'They called me a "five-to-niner". I don't believe in work-life balance'

Ex-Dragons’ Den star and Harmonia CEO Norah Casey also talks about the rip-off ‘pink tax’.

By Conor McMahon Deputy editor, Fora

A FORMER STAR of Dragons’ Den, Norah Casey is one of the country’s most high-profile businesswomen.

As well as appearing as an investor on the hit RTÉ show, she has worked as a broadcaster with Newstalk and is CEO of magazine group Harmonia, which publishes Woman’s Way.

The company used to publish other well-known titles including Irish Tatler, U Magazine and Food & Wine, but these were sold to Irish Studio last year, the firm behind Irish Central website, which is headed up by her brother, Ciaran.

Ahead of the recent National Women’s Enterprise Day, Casey – who appeared at the Leitrim event – spoke to us about why she doesn’t believe in work-life balance, the rip-off ‘pink tax’ and why some of her Dragons’ Den investments would have been better off flushed down a toilet.

Here’s what she had to say:

What was your earliest or childhood ambition?

It certainly wasn’t to be a businesswoman. I didn’t know what one looked like. If you can’t see it you can’t be it.

I’d never met a businesswoman in my life – I think the woman who was behind the counter in the shop at the Phoenix Park gates was the closest to one I’d ever seen. I grew up next to Dublin Zoo – where I once worked – so I always wanted to be a vet.

How would you describe your work/management style?

My management style has changed quite a lot over time as I’ve become more experienced. In corporate life, your style comes from the culture of the organisation.

When I started my own business in 2004, I had the freedom to really be myself. I think what everybody knows about me is that you just see me as I am. So I would say my management style is authentic.

I’m not pretending to be anybody else. I’m pretty fair in my dealings with people.

Source: Mark Stedman/RollingNews.ie

On average, what time do you start work in the morning and what time do you clock off?

They used to call me a ‘five-to-niner’. I do tend to start quite early and I don’t have work-life balance – I don’t believe in it actually. I see my work and my life as the same. That’s the truth. Anyone who knows me knows that.

When is the last time I had to consciously switch off? Probably two years ago when I was in hospital. When I’m on holiday, I have a rule that I do my emails by 10am. Everyone who works for me knows that’s when to get me.

The idea that if you separate your time in two halves and pretend that life doesn’t happen during working hours was never something I was comfortable with. I find that if I’m constantly staying in touch with everything then I’m always stress-free.

What’s the worst job/task you’ve ever had to do?

When I was a second-year student nurse, I had to tell somebody that their father had died. Since then, other things have happened in my life, but when you’re 17 or 18 and you have to do that, it’s probably the worst thing you’ll ever have to do.

I was on duty on nights, and I felt like I was the person who could have saved him. He had a heart attack and the only person between him passing away was me.

While I was waiting for the crash team, I was doing CPR. Then I had to go outside and tell his family. It was terrible. But the reality is, the team said afterwards, I couldn’t have saved him because he had coronary artery disease.

What’s the one work skill you wish you had?

Delegation. I’m not great at that. I think most people who have their own businesses experience that. I was learning the other day about the art of delegating – not abdicating – responsibility.

I can’t even let people do finances without me crawling all over it and checking everything they do. I still haven’t got it. That’s the truth.

Source: Irish Tatler/Twitter

What’s one thing that would put you off hiring someone?

If they don’t know why they’re there. Often people will sit in front of me and they’re going for an editorship or a production job and I’ll say, “So, what do you like about the magazine or the job?” Then you realise they haven’t done any homework.

They’re on a bandwagon looking for jobs and they’re not specifically looking to work for you.

I interviewed someone once. When I asked her what she thought of the magazine, she said she hadn’t read it in six months. I said, “You’re wasting your time and mine, so bye-bye.”

What’s the biggest rip off and best value in Ireland?

The best value in Ireland is the Phoenix Park because that’s near where I grew up, and I spend a lot of my time there.  My husband’s tree is there. It’s just phenomenal.

If ever I’m feeling the need to get out of the city without getting out of the city, I go to the Phoenix Park.

I would say women’s products are the biggest rip-offs – what they call the “pink tax”.

I have a son of 19 and I’m buying stuff for him and seeing that my shampoo and conditioner are more expensive than his. He pays far less for haircuts and deodorant than I do.

Even when it comes to dry-cleaning, if I drop a suit off for him and a suit for me, I’m paying more. There is a whole raft of things that I pay more for because I’m a woman.

What has been your biggest mistake to date and what did you learn from it?

The funniest mistake I ever made was when I did a cover with U Magazine, aimed at young women, for a safe-sex issue. We had a free condom on the cover and it was stapled, so they all had to be withdrawn and reissued again.

Another mistake was going into partnership with somebody who I didn’t get on with. Even though the metrics were all good and it made financial sense, the chemistry between you and the business partner is incredibly important.

On Dragons’ Den I learned very quickly that you invest in the person, not the idea. I would have had more fun putting my money down a toilet and flushing the chain, frankly, than give it to some of the people I ended up having to invest in.

If you don’t have it, you don’t have it. The idea, you can always change and grow. You can never change the person.

What bad work (or business) habit have you had to kick?

Imagining that I can create time. I used to always be late for everything. I didn’t mean to be late, it was just that I would start every day imagining that I had more time to do everything.

I didn’t have enough time to allow for traffic and transport to get from one meeting to the next. I now consciously try to manage the calendar a bit better and allow for some of that time in between.

Who is your business hero?

The woman who I absolutely love, and I’m in danger of being accused of stalking her, is Jocelyn Bell Burnell. I’ve tried many times in my life to meet her. I have spoken to her on the phone but we’ve never physically met.

I call her the woman who invented stars. She’s from Northern Ireland and is in the UK now. She discovered pulsars.

She was working with a supervisor and she was doing her thesis at the time. Her work, to do with this pulsar discovery – that stars pulsate light – won the first Nobel Prize for Physics, but she didn’t get it.

Her supervisor and male colleagues got it, and they left her out. She was probably the foremost astrophysicist of a generation. I interviewed her by phone on Newstalk back in 2013 and talked to her specifically about this.

It was pretty outrageous what happened to her. Other people might have spent their lives being bitter about it, but she didn’t. She moved on and became the first woman to be president of various universities, the first to head up various organisations.

In 2018, she won a special breakthrough prize in fundamental physics, retrospectively, because of her discovery. She won $3 million and she gave it away to fund women in ethnic minorities.

I’ve spent my whole life trying to meet that woman. I tried to give her an award every year for the last 18 years.

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