Money & Me: ‘I prefer buying businesses or properties than saving money'

Dennis McGettigan of McGettigan Hospitality says Covid-19 cost his business a fortune but also helped the company hit the reset button

Dennis McGettigan. Courtesy McGettigans

Dennis McGettigan is chief executive of family business McGettigan Hospitality and a father of five. During his  25-plus years in the industry, he has worked with Marriott Hotels in the US and his family’s hotel businesses in his native Ireland. Mr McGettigan,44, moved to Dubai in 2008 to oversee completion and opening of the Bonnington Hotel, JLT, the UAE’s only Irish-owned hotel. In 2011, he founded McGettigan’s Bars, a growing brand in the UAE and overseas. Mr McGettigan, also shareholder and director of hotels in Ireland, lives in Jumeirah Park with his wife and two youngest children.

How did your upbringing shape your attitude towards money?

I come from a family of 10 children. Everything my father did for us was based around business, and that included our home life. He invented a type of co-op bank where everyone had their jobs and at the end of a week over Sunday lunch, the ‘savings books’ for each of us were produced. My mother had to confirm all children had completed their tasks. Our book was then credited with our agreed rate of pay – in my case 5 Irish pounds, equivalent to roughly Dh100 in today’s currency. We had to contribute 20 per cent of all earnings towards clothes my mother bought.

Within our home, our groceries were the only money being spent. All luxuries, such as holidays, are on hold for now.

My father wasn’t a poor guy, but came from a very poor background, left school early and became a successful entrepreneur. He’s a generous man but instilled in us the value of money, that it doesn’t grow on trees and you work for what you earn. From a young age, about 12 or 13,  we’d be sent to one of the businesses to work during the summer.

How much were you paid in your first job?

When I was a college student, I worked two jobs, one at Newcastle United’s football ground on a concession stand, another in the Copthorne Hotel. At the end of the week, I earned around £80 (Dh360) circa 1994/5, which was a respectable amount at the time considering you could eat for a £5 per day.

My first real job was after college at 22. I earned €250 (Dh1,042) per week as an assistant manager in The North Star Hotel, Dublin.

What led you to enter the hospitality industry?

I was born into hospitality; my family has been involved in this business for as long as I can remember, so I really didn’t have much choice other than to get involved from an early age.

My parents owned a famous pub called The Baggot Inn, in Dublin, which was known for live music and acted as a launch pad for legends such as U2, Bob Geldof, Tracy Chapman and Thin Lizzy, who all performed.

I loved being involved and knew from a very young age the hospitality industry was where I wanted to be. My passion for live entertainment continues.

What has been your best investment?

In the UAE, McGettigan’s JLT (the first McGettigan’s venue) which started as a car park in the Bonnington Hotel. I saw the space and had the idea to create JLT’s first pub. Now almost 10 years later, McGettigan’s JLT is our flagship venue.

In Ireland, we purchased a couple of hotels when the market was more attractive, which have worked out very well.

What luxuries are important to you?

I normally travel around 150,000 miles a year. Therefore, a luxury to me is to upgrade where possible on flights. Apart from this, I keep it relatively simple; I love gadgets and a nice home. I don’t live a flashy lifestyle. I don’t want the 2020 Lamborghini; I drive a 2013 Land Rover and I’m happy with that. I like to get away with my wife at least once or twice a year – she’s my rock – and the children once a year on a decent trip.

Do you prefer to save or spend?

I prefer to buy businesses, properties or investments. I try to do that in a way that if something terrible does happen, you can turn that into liquidity.

What’s been your most cherished purchase?

I bought a hotel in Donegal in Ireland in 2013. We bought when it was losing money, I spent on it and brought it up to a four star. It’s a fabulous turnaround story and now paying its way, plus, plus. Personally, I’ve a couple of houses in Ireland I turned around, which I enjoy doing. That’s a hobby.

Business is the big thing for me. My fix is work. It’s not about the money, it’s about the challenge, making a success out of something. I just love doing that.

Do you have a philosophy on money?

Simple, make sure you have enough.

Did the Covid-19 pandemic adjust your financial strategy?

Yes, within our home, our groceries were the only money being spent. All luxuries, such as holidays, are on hold for now.

I was fortunate, from October I started putting money away – I’m not talking vast sums – but fortunate in that I didn’t know what was coming.

Dennis McGettigan at JLT branch. Courtesy McGettigans

How was your business affected?

All McGettigan’s branches had to be closed, however, we still had the Bonnington Hotel open. We closed eight of 10 floors, greatly reduced employees on duty, constantly monitored energy usage, reduced the menu offering and tried our best to negotiate with suppliers.

We tried to adapt as much as possible to the delivery side of dining for McGettigan’s. We had five days of entertainment live on Facebook complimented with McGettigan’s favourites delivered to your door.

This has been a horrible situation, has cost us an absolute fortune, but the hamster got off [the wheel] for a little while, which was fantastic from the point of view of rethinking all our businesses. You didn’t have that pressure non-stop. You just had to think, ‘we have to try to navigate how we’re going to get out of this’. From the point of view of having a re-set button … that was it.

Do you plan for the future?

The pandemic – probably a slight exaggeration on my part, I’m sure – has added 10 years to my working life. My plan is we continue with the franchise model and try to open up a few more outlets. There’s a couple of opportunities I’m looking at.

In five years, when I'm 49, I’ll reassess exactly where we are. I have certain things I have to keep going. I don’t have pensions or any schemes. At 49, I should be in a positive position where I have two properties in Dubai completely paid for, one in Ireland paid for, a property in Spain paid for. That for me is my private pension stuff. If I have that at 49 … you’d be reasonably comfortable at that point.