'Our biggest challenge is being a national company while based in Sligo'

Lorraine Gribbons talks about her jump into the hot seat and the difficulties of working out west.

By Lorraine Gribbons Managing Director, Fastcom

I’VE ALWAYS BEEN a numbers person more than anything else, so to go from accountancy to the hot seat has been an interesting journey.

Going through school, I always veered towards numbers. I did business for the junior cert and then business and accountancy for the leaving.

They were the subjects that I found came easier to me in school, so naturally I followed that path again in college and did a generic business degree.

I specialised in accounting and finance in the third year and went on to work for KPMG in Dublin and then Gilroy Gannon, which is based in Sligo.

I moved back to Sligo in 2005 for that job to be closer to home – it was always the plan to move back west. But since I moved home, I started to toy with the idea of doing something different.

The plan wasn’t necessarily to go work for my husband’s company Fastcom, a broadband provider in the west of Ireland, but it just kind of happened.

The company was very much in the family anyway. Even when I wasn’t involved day to day, we would have been talking about it.

The initial idea was that I would just come in on the financial side of things. It’s the work I’m comfortable with, and so it was a good starting point.

My responsibility just evolved from that, and I got more involved when Ross set up a software company, called Anuview.

He was trying to do a bit of everything, which doesn’t always work, and Fastcom needed someone’s full attention. So, we decided to have one of us focusing solely on each business to try and push them both forward. We haven’t looked back since.

lorraine gribbons Lorraine Gribbons
Source: Fastcom

The jump

It has been a real eye-opener for me to see how much flexibility you get when working for yourself. But it does come with its sacrifices.

You have to train yourself not to fall into the trap of doing crazy hours, and to make sure your personal life doesn’t take a back seat.

I think you need a good balance if you’re working for yourself. That doesn’t mean you’re leaving the office at 5 o’clock every day or anything like that, but I think you need a healthy work-life mix.

In terms of flexibility, your work has to get done at the end of the day, and you have a certain amount to get through. So just being able to manage my hours here and there has been a big help.

If I have to go out of the office, and it’s something to do with the kids, like a doctor’s appointment or an activity, I’m able to nip out for those things and get the work done at the end of the day. Not always working 9 to 5 is really helpful.

Something else I’ve learned since I’ve come into the business is the satisfaction of working for yourself. When things are going well, and it’s down to the team’s hard work, there’s a different sense of pride in it.

When you’re working for someone else, you see the benefits when things go right but you might only be focused on your role in it all.

But when things are going well here, I see the positive impact that has on the team and when you get good feedback from customers, you get a different kind of buzz.

Biggest challenges

There’s not necessarily something we’ve done that I’d roll the clock back on since I took over. Our biggest challenge to date is being a national company – in a crowded space – while being based in the north-west of Ireland.

But at the same time, there is no reason why we have to be based in Dublin or Galway. We can run a very good business here in Sligo, give people a great lifestyle and go up against the massive companies in the telecoms sector.

There are challenges of course. The infamous poor roads and lack of motorways in the north-west are tough to deal with – it really does have an impact on getting people to move to Sligo.

FastCom_133JC Gribbons and husband Ross Palmer
Source: Fastcom

The dangerous N4 road is a problem and the fact we lost Sligo Airport a few years ago, those things set business back in the region.

Having spoken to other businesses here in Sligo, it’s not just us who have had issues getting staff and employees. There is a bit of a skills shortage in the west and getting people to jump out of a job in Dublin to somewhere like Sligo can be challenging.

Is the west as a region forgotten about? Possibly, but there is a lot of weight behind movements in the area to try and push the region as a good place to set up shop – for people and businesses.

It’s a great area in terms of the lifestyle. I feel like a lot of people don’t understand that there is life outside of the cities offering good jobs and careers as well.

Advice

I would say to accountants thinking about going down the same route I did to not try and do it all. Don’t be afraid to reach out to people who have certain specialties or expertise that you might lack.

People don’t always look to accountants as leaders, but I found coming from that background gave me a really broad base of business knowledge.

There is a stereotype out there that accountants are super-safe, or whatever else, but if you look at the best business people in the world, a lot of them started off as accountants.

It’s probably not fair to say all accountants are just safe. There are a lot of people who end up comfortable doing what they do and don’t throw caution to the wind.

I was daunted by the idea of moving into the managing director role at first. It meant I was outside my comfort zone. If all you’ve known is one real technical side of a business, to jump into something else is tough.

Being an accountant, you might be tempted to stay safe and stay true to that reputation. But I’d say to anyone, don’t be put off or feel you’re not qualified to be a manager or be the boss. It’s doable.

Lorraine Gribbons is the managing director of Fastcom. This piece was written in conversation with Killian Woods as part of a series on unlikely entrepreneurs.

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