Featured Business: Mark McConnell Agricultural Consultancy Ltd.
Name: Mark McConnell, owner of agricultural consultant business
From a young age, Mark McConnell was working and helping out on neighbouring farms. Little wonder, as farming was very much in his blood; both sets of grandparents had farms, as did his own family, although that was sold before he had a chance to try it out.
It was this love of farming that drove him on to leave Donegal, get a degree in Agricultural Science at University College Dublin, and eventually end up running a business as an agricultural consultant and agricultural auctioneer with an online farm shop.
When Mark finished his degree in Ag Science he spent a year in New Zealand before returning to work for a local advisory firm in Donegal.
He struck out on his own in 2001, concentrating on agricultural advisory work such as schemes and grants. Having started with 10 or 20 clients, Mark’s client base grew exponentially, and now comprises 1,000 farmers across Donegal, Leitrim and Sligo.
He expanded into the agricultural side of auctioneering in 2009/2010. This consists mainly of selling farms and doing valuations for farmers, although he does have a few houses on the books also.
Mark can’t be confined to the office though; as well as going out to meet farmers, he is a part-time farmer himself, having built up a land bank over the years.
He is also bringing a love of law into the workplace. He completed a course in courtroom skills and offers expert witness consultancy as part of the suite of services on offer at his agricultural consultancy.
Interview with Mark McConnell
What was the inspiration for setting up your business?
I worked in another agricultural advisory firm until I started up on my own in 2001. I was working hard, and I thought I may as well be doing it for myself as someone else. So I went out on my own and rented a small office from my uncle in Ballybofey. He gave me the office rent free for a couple of years.
How did you initially fund your business?
I always worked with AIB Bank; I had bits and pieces of savings and overdrafts. I lived a very sheltered life for a few years to get it up and running. Things like my uncle giving me premises rent-free, and goodwill from people on the way up, helped.
Have you diversified your offering from your original focus or set up other businesses?
We’re doing the consultancy and auctioneering. We’ve an online shop as well and we sell stuff from the office too. We do a whole range, all farming related: grass seed, sprays, bait boxes, rat poison.
What have been the highlights to date?
Seeing it grow over the years. When I started out in 2001 you think “Oh God, I’m not going to get work” and here I am with three full-time staff and myself. I’ve come through a bad time with the recession, and we’re still here. Things are growing every week.
What’s your favourite part of being a business owner/entrepreneur?
I love the whole aspect of dealing with the public: talking to farmers, going out on the farm. In this job you can physically see how you’re helping somebody. We could have someone come here with a serious enough problem and could end up helping them financially, physically, and mentally. It’s the human element.
How do you achieve a work-life balance?
My partner is Marguerite Thompson, a chef, and we’ve a wee boy Matthew (4) and a girl Rose (2). Since Matthew arrived four years ago I make time for them in all this craziness. We get up at 6 o’clock. Marguerite is away at 6 to the hotel, I get the children dressed and ready for crèche and then I go to work and am in the office for 8. I used to be bad for working on a Sunday. That’s a no-no now. Sunday is family day.
Are you inspired by any business figures or success stories?
Anybody who is in business, has come through the recession and still kept going. Any business or entrepreneur out there providing jobs and work to people. I don’t think they get enough credit from the Government for this.
What tools do you utilise that benefit your customers or that make running your business easier or more profitable?
We’ve loads of computer systems here. The Department of Agriculture has a great online facility for farmers. We represent the farmer and do a lot of work through that system. That would be one part of our business we couldn’t do without. All of our work is online. The majority of the forms are done online. If we have downtime here on the broadband, we’re out of business. There is a need for us to do this for farmers online and they’re happy to pay for it once it’s done right.
Do you feel you know what your customers really want? How do you stay updated with this information?
What you have to do in this job is keep up to date with what’s going on. It’s probably one of the reasons we are still going and have the clients and staff we have. I did a four-weekend course in Dublin run by the Institute of Professional Auctioneers & Valuers on the new blue-book standard of valuations. On the agricultural side, the Agricultural Consultants Association is our organisation; it keeps us up to date with courses, and I recently did an energy management course in Longford run by Sustainable Energy Ireland. I do courses, read on the internet, go to farm meetings and generally keep in touch. I do an article every week – Farmer’s Corner – in two local newspapers.
