'Never do business with your friends. You end up losing them'

This golf enthusiast started out building railways in Africa and at 76 has set up another company.

By Mike Heary Co-founder, My Golf Pro

I QUALIFIED OVER 50 years ago as a chartered accountant and quickly realised I didn’t want to go into the professional side of it – I was more into the commercial aspect of finance and accounting.

Realising that has led me into some unique lines of work and now at 76 years of age I’m focused on my next venture, My Golf Pro – a website that sells vouchers for golf lessons with PGA golf professionals.

I’ve been lucky that my work has helped me travel over the years. But before I was being flown across the world to work on big projects, I went to New York to live the city life.

I was playing rugby over there and, after a few months, myself and a friend of mine who was also out there decided we would like to go to the west coast. We bought an old Mercedes in June 1967 and spent three months driving from New York out to San Francisco.

In San Francisco I went to work for Bechtel – one of the largest engineering companies in the world – in the international accounting and finance department. That meant if they got a big job overseas, I would get transferred with an entire team over to that place.

That led me to live in Darwin, Australia for two years, Zambia for another two years to work on the construction of a big railway line funded by the Chinese government and, following that, London to set up a $2 billion liquefied petroleum gas plant in Kuwait.

After a number of international jobs, it was time to decide if we wanted to settle down somewhere for a while so my son could go to school, so we decided to come back to Ireland.

mygolfpro7 My Golf Pro founders Declan O’Reilly and Mike Heary
Source: My Golf Pro

Don’t invest in friends

Prior to returning back to Ireland in 1979, I had invested a good bit of my money in property in Ireland, so I wasn’t under pressure to get a 9-5 job.

I had also purchased a travel agency and got out of that after a while, then I had a friend with an engineering company, so I put some money in that, but it didn’t succeed.

Over the years, I invested in some companies with friends, and that isn’t always the best idea. One of my pieces of advice to anyone would be to never do business with your friends. I think that is a truism.

I’ve talked to a number of people who have done that and with the way it normally pans out, in the end you don’t have a friend if it goes wrong. It has happened to me before.

It doesn’t happen all of the time because clearly you see a lot of people who it works for and they end up investing in friends’ startups again, but from my experience you’re even better off if you do business with people that have different interests.

I know of a friend of mine who was a very senior partner in a major Irish company. He is into rugby, one of the other partners is into tennis and another guy was into going to the horse races.

It worked because they didn’t run into each other socially and they had their different lives. So it meant the business was business.

The situation I got into was that it was a school friend of mine and he was looking to start a business, and I put some money into it. After a while it wasn’t going that well, all kinds of things happened, and now I don’t have my money and don’t have my friend anymore.

Magazine

Another interesting project I got into since I came back to Ireland was setting up a magazine geared at older age groups.

I was down in local newsagents one day and found I didn’t like any of the magazines aimed at my age demographic, so I started to think I would publish a magazine on my own.

Eventually I launched a magazine called ‘Living It’ and the first issue hit the shelves in December 2004. I remember George Hook was our first big interview, and we ran articles that were relevant for older people about the likes of swapping houses and buying computers.

The magazine has since wrapped up because unfortunately, like a lot of publishers, I found it very hard to get advertising revenue during the recession years. But it survived for five years because I found some interesting ways to distribute it that really took off.

I remember wondering how I would get my magazine into doctors surgeries. One day I was in getting a flu injection, and after the doctor had given me the jab he threw the needle into a yellow bin.

I asked where he got the bins from and he told me all he knew was a guy comes in every week and takes them away and gives him a clean bin. So I tracked down the company that collected the bins to Drogheda, got in touch and did a deal where they would drop off my magazines in every surgery they visited to deliver new bins to.

I was in most doctors and dental surgeries in Leinster at one stage.

Living It

Getting the message across

For now, my mind is fully focused on My Golf Pro, and the plans and ambitions for the company are very straightforward. I’d like to see it successful in the Irish market and that will then lead on to give us the chance to look at other opportunities that might open up for us.

We want to make sure it works because a lot of sweat equity has gone into it. It would be nice to be seen as a really successful product in the Irish market. What is really important to me is that people know us as something worth buying and we can get our message across of what we’re all about.

One of the golf pros I approached to join said to me that it’s just a race to the bottom. It was the only time talking to pros that I was really upset. The last thing I would want to do is start a business that would make pros compete with each other on my website on price.

Every pro will get a chance to make a profile for our site and they can put anything up, but, as I told them, you will not put a price on it because we’re don’t want the cheapest guy selling lessons. We want – and have signed up – top-quality PGA guys.

Never retiring

I was interviewed years ago for television and I remember saying, “I don’t think I’ll ever retire” because this is just what I like.

My wife thinks I’m nosey, but I think I have an inquiring mind. If I see something new, it gets me thinking if I could do something better.

I absolutely enjoy talking about setting up new businesses. Talking about websites, social media and Facebook, the people I have to deal with for these things, they are all of an age between 25 and 45 and full of energy, ideas and ambition. I just couldn’t see myself putting the feet up.

Mike Heary is the ‎co-founder of My Golf Pro. This article was written in conversation with Killian Woods as part of a series on business mistakes and what can be learned from them.

If you want to share your opinion, advice or story, email opinion@fora.ie.

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