Business

Paul McErlean: Jim proved you can treat people with respect and still be successful in business

The Irish News has moved itself to the top of the tree here after a succession of good decisions over the years, all of which Jim Fitzpatrick was central to

While a copy of The Irish News was regularly in my house growing up, I only became aware of it properly when I went to St Pat’s Armagh.

In those days, us boarders endured long and boring days and given that there was no such thing as mobile phones or computers and only one television for the lot of us (with three stations, BBC1, BBC2 and UTV), any other distractions were worth a try.

I filled my time mostly with basketball and Gaelic football, with the odd bit of soccer (of a very agricultural variety) on ‘the courts’, the college’s old tennis courts repurposed as a very unforgiving soccer pitch.

There was also The Irish News. There was a big wooden table in the main hall and a fresh copy of the paper (then a broadsheet) was left out every morning. The paper was the subject of a daily routine and often bits of it went missing through the day. For instance, the racing pages were usually commandeered by Finbar Hughes, son of a Newry bookmaker. And every morning I used to watch the college handyman, Jack McCabe, who probably made the table the paper was placed on and who, in later years, made us a snooker table for our sixth-year common room, read the death notices.

I often wondered what was so interesting about the death notices: now I am beginning to understand. What I didn’t know until this week was that it was in and around this time that Jim Fitzpatrick assumed full control of the paper. Jim, or ‘the Chairman’ as he was respectfully known inside The Irish News building, passed away last week.And while much as been written about him on these pages since, I wanted to reflect a little here, from a business perspective.

This weekend past, I got a chance to catch up with Paddy Meehan, the former head of advertising for the paper. Paddy started with The Irish News in 1962 and didn’t retire until 2006. I’ve known Paddy most of my life, because not only was he the key man behind all the McErlean’s advertising in The Irish News, but he and his family became firm friends of ours.

In Paddy’s view Jim, and subsequently his son Dominic, now the chief executive, saved The Irish News, with their energy, innovation, and investment. And, of course, it was all done with dignity, manners, and respect, with a fair dollop of determination and ambition sitting in behind.

BUSINESS MEMORIES: Flashback to when Belfast Chamber president Michelle Greeves welcomes Rajesh Rana into the role, with Irish News chairman and Chamber stalwart Jim Fitzpatrick looking on

We all know how difficult the newspaper business has become, but The Irish News has moved itself to the top of the tree here after a succession of good decisions over the years, all of which Jim was central to. In 2000, the paper moved away from the broadsheet format and again in 2005, it switched to the compact format of today, as well as making a very large investment in a new printing business via its sister company Interpress, which prints a whole range of other weekly, daily and Sunday papers here, in addition to The Irish News.

Jim and Dominic were not afraid to invest and innovate to keep the business ahead of the pack, and that has included the decision to keep the website partly subscription-based, a move that a number of other news organisations here have tried to follow.

All the while Jim was working away at any amount of community and political initiatives to help improve the situation here in addition to a lifelong commitment to the city of Belfast and particularly the Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce. In dark days, Jim put money and time into the Belfast Chamber and the city when others were turning their backs on the city centre.

In the past week, at the removal, the funeral and on the phone, I haven’t spoken to anybody, either within the Belfast Chamber or The Irish News, who didn’t remark on Jim’s goodness.

For me, Jim was proof that you can be a good person and treat all people with respect and still be very successful in business. That’s a great legacy and lesson, I think.

Paul McErlean (paul@mcecomms.com) is managing director and founder of MCE (www.mcecomms.com)

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