Monday, November 17, 2008

Bill Cullen: The Legends in your Lunchtime interview

"Empty pockets never held anyone back. Only empty heads and empty hearts can do that."
- Norman Vincent Peale
Before The Apprentice and before Penny Apples, I knew who Bill Cullen was. The mere mention of his name sent Michelle, the lady I was dealing with in the Irish Youth Foundation into a flurry of adulation every time we tried to arrange a meeting for the Indo. "He's a gentleman", I remember her telling me "But he's very busy. I'll see what I can do." The meeting never happened.

Fast forward seven years and I'm here sitting in the Kelly Theatre of the National College of Ireland awaiting the entrance of said gentleman, now one of the most famous and recognised names in the country. If it's not for his books it's for the Apprentice. If not for that it's for his ambition to be the first Irish Astronaut. If not any of those it's Tom Dunne's "Ah be the hokey cokey, toora loora lie" impressions of Dr Bill on Gift Grub. Since the 2002 publication of his book "It's a long way from Penny Apples", Bill Cullen has been one to watch in the public eye.

The theatre is full. Thanks to the lovely Emma, I'm in the second row near the front. I'm keen to learn as much as I can here. I have no aspirations of being Bill Cullen's apprentice but I wouldn't mind learning some skills from him. In front of me, the president of the College introduces top level execs from Newstalk to other such people. Claire Byrne is preparing for her interview and suddenly, quietly Bill is just there. No fanfare, no ceremony, no fuss - he just walks in and over, greeting people he knows, ready to be put in his place and for the chat to begin.

He's looking well for a man of 66. Immaculately groomed, dressed well but not ostentatious, he complies happy with the sound engineer fixing his microphone, still scanning the audience and nodding greetings to those he recognises.

From the offset it's clear that Bill Cullen is a personality. Even during the introduction of Paul Mooney, the college President, he interrupts with comments and jokes to endear himself to an audience who also don't seem sure where the present day media image of Bill Cullen as affable but tough corporate boss ends and the real Bill begins.

After all, here is a man born into the rough inner city slums of Summerhill in Dublin, one of fourteen children who was selling Christmas decorations, flowers, fruit and match programmes on the streets of Dublin by the time he was six to help support his family. In Ireland, we're watching him now on TV3's The Apprentice where he's seen to make ruthless, often unpopular decisions about who to fire and why, but is this a fair reflection or just good television?

Claire Byrne made it her goal to find out. Here's some of what Bill had to say:

- On The Apprentice
Bill doesn't see the Apprentice before it's aired on TV3. He doesn't get to see the rushes or pre production screenings - he simply doesn't have the time. He meets the candidates on a Monday morning for their task briefing, Brian Purcell and Jackie Lavin are with them during their tasks and then Bill sees them Wednesday evening for the boardroom scenes.

He makes his decision purely on the briefing from Brian and Jackie and in the boardroom, based on his "own instinctive wisdom". Sometimes, he said, if you see him wincing during scenes, it's Jackie kicking him under the table. Valerie Shanley has written a great editorial piece on their relationship, as well as the other strong women in his life.

He knows the production team might want him to keep a certain candidate because they're good TV, but he has no time for this - he makes the ultimate decision. He had no personal say in the selection of the candidates. They had 1,600 applicants, 800 interviews that was narrowed down to 50 from whom the final 14 were chosen.

He's been asked to do the Apprentice for a couple of years but has always been too busy. Now though with Renault sold back to the company (for considerably more than the £1 Cullen originally paid for it and its debt of £20 million) and the training courses at his Europa Academy in Swords taken off, he found it the right time. It also helps to raise the profile of the Academy, where the boardroom scenes take place.

- On the candidates:
When asked what he thought about Joanna Murphy, he let out a big laugh and says "Sure we all know Joanna!". He recalled the first time they met, where he was introduced to all the candidates for the first time - just as viewers saw on TV. They all stood in a line and said hello and their names, but Joanna stepped two steps out in front of the line with hand on hip and said "Hello Bill, I'm Joanna, I'm your warrior, I've got the liathróidí, I'm your man, I'm your next apprentice." He remembers saying to Jackie that her fixation on winning, on being his apprentice had the potential to smother her ability or talents.

When asked how he think her deception on the show (context here) would harm her future prospects, he doesn't think it hasn't helped. He was told during the tape changing of the show, when the candidates have to wait outside while he makes his decision and was amused by the way the lie that she didn't know Ray Murphy was hovering on her lips.

On the most recent show, he felt that Orla did a great job as project manager other than the silly, basic mistake of checking the business name. He felt Paddy was the right person to go as he didn't have the same sense of urgency about him. He shared that he gets very pissed off when he sees people who he's paying that say they "don't have anything to do".

Nobody, he says, who has been fired so far would have a chance of working with him.

When the audience is asked who they think will win the competition, the names Brenda, Shane and Stuart are called out immediately.
What will the winner be doing?
"I have seven or eight jobs in mind for them already" says Bill. Between hotels, cars and the training academy they'll be kept busy, never mind the research for the four books Bill has committed to completing by the end of next year. He cites how he was in Ballymena on Saturday and Cork on Sunday so his apprentice will be dealing with sorting his itinerary. There's also a project on a hotel in Killarney with Jackie that he has in mind.