What has been the biggest challenge your business has faced?
Someone told me once if you remain static in business you’re doomed. You have to keep moving. We moved; the consultancy grew, then we moved into auctioneering, went into selling the product, and they’re all keeping the whole thing going. Another thing is getting in money – cashflow – it’s just something you have to keep on top of.
What do you think the biggest challenge to businesses in Ireland is at the moment?
Staff can be a major problem. I’m lucky here, I’ve very good staff. I know of businesses that went down the swanny because of poor staff or poor management of staff by whoever was running the business. You can’t expect someone else to run your business.
What part of running a business comes to you naturally?
I love talking to people. I wouldn’t be stuck for words. I like meeting and getting to know people. Farmers like to be dealing with one person, they don’t like to be swapped and changed about.
What has been the best reward in running your own business?
Seeing the business grow over the years, having started off from basically nothing.
What was the main catalyst for growth?
Word of mouth is where we get all our work. It started off by doing a good job for one man and he told another man and so on. That’s how it grew.
How did you scale/grow your business?
Word of mouth would have been one of the main ways. We did advertise and we have our own website as well. We do different events. We sponsor events in the mart, we sponsor the Weanling Sale once a year. You’d go down and judge the prizes, hand out rosettes and get your picture in the paper.
What obstacles to growth have you faced in the past?
The biggest part of the work we do here is schemes that are funded by the EU and the Government. The budget cuts have had a big impact and scuppered our growth and that business. That’s one of the reasons we grew the other business – to counteract that. There was a great scheme called the Rural Environment Protection Scheme (REPS) and the Government did away with it. It hit everybody. Local communities were benefiting from that big time. A farmer got a cheque for the same amount at the same time every year and he went and spent that in the local co-op and shops. That’s gone. The first thing anybody who lost their REPS cheque did was sign on Farm Assist, so they went from a scheme funded 60:40 by the national exchequer and the EU, to Farm Assist, 100% funded by the national exchequer. It’s the farmer’s dole, so the taxpayer is footing that bill.
How do you get ideas to further your business?
At times when I’m on my own driving I would be thinking of ideas and ways to do this and that. We’re building our online shop so I’m always thinking of ways to grow the product range. When you’re self employed you never stop thinking, you never get away from it.
What motivates you to stay running a business?
Two small kids! It pays the bills. Working for yourself is a lot of headaches and a lot of stress. You’d be doing just as much working for somebody else, at least doing it this way it’s for yourself.
What’s your vision for the future?
Keep growing it, growing the auctioneers business. We’re getting more and more work. In relation to the farm sales, we’re trying to build up a reputation to be one of the main auctioneers in the county for selling land. We’d like to keep the farm shop going the way it is; we’re selling all over Ireland at the minute.
Do you have a mentor; do you find this has positively impacted on your success?
My father was 40 years driving lorries. He ran his own business for 10 years and had six or seven lorries on the road at one time. I would have spent my summer holidays away with him from the age of 10 or so. I grew up watching him. That’s where I got my work ethic. Work ethic is vital in this. If you’re in any way lazy, forget about it. A lot doesn’t come down to smartness. Hard work is a massive part of the package.
What’s the best business advice you’ve received?
Keep your head down and don’t get too carried away. Small ships sail close to the shore. Another thing is keep your own private business private. Play your cards close enough to your chest. Be careful who you trust. Stick to what you know – what you’re trained in or qualified for.
What would be your advice to businesses starting out?
You need to be hard-working, and have a deep interest in – and a passion for – what you’re doing.
What’s your favourite motivational business quote?
I have been clued into a book called The Secret for the last number of years. I have a motivational desk calendar for every day of the year – the daily teachings.
What, if anything, would you do differently?
I would have studied a wee bit harder at university and done veterinary, or studied even harder and done law and become a solicitor or barrister. I don’t think we could have done anything much differently in the business – it’s been a gradual process. There’s no problem making a mistake once. If you make it twice you’re looking for trouble, and it’s your own fault. Everybody makes mistakes once but, if you repeat it, you’ve nobody to blame but yourself.
Phone: +353 74 9130772
Interviewed by: Web Content Partners
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