John Geoghegan.

'Mullingar is now a good product marketed well'

John Geoghegan’s two-and-a-half-year tenure as president of Mullingar Chamber of Commerce, which came to an end last week, coincided with some of the most significant events in modern history, globally and locally.

He succeeded Tom Hyland in August 2020 when normal life was suspended due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite the challenges posed by the worst public health crisis in a century, John had a clear vision of what he wanted to achieve during his time as chamber president.

“It’s the old story, a bad product marketed well will sell,” he said. “I thought that Mullingar was a good product marketed badly. We wanted to do something about that.”

One of the first things John did was reach out to his counterpart in Athlone Chamber, Alan Shaw. He believed, and still does, that if the two chambers collaborate they can achieve a lot more than working independently.

“We had a cup of coffee and we agreed to work together on everything other than where we have a conflict of interests, which would be attracting investment.

“We went to the council in the middle of the pandemic and said we are badly stuck for funding. We brought forward a proposal to the Strategic Policy Committee (SPC) that each chamber would get an annual contribution from the council. We looked for €30,000 and with the support of the members we got that.

“The councillors were supportive. When you bring to them a plan for driving things on, they get behind you. The one that really surprised was Cllr Mick Dollard. During my time as president of the chamber, he has probably been the proactive in supporting our endeavours in the county. He sees the big agenda and can see the big picture.”

Another thing that John wanted to do in his early days as president was to forge good relationships with the local media.

“I went to the Westmeath Examiner, the Westmeath Topic and Midlands 103 and said we are open to business. My phone number is this and I will answer the phone when you call. I will talk about issues as and when they arrive.

“This helped us to reposition the chamber and bring it into the mainstream. A lot of people became aware of the chamber and what we do. We went more public with what we do and revamped our website.”

Raising the profile of the chamber helped John and his colleagues fulfil one of their main objectives: to increase membership.

“We had just over 100 members and we wanted to double it over the two years. Luckily we got there, we got it to 245. Now we are hoping this year to get it to around 300 members.

“Anyone with a business needs to consider joining us. We would really welcome anyone to come on board from any sector. It’s €200 for the entry level membership and we feel that you get a lot of value for money for what you pay. We need more to join and support the mission.

“With more members, you can do more things and get more things done. We are seeing more people joining all the time, including lots of retailers. In the last 20 years, retailers left the chamber because they felt ignored and not given attention. We see that by marketing the town well, it feeds down to everyone. It was proven by the Mullingar Voucher sales that nearly reached €400,000. That started from €100,000 in 2011.

“We figure that the vouchers have generated between €3.5m and €4m over that time. We run that in the chamber on a cost recovery basis, supported by the council.

“The vouchers are a paper based system. It cost one and half per cent to recover your money, it’s a fraction of what it costs to recover from a mainstream plastic card.

Strong retail

“The town needs a strong retail sector. We made a promotion video at Christmas, with Bressie and others, to promote in Mullingar. We are consistently working to promote the retail sector but there is no better promotion than the Mullingar vouchers. We hope to sell €500,000 worth this year and making it the second biggest in the country after Dundalk, which turns €1m. We want retailers to feel involved because the town centre needs there support and people need to shop locally.

“If you walk into Arnotts or a local shop it’s the same produce at pretty much the same price, only you don’t have to travel 80km. In a post-Covid and carbon unfriendly world, a discretionary trip to Dublin is nearly gone. We feel the town has huge potential.”

The success of the fleadh and feelgood factor generated by those eight glorious days last August when eyes of the world were on Mullingar and the town didn’t disappoint is, John says, the undoubted highlight of his time as president of the chamber.

“It was remarkable. I am delighted for Willie [Penrose], Joe [Connaire] and Colette [Glynn]. They and the rest of the organising committee delivered something special and the sun shone as well. Bishop Deenihan must have had a word!

“The fleadh shows what happens when everyone pulls together. The whole town actually pulled together: the guards, the council, the fleadh committee, the volunteers, the churches. It was an unbelievable achievement.”

Other notable developments on the local economic landscape in recent years include, the news that the IDA is to finally construct an advance manufacturing facility at Ardmore Business Park, the Ardonagh Group’s decision to open a global data and risk management centre in Mullingar, with the creation of more than 100 jobs, and most recently Hammerlake Studio’s decision to build one of the largest film studios in Europe on the outskirts of the town.

John believes that the future looks bright for Mullingar and the midlands in general.

“Advanced manufacturing is the future of Irish industry and commerce. It’s value added. It’s technologically driven and it appeals to an educated workforce. The difference between someone earning €15 per hour and €30 per hour, it’s twice the pay but it’s three and a half times the tax take because of the progressive taxation system we have.

“We have to keep pushing this because it creates well paid jobs and generates lots of corporation tax receipts. A lot of those companies turn more than €750m a year, so they will be in the 15 per cent tax category.

“It is so important that this [construction of the advanced manufacturing facility] happens. It tells the Americans and everyone else that we are open for business and we have a supply of these buildings.

“David Ross, the guy who runs the Ardonagh group, is a Mullingar man in charge of a €10 billion company in London. Ardonagh have located here due to its proximity to TUS in Athlone and TUS have a data analytics programme that Ardonagh have assisted in building.

“TUS are phenomenal. I couldn’t have asked for more support than I’ve got from the guys at TUS, such as Ciarán Ó Catháin and Dr Michael Tobin. These guys are open for collaboration and the doors are genuinely open.

“It has also been great working with another Mullingar man, Ken Whitelaw (midlands regional manager for the IDA), who has been so helpful.

“In last 10 years, Mullingar has probably moved forward the equivalent of two decades, in terms of the National Science Park, the IDA park, jobs announcements, new housing developments, the new school on the Ardmore Road, as well as the new National Centre of Excellence for EVs coming to Columb Barracks.

“It’s no coincidence that it happened when at one stage we had two government junior ministers.”

After devoting every Friday for the last two and half years to his work with the chamber, John, who is the founder and managing director of Landcorp Private, a real estate asset acquisitions and asset management company, is looking forward to being able to spend a bit more time on the golf course as well as being able to devote a bit more energy to his “job”.

Wishing his (at the time of writing not yet elected) successor well, John says he will always be around to build on the good work that the chamber has done in recent years, work that couldn’t have been achieved he says without the contributions from office manager Aisling Coleman and office administrator Louise Kelly.

Having a vibrant and proactive chamber in a regional town such as Mullingar is important, he reiterates.

“If there is anyone coming to Mullingar for investment or development, we want to meet them and give them every bit of help we can. When the then Tánaiste Leo Varadkar was here last year, I went out of my way to welcome him. It is important that these guys are welcomed. No matter what your politics are, these guys are making the decisions and if they are made feel welcome in a town, it’s a different town and makes a difference.

“At the end of the day, I am proud of what we have achieved as a chamber. We doubled our membership. We repositioned the marketing of the town and I won’t let that slip backwards.

“We have a great town and it’s now a good product marketed well. If we stick to that. We will have a successful decade ahead.”