They'll also have to work with the famous Bill Cullen early start. Bill believes in a 6am start, "especially in an anxiety laden society". Bill has had early starts since he was a boy in Summerhill heading to Howth at 4:30am to get fish fresh from the trawlers rather than wait for them to be delivered to the market where he'd pay more.

In the car business too he never subscribed to the 8am to 6pm philosophy, preferring to work 6am to 8pm. His early morning starts put him in front of the top businessmen in his industry and helped him advance when he needed to.

On business and being a leader:

When asked if he had learned to be a leader, he told how he felt awareness was the key. "Leaders are made by having them challenge themselves." This came from the training his mother would give him, learning the names of streets on the left, then the right that he'd pass on his way from the markets to her stall, then the names of shops on each sides, then the names of the people he's meet. It taught him a valuable lesson in watching everything that goes on around him, he said.

He also feels a hard neck is the key. He told the story how, of a young boy of 8 years old, his mother would send him back to shops with messages he'd just bought in order to nurture this sense of being able to talk to anyone. He remembered how he went to Guiney's to replace a pair of trousers that were too small for him to hand down to his brother.

When the manager of the haberdashery department couldn't help him, the 8 year old Cullen asked for the head person and apparently ended up having tea with the owner Mrs Guiney and going home with seven pairs of trousers instead of just the one. (He told the story with considerably more charm and polish than I'm relaying it now.)

When asked if he was good at managing or getting the best from people, he spoke about how managing involves the practical side of running a business day to day and how leading is about vision, about future plans and seeing where the business could be in the next few years. "Praise in public, criticise in private" he says. He would "never lash anyone out of it" in public for a mistake, just get them to agree that (a) they did it wrong, and (b) they'll do it right the next time. He gives everyone two chances only.

Being a leader he concludes is about getting people to do what you need them to do because they want to do it. There are 3 Ds to it - discuss, delegate and depart for the Golf Course.

On the economy
There's a lot of things happening that we're not aware of, he said. It's becoming obvious though that politicians aren't in touch with people - the budget is a big indication of that. He strongly questioned the wisdom of cutting the medical cards and was quite vociferous about the cervical cancer checks decision being ludicrous. None of our politicians have the business acumen or experience necessary to run the country effectively.

Cullen himself says he has no political aspirations. One point he made was that the government probably can't afford the right people they need.
Education vs experience
When Claire asked him what he looks for in a CV, whether he scans submitted CVs for degrees and qualifications, he admits that while experience is often better than education, a college degree does show a certain commitment or a focus that the candidate has. However, he values 'moxy' or street smarts a lot more.

Questions from the floor:

When opened to the floor questions raised about the contrast between Mary Harney's role of minister for health and her own appearance ("Your health is your wealth" was the point of Bill's response to that one) to the prospect of hiring women knowing they may get pregnant. He handled each question with consummate ease and a wry sense of humour.

Time and again he referenced his own youth and experience, never pushing his books or his experience as the ultimate guide, preferring instead to let the facts speak for themselves. He is motivational, enthusiastic and encouraging, a stark contrast to a lot of business media people talking about the recession.

He ends by admitting he loves Tom Dunne's Dr Bill sketch. "It's not really me, is it?" he says to the audience. He finishes by meeting people, shaking hands, signing books. His final remarks include how the sales manager of Eason's suggests that an unsigned copy of Penny Apples will be a rarity and one to hold onto.

I leave the talk with considerable enthusiasm, glad I've taken the opportunity. He's an inspiring person. I could never work for him - I lack the discipline, the drive and the patience but he's certainly someone I admire. You can hear the talk in full from Newstalk here.

The Legends in your Lunchtime talks bring top business people to talk about how they think and what makes them the people they are today. Danuta Grey, CEO of O2 and Denis Casey of Irish Life and Permanent are next on the list. Check out the National College Website for more details.

(I'm making no promises that the above is free of mistakes or misquotes. I was writing frantically and this post should be taken more as an overview rather than an accurate reflection. I really should buy a mp3 recorder.)


  1. Great post Darragh. I felt that I was there!

  2. Thanks GM! It was a great talk with a very interesting man. I'm looking forward to his next books.

  3. Thanks Daragh
    Really interesting

  4. Thanks Cleo, glad you enjoyed.

  5. Wow Darragh, you've been a busy boy lately!

    That was a great post. It was fascinating to hear what Bill has to say about it all even though he pissed me off mightily in the last episode.

    Thanks a mill :D

  6. I think my feed reader is brokened - I've missed out on loads of your posts.

    Enjoyed this one (the rest were shit) ;)

  7. Hey Darragh

    Once again, this was a fantastic account of the event and I am delighted that you came along, that you enjoyed it and that you were kind enough to write about it.

    The next event in the series is with Denis Casey, Group CEO of Irish Life and Permanent Group, and it takes place this Wednesday 21st January at 1.00pm here in the College. He will be interviewed by Newstalk's Business Editor, Conor Brophy.

    Hope to see you there. Let me know if can make it along.

    Emma - National College of Ireland