'I didn't have work-life balance for years. It made me less productive'

Pat Donnelly of Autoaddress also talks about learning to appreciate the value of sales.

By Conor McMahon Deputy editor, Fora

AUTOADDRESS, THE COMPANY best known for designing Eircode, has been on the go for nearly two decades.

Headed up by managing director Pat Donnelly, the Dublin-based outfit provides several services and products aimed at helping businesses streamline the postal system. The firm recently forecast that it will grow its revenues by a third this year to €2 million.

As part of our weekly question-and-answer series, we spoke to Donnelly about why he likes Wednesdays, learning to appreciate the value of sales and why he’d like to thank Bill Cullen.

Here’s what he had to say:

What was your earliest or childhood ambition? 

I played underage soccer for St Michael’s in Tipperary. We were a soccer family; my grandfather was one of the founders of the club. That would have been earliest ambition, to progress there.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t a good enough right back to worry any of the scouts. Shane Long is from that club, he’s the guy who had the big break.

How do you start a standard day and how do you finish it?

I grab either the first or second train from Dunboyne to get into the docklands. I either grab a Luas or a Dublin Bike and that gets me into the office roughly for about 7.45am, or 8.05am if I miss the first train.

I’d work usually till about 6pm in the office and then head home. What I used to do was start work again around 9pm and work until midnight, but I stopped that bad habit a while ago.

I think age catches up with you and teaches you a lesson. You think you’re invincible in your 30s. When you get into your 40s, you realise that you’re not.

Source: Eircode/YouTube

How would you describe your work/management style?

I suppose it’s a fight between two different things. I tend to micromanage, especially if we’ve got any issues or problems that need to be solved. I dive in and I’m all over the problem.

But I’m also happy to delegate once I’m sure the team is all on the same page and can get on with it without me getting in the way.

One of my problems is trying to figure out a balance and when I should be stepping in and when I should be stepping back.

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

During the last couple of years at school and the first two or three years of college, I worked for a fruit and veg wholesaler during the Easter, summer and Christmas breaks.

They grew their own produce, so I was picking cabbages by hand in rock-hard, frozen ground. We got paid by the number of rows we completed. There was no point complaining that we didn’t have gloves - that was the toughest job I had.

They put me into the warehouse after that; I got a promotion. I was one of the few that stuck at it. The rest of them just complained.

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

Poor investment decisions I made just before the crash. I had financial advisors at the time who were pushing their own products and commission rather than looking after my interests. That didn’t help.

I learned that I didn’t know anything about financial advice and investing, so I hired an independent financial advisor after that. He only had my best interests at heart because he wasn’t getting commission on anything.

I look at it now and think I was very lucky because it happened when I was in my 30s. I could have made exactly the same mistake when I was in my late 50s or early 60s and not had enough time to catch up and put money back in the pension again.

Now I actually think I was lucky to make that mistake.

What’s your favourite day of the week and why?

I know I should say Saturday or Sunday, but that’d be a lie. I bought a holiday home in Curracloe, Wexford late last year. What I do now is head down Tuesday evenings. I work from there Wednesday, so Wednesday is my favourite day.

Instead of having a commute, I either go for a long walk on the beach before work or, if the tide isn’t right, I’ll do that at lunch time.

It’s completely quiet, no noise whatsoever, and I get a full day’s work done down there without all the interruptions that usually occur when you’re in the office. I get to step back a bit and plan things out a bit better.

I’d leave at about 5.45pm from there to drive back up and I’m only home about 15 minutes later than if I was leaving from Dublin. It’s a nice commute back.

What’s the one piece of advice you would give to someone starting out in your industry?

If you’re starting out and trying to run a business in IT, I’ve always placed a premium on looking after cash flow. It’s the one thing that stood by me all the way.

Whenever we had downturns, because we managed cash flow well, we kept going. If you don’t, you’re in trouble. I still abide by that now.

Look after the cash flow, and don’t get too carried away with what the sales figures are this month if that money isn’t arriving in for another while.

I’d also stress the importance of work-life balance. I didn’t have it for years, and when I did put it in place and worked less, my productivity went up.

I don’t like to see any of the staff working late unless it’s absolutely necessary. You have to hunt them out of here sometimes.

I’d say to them, “I stopped paying you 15 minutes ago,” and then I move onto, “I’m going to start charging you for electricity.” Eventually they take the hint and head off.

I thought it was necessary to work seven days a week, but all I’d do is put things off during the day and say to myself, “I’ll do that later,” or, “I’ll do that at the weekend.”

You just don’t get as much done as you should do because you’re just not focused.

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

I wish I had sales skills. I’m a technical guy. Like a lot of technical people, you don’t appreciate the importance of the sales side. You think, I’m here building the product – that’s the important bit.

The day it dawned on me that that’s the least important bit and it’s actually all about the sales side, it helped when running the company.

I’d say we’re now a much more sales-driven company, whereas previously we were a more technical-driven company.

I did the things I found more interesting and lacked the focus to do the things that we should be working on. When you move to being more sales-driven, you get that.

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

Keeping too much information to myself and a lack of communication with the senior team.

I’d also perform the financial controller role and I think I just kept too much to myself. I didn’t pass out enough information. People would be a bit too much in the dark.

I changed that about a year or so ago. I’m sorry I didn’t do it earlier because it has really benefited the company.

Everyone better understands the effect they have within the business and are able to change themselves or people working for them to make sure we’re heading in the right direction.

You feel so responsible that you try to have too much control. I’m good at a few things and I’m bad at lots of things, but you end up doing everything.

So it’s better to identify that and get someone good and better at the role than you in different areas. That can’t happen if you don’t share information with people.

Source: Autoaddress/Twitter

If you could invest in any Irish company (other than your own), which one would it be and why?

I knew one of the founders of Version 1, the software company. When they set up, I would have started to meet them regularly enough.

The management team was always incredibly focused, knew exactly what they wanted to do and they’ve turned into an amazing success story. I wouldn’t be surprised if they went public in the near future; I’ll get my chance to invest then.

Who is your business hero? 

I have a very distinct memory from when I was about 12. I saw Bill Cullen being interviewed on the Late Late Show. He was telling his penny apples story and he also talked about his background.

I’m from a working-class area too. Most people weren’t even finishing the Leaving Cert, let alone going on to college. That really struck me at the time and planted a seed that I could run my own business when I’m older.

When I went off to college, that was always the plan. I wasn’t sure how, but I really did want to have my own business at some point. If I ever met Bill, I’d thank him.

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