The Downpatrick man behind Coke Zero and Europe's leading tourist attraction
Jenny Lee chats Irish emigration, ship building, the secret of entrepreneurial success and Coke Zero with Downpatrick-born Neville Isdell, the man behind Europe's leading tourist attraction EPIC
EPIC by name and epic in terms of success, Dublin's Irish Emigration Museum has been named Europe's Leading Tourist Attraction at the recent travel industry 'Oscars'.
The Dublin docklands museum beat off competition from long-standing tourist attractions such as Greece’s Acropolis, Barcelona’s Sagrada Família, Rome’s Colosseum and London’s Buckingham Palace to be named top attraction at The World Travel Awards in Portugal, earlier this month.
Opened just three years ago, Epic was the brainchild of Downpatrick-born businessman Neville Isdell, whose own epic journey took him to Africa at the age of 10, before working in 11 different countries, culminating in his tenure as chairman and chief executive.
The museum, which will welcome over 300,000 visitors this year, shows the contributions and influence Irish people have made globally, inviting them to swipe through touchscreens, dance through motion sensor quizzes and listen to remastered audio from 100 years ago.
Epic was the first fully digitalised museum in the world – a factor Isdell believes won them their latest accolade.
"What carried us through was the uniqueness of the way we present it," he says.
"It's an attraction, not a museum in the traditional sense. When we opened in 2016, we had a vision to create a local museum that could connect globally. It’s very important that we honour the Irish diaspora abroad and recognise the vital contributions and monumental impact Irish people have made worldwide. It’s wonderful to be recognised for this."
Epic is located in the CHQ Building by the banks of the River Liffey, the original departure point for so many of Ireland’s emigrants. The astute businessman purchased the 19th century wine and tobacco warehouse, which now also boasts a number of food and retail units, in 2013 from the Dublin Docklands Development Authority for just €10m.
"I was convinced that Ireland was turning around and the government was doing the right thing – unlike in Greece, where people were taking to the streets.
"Ireland had woke up to the fact the tiger had been just a little too fierce. People weren't happy, but they buckled down and you see the benefit of that in the Republic now with the significant growth in the economy.
"It was a very good time to invest. There is a lot of distress property on the market and there were governmental incentives, such as if you kept your property for seven years there would be no capital gains tax.
"I wasn't alone. Wilbur Ross, the current United States Secretary of Commerce was a big investor at that time. I was looking for an office block that I would let, but then I fell in love with the CHQ building.
"It was very dusty and its underground vaults needed extensive renovation, but I believed in its potential."
Indeed, Isdell ignored advice from those closest to him, including his step-brother Mervyn Green who now runs CHQ and Epic.
"I like to think counter-intuitively," he explains.
"When everyone believes something, then opportunity is always being in the minority."
Isdell has fond memories of growing up in Belfast and setting up 'shop' during playtime at Somerton House, the prep department of Belfast High School.
"My father retired at the age of 48 from the RUC and was recruited to head up the fingerprints and ballistics department in the Northern Rhodesia police in Zambia," he tells me.
"I left friends behind, but I went willingly. In retrospect, it's one of the best things that happened to me as it took me out of a small environment into a very different one and I guess that's also part of the Epic story."
The concept for the Epic, which cost €15 million, had been forming in Isdell's head for many years, often brought to the fore when people would query his accent and try to guess where he was from.
"There is a recognition about being Irish worldwide – part of it is around Guinness, but mostly it's about the nature and warmth of Ireland," says Isdell.
"We can be a bit aggressive, history proves that we know that, but there is something special about being Irish. And then you find things out. For example, the first time I went to Chile, I didn't know that the first President of Chile was Bernardo O'Higgins. These pieces all add up."
The Co Down man stresses that the museum incorporates the history of the north and south of Ireland, or as he calls it "rugby Ireland". Now a multi-millionaire, with an estimated worth of €84 million, was adamant he would not be among the 320 people selected for the museum's various exhibits.
The list, which is continuously reassessed, includes Che Guevara, whose ancestors came from Galway, and Grace Kelly, whose grandfather was a bricklayer from Mayo.
Those from the north of Ireland include Harry Ferguson, Liam Neeson, CS Lewis, AP McCoy and Sir James Martin, inventor of the ejection seat.
Isdell admits that he took inspiration from Titanic Belfast, when planning Epic, including using the same designers, Event Communications.
"We went up to talk to the Titanic people and got great advice and support. It's very special to me as my grandfather on my mother's side was chief engineer at Harland and Wolff and received an MBE for services to British shipbuilding."
Isdell hopes to travel to Oman in November for the World Travel Awards Final, but regardless of Epic's successes, he will still probably be best known for another career legacy – Coke Zero.
"We were involved in a project about trying to improve Diet Coke. It was my idea to create a brand with zero calorie, but which replicated the taste of Coca Cola," he recalls proudly.
His advice to young people hoping to succeed in the business world today?
"Years ago I was head hunted for quite an important position in the tobacco industry. I never smoked and didn't want anything to do with cigarettes. It would have been a really big jump in my career, but what I said to them is "I can't sell something I don't believe in."
Isdell also believes you have to enjoy your work.
"I used to tell the new people joining Coke that if you go through a continuous period where you are unhappy when Monday morning arrives and you are happy when Friday night arrives, please leave and do something else," he explains.
"I've got a very good friend, who played rugby for South Africa, and he's a medical doctor and has an MBA – but today he's happy running safaris."
Still enjoying the world of investment at the age of 76, Isdell is showing no signs of slowing down – though he rules out a future investment in the north of Ireland.
"That's all I'm doing in Europe. I spend time in Barbados now, and have just closed on a deal to renovate some old warehouses in the Old Port area of the capital city.
"By not retiring and staying physically and mentally alive, I'm increasing my chances of longevity. My wife may think I'm doing too much, which I probably am, but we are married 50 years next January and she knows I'm just restless. That's what she married."
:: To purchase tickets for Europe’s number one attraction, visit Epicchq.com