Plan B

Plan B “Never waste a crisis,” Rahm Emanuel, Barack Obama’s chief of staff, said recently, and it’s a mantra to live by. Patrick Freyne speaks to six people who’ve used unemployment as an opportunity to try something new ? from reaching for the skies to strutting on the stage

Bob Burke

Bob Burke from Dell manager to children’s author

‘Iwas the server-ops manager in IT in Dell, basically looking after Dell’s server infrastructure,” says Bob Burke. “I was there for nine years keeping the factory going. Now I’m about to have a children’s book published. I’m aware it’s a bit of a jump.”

Bob had always dabbled in writing but he hadn’t taken it seriously as a potential career until he started to write a children’s book, The Third Pig Detective Agency. “It was getting good vibes,” he says. “And about two years ago a publisher said they were interested and at around the same time the opportunity of voluntary redundancy came up. I thought about it and realised I’d probably never get the opportunity again. So I left Dell in late 2007. It was the first of the current redundancy packages. I’m 48 with three kids so I’m not sure whether I’d have done this if the redundancy hadn’t come up. Maybe I would have done it anyway, but it’s hard to tell.”

It was a big change of pace. “I was basically on call 24/7,” he explains. “My job could have been eight to 15 hours at work and then a conference call at three in the morning. My lifestyle has certainly become more relaxed since. I’ve much more time with family which is great because there were times in the past when I wouldn’t see them for days on end. Now I can get up with my children, get them out to school, and then go to the study and write from 9.30 to four or five. I do some part-time training work for a local company and if they’re looking for a day here and there I can do that as well. Whatever stress is there now, I’m my own boss.”

And there are more books to come. “They’ve already asked about a sequel,” he says. “It’s going to be called The Ho Ho Ho Mystery and it’s about Santa Claus, surprisingly enough. It’s about two thirds complete, with the same characters, the same humour, and the same spoofing of well-known detective and fairy stories as the first book. I test my books on my eldest son. Sometimes they say don’t get feedback from family and friends, but he’s a very good yardstick. He’s a good critic.”

The Third Pig Detective Agency is published by Harper Collins, and will be on the shelves in August

Peter Duffy from the sea to the skies

‘Iwas a chief officer with Irish ferries on the ships when they decided to make everyone redundant a couple of years ago, in order to outsource all the jobs,” says Peter Duffy. “They just let us all go. I did nautical science at Cork RTC when I left school, and then I worked on oil tankers before moving to Irish Ferries. I was there for nearly eight years. I could see that redundancies were on the cards for about two years before it happened. There was a lot of industrial action and there were new management roles brought in simply to work out how they could get rid of us.

“So the employees were very angry; angry not just at the fact we were losing out jobs, but at the fact that the motive behind getting rid of us wasn’t to save the company; the company was not in financial ruin. They were claiming the poor mouth, saying they had to outsource jobs to make the company survive, and that lie upset people the most.”

But Peter chose not to wallow in (justifiable) anger. He’d taken flying lessons when he was 22 and decided that he’d trade the sea for the open skies. “I’d always wanted to go back to it but never had the time or money. So I went down to Port Alfred in South Africa where I studied with a group called Sigmar Aviation for 14 months. There were five of us down there and we only came home twice in that time to do Irish Aviation Authority exams. It was very intense and I was nervous. I wondered if I’d make the grade as a pilot at all, but I made it through.”

Now Peter works for Cityjet and flies planes every week. “Speed is the big difference,” he says. “On a ferry you travel at 20 knots and on an aircraft you’re travelling at something like 400 knots. And there’s a lot of quick thinking to do. I had good times working on ships but flying is more… intense. It’s more active. You’re constantly busy, you’re constantly keeping to schedules, and there’s nothing better than pulling off a nice landing. You can get great satisfaction out of that. On a ship, the only person allowed manoeuvre the craft is the captain but when you’re flying you’re handed a lot of responsibility early on.”

So he’s glad he made the switch? “It’s great. And it’s definitely better than doing a desk job. I get the best view of the world from my desk. Going from Paris to Florence, crossing the Alps on a nice clear day, I always take a moment to think of my friends down below sitting in front of their computers. I’m glad I was made redundant in 2006.”

