards. The proudest moment I have had in the last six years was when our name was called out as the 2013 Outstanding Small Business winner. In addition to the SFA award, we have also won the Fingal Enterprise Business of the Year award 2013. This, as you can imagine, is most rewarding as recognition is sometimes more important than financial reward.
What’s your favourite part of being a business owner/entrepreneur?
I would see myself as unemployable, I have been self-employed for so long. I love the challenge, I love working with a good team of people and I love listening to them and giving them space at doing what they’re better at than I am.
How do you achieve a work-life balance?
Work is my life. I live to work. It is difficult because it is a seasonal business. You’ve got to try and make hay in those six months: late April to mid-October.
Are you inspired by any business figures or success stories?
Bill Cullen I admire, as he rose to the top of his trade through sheer hard work and creativity. I’m also an admirer of both Bobby Kerr and Ben Dunne. Ben Dunne messed up and put his hand up and talks openly about that. I really admire that. I also supported Sean Gallagher when he ran for president. Feargal Quinn, however, is my top choice; he understands that business is all about the long-term relationship necessary in keeping customers over the years, and his stance on litter is one I fully endorse; littering is still going on in our beautiful island.
What tools do you utilise that benefit your customers or that make running your business easier or more profitable?
My general manager is Michael Dervan. We’re best friends since we were 16 years of age. What brought us together at that time were motorcycles. He is a systems and processes man. I’m not. He came onboard full-time in 2011. All our business is done now on a bespoke database, not using off-the-shelf software or systems.
Do you feel you know what your customers really want? How do you stay updated with this information?
I do understand what my customers want. What they want is help to maximise their time in Ireland. They are cash-rich and time-poor. They don’t have time to do research. They want a packaged tour that makes it easy for them. They want quality motorcycles. Our business has evolved into what it is now, through customer demand, and establishment of trust between me and them.
What has been the biggest challenge your business has faced?
I think the overall challenge in our business is that we have such a short season. It is trying to extend that season by letting people know from around the world that you can ride a bike comfortably from March/April onwards in this country to October/November. A lot of the countries that our clients come from have real seasons. We don’t have real seasons. Where these people come from, they might not be able to ride a motorcycle for six months.
What do you think the biggest challenge to businesses in Ireland is at the moment?
The biggest challenge in Ireland, as far as I’m concerned, is the recession. The encouragement by Government to tell people to shop around, is driving the price down in the retail sector. When you have a shop and the running costs associated with a shop, how could you compete with a person in a van? You couldn’t.
What part of running a business comes to you naturally?
Marketing the business. If you truly know and love what you do, it comes easy. Try to make a living from something you enjoy doing.
What has been the best reward in running your own business?
The reward to me is the profound sense of satisfaction that I get every day when I wake up, that this business, that was once a dream of mine for years, gives me a living and gives several people I have working with me a living, and it makes people’s dreams come true. At the end of the day, I sell dreams.
What was the main catalyst for growth?
The company grew because of the guided tour options – the bundled packaged tours and, above all, the marketing of the business in countries we know where our clients come from.
How did you scale/grow your business?
Ours is a very niche business. It only applies to motorcyclists, and a small number of motorcyclists, nonetheless the market is the whole world of motorcyclists that want to come to Ireland. We have to attend the biggest bike shows in the world. That’s not cheap. It’s effective marketing, over ineffective marketing.
What obstacles to growth have you faced in the past?
Cashflow and marketing costs. Not only are we trying to reach out to motorcyclists around the globe and let them know they can now tour Ireland on a motorcycle, you’re also trying to reach out to those people who may have searched around online in the past, but didn’t find any listings. Because this is a seasonal business, cashflow is essential and must be tightly managed, as revenues decline rapidly in the off-season months.
What motivates you to keep running a business?
I love my country. I love motorcycling. I put the two together. Someone had to do it.
What’s your vision for the future?
I’m the sort of person that does not believe in expansion for the sake of expansion. I think if you can have a successful small business and do it well, that’s what you should do. I’d rather have a successful small business than an average big business.
Do you have a mentor; do you find this has positively impacted on your success?
I take on board Mick Dervan’s (general manager) advice more than anyone’s. His input and advice to me has made the business what it is now. I can’t do it without a person like Mick in the background.
What’s the best business advice you’ve received?
Seek out help from people that have skills that I may not have, and take onboard their advice, the strongest one being “Fail to prepare, prepare to fail.” This helped me plan and make realistic forecasts and targets, keeping an eye on all costs right across the board.
What would be your advice to businesses starting out?
My advice to anybody else starting out is: “If your vision and your dream of a business actually works the way you want it to work, does the reward justify the effort? If the answer is ‘no’, don’t go down that road. The effort you put into it, must bring you that reward. You have to price it right.”
What’s your favourite motivational business quote?
“The best way to predict the future is to invent the future”. I’m not sure who actually said this, but it has always stuck in my mind.
What, if anything, would you do differently?
I would not have invested so much money on the fleet at the time. I really thought it was a good idea to have a good fleet and premises to impress people. The depreciation over the first few years was horrendous.
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