Paul McErlean: You're never too old to relearn, and in these difficult times there's always opportunity

University College Dublin’s Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School

IT was like a nervous first day at school looking around a sea of strangers, hoping there might be a friendly face.

Except on this occasion, most of us were in our twenties or thirties and this was the first day of a Masters in Business Administration (MBA) class at University College Dublin’s Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School.

It was the first Friday afternoon in October 2000, and while most of my fellow students had probably left work in central Dublin at 1.30 to be there for 2pm, I had left my office in Belfast at 11am and still struggled to be on time.

These were the days when you still had to drive through Dundalk and Drogheda to get to Dublin.

That trip was to become a pretty tiresome part of my life for the next two years and with classes also running to 1pm on the Saturday, the journey home wasn’t much better, usually getting me back to Belfast in the late afternoon.

As you might expect on the first day, everybody had to introduce themselves with a little summary of their backgrounds and why they had chosen the course etc.

The class contained a very interesting group of people from the Irish and international banks; some of the large US investors in Dublin; big Irish industrials and a few from the insurance industry.

I was the only one from ‘up north’, but then there was one other person who was much more of an outlier than me, Douglas Kershaw Bonnar.

Douglas was a Scottish Tory in his late sixties who’d had a very interesting career finally ending up in Dublin for his last full-time job as managing director of Chase Bank Ireland.

To my ear, Douglas had a fancy English accent and he was every inch a Tory banker: double breasted, gold buttoned navy blazer and family cygnet ring on his little finger and a loud and opinionated view on pretty much everything.

You couldn’t fail to like him though; he was great fun and he had a kind heart. Most of us were very fond of him, despite his regular interventions where he invariably tried to improve a point or correct a lecturer on the intricacies of corporate finance or macroeconomics.

It led to the odd haughty lecturer taking pretty grave offence which I have to admit, usually made me laugh.

As in many MBA courses (most famously the Harvard Business School MBA), we were broken up into small, working groups and Douglas and I were placed together so I got to know him well over the next two years.

I learned a lot from him and it left a lasting impression on me that he’d paid the very large fee for the course himself, just so that he could continue to learn (he was a non-executive director of at least 10 financial services companies) and mix with the emerging leaders of the Irish economy at the time.

And while he was opinionated, he was never afraid to acknowledge he’d learned something new and say thank-you afterwards. He was a good example to us all.

With the way business changed in 2020, there has been more time to consider (and worry about) the future, though change can often be good and in difficult times, there is always opportunity. In recent months, we have built a new and very helpful relationship with Invest NI and started to consider future strategy and growth.

Invest NI has been there to support us and this year, myself and some of my senior colleagues will take part in Invest NI’s Leadership Team Programme which is part-delivered with another Dublin educational institution, the business school at Dublin City University.

There is a hefty fee to pay for the privilege, but it is well subsidised by Invest NI and I see it as an investment and I’m really looking forward to getting started. Invest NI is also providing support to allow us to bring in a consultant to lead us through some improvements and change.

I’ll not say who the consultant is here (contact me directly if you’d like a recommendation) but he has been really excellent so far and has certainly given me renewed energy at a time when the business environment is fairly bleak.

One of our first bits of homework has been to read The One Minute Manager. It’s a short little management book and many people I know are sceptical of these ‘how to’ self help books. They say these books are just telling you what you already know and do, albeit with some added little story to make it interesting or different.

My argument back to those people (and to myself at times) is, well, if you already know all of that, why aren’t you implementing it? The truth is we can slip into bad or lazy habits and the pandemic has surely made those even more tempting.

The little book has three main ‘secrets’ which it reveals in a pleasant, conversational format. If you manage people and/or run or are interested in running an effective organisation (it doesn’t have to be a business), it’s definitely worth a read.

The secrets focus on goal-setting and understanding shared objectives; how and when to praise staff and, when needed, how and when to re-direct them. I can see myself going back to it on a regular basis as our consultant, who knows a lot about running successful businesses, says he does also. It’s simple and in many ways, pretty obvious stuff but sometimes getting a reminder of how to do things well can be extremely useful.

And that was really how Douglas saw his two years with managers 30 years his junior, he was just always keen and eager to learn. Unfortunately, Douglas passed away last January at the age of 88 but I do think of his energy and recently, because of a big birthday, his generosity; my daughter Anna was born the year after we finished the course and Douglas set up a National Savings Bond gift for her. ‘Reasonable returns and low fees, actually quite good Paul’, as he told me at the time.

So, as we enter another challenging year for business and the economy, I’m carrying a couple of things in my head. First, you’re never too old or experienced to learn or relearn something.

And second, in difficult times, there is always opportunity; you just need to go find it and have the strategy and people to deliver on it. Here’s to a better business year in 2021.

Paul McErlean ( is managing director and founder of MCE Public Relations

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