Edward O’ Grady Walshe from architect to performer (and back)

‘There were 15 people designing a building that only needed five,” says award-winning architect Edward O’Grady Walshe. “So when I got the call to come into the boardroom I knew I was being let go. I remember looking at my desk, full of sketches of all the different ideas being worked through, and thinking ‘this is a fantastic job and I really love it’. But when it did happen I didn’t waste any time being resentful or hurt. I was able to say to the management team that they were doing the best job that they possibly could, that I’d be all right and not to worry about me. It was absolutely not their fault.”

“The fact is, I’m busier than I’ve ever been,” he says. “The difference now is that there isn’t enough work to sustain you doing any one thing so you have do five. I have a lot of other skills. Yes I can go back to designing domestic extensions, and one-off houses, and I will, but I also have experience of theatre. I can do costume design. I draw. I’ve done some broadcast media. I started writing a play and a musical. And I can now perform at the Tassel Club (regular burlesque club run at the Button Factory, Dublin) as Wexford O’Grady. It’s so different from planning a building which could be five years on the drawing board before they cut the opening ribbon. With this, Cinzia (my dance partner) and I can conceive, choreograph, costume and perform a new idea within a week. I also got a part in the Dublin premiere of The Producers at the Gaiety in April/May, and that’s a full song-and-dance show.”

Although Edward is determined to continue working in his profession, he thinks that recessionary times give him an opportunity to be creative in other ways too. Domestic extensions and renovations, even a hotel on the horizon, may not be enough to make ends meet on their own though. “The only negative about all this is that all of us might not earn as much as we were earning,” he says. “But I can live with that. Yes we had choices during the boom, but they were choices on a shelf, and you picked from a finite spectrum of jobs. Now you make up your own job – or in my case, your own five jobs.”

Colin Morris and Miriam Ingram from Vodafone employees to film composers

‘We were both working for Vodafone,” says Colin Morris, a project manager turned film-composer. “I’d been working there for eight years and I was on the road quite a bit, going around the country, visiting stores.

“Miriam and I had known each other for years and she was working there as well.

“We were both sick of our jobs. We used to meet for coffee in the canteen and one day I said that I was going to start making music for ads and TV, and she said, ‘Do you want a partner?’ We formed a company called Tootsweet [www.tootsweet.ie], but not much happened while we were still at Vodafone.

“Then I was in a car crash and I had to take time off and I had a lot of time to think. Basically I really enjoyed the time at home with the kids and I figured that life was too short to be working in a corporate environment. It isn’t conducive to creativity at all, and it sort of stays with you after work. When I returned they were announcing voluntary redundancies and I jumped at the chance. They were ‘synergising’.”

“‘Capitalising on the wow factor’ I think they call it,” says Miriam with a laugh as she continues the story. “I was still working there for a while after Colin left. I was in administration on a contract basis and in late 2007 I also lost my job, except without the redundancy package. But I saw it as an opportunity to move on with Tootsweet and it’s fantastic because our day job now involves doing something we absolutely love – writing and recording music.”

Since then Tootsweet has landed, amongst other projects, soundtrack work for the Green Party’s election ads, a television advertisement for the St Vincent de Paul, an array of theatrical productions, television documentaries and a recent feature-film project (Eamon directed by Margaret Corkery). It’s a struggle at times, but one which neither of the partners resents.

“Apparently the entertainment industry does well in times of recession,” says Miriam. “And we’re hopeful it will continue that way.”

So no regrets then? “My old job was permanent and pensionable; you got a free phone, a car, a bonus; there were so many carrots in front of that donkey,” says Colin. “Plus I have a family and a mortgage.

“But this work is creative and I love it and I would do anything rather than return to a corporate environment. And you can quote me on that.”

Karina Heavey from marketing manager to networker extraordinaire

‘I was a marketing manager for a software company based in Kilmainham, Dublin, until January when they laid off staff,” says Karina Heavey. “When someone takes a job from you, they’re taking what you love, so you really have to invent opportunities for yourself to keep yourself sane.”

Karina decided to use her marketing skills to market to the marketeers. “I decided to set up a group for marketing people and arranged for them to meet up on the first Wednesday of every month,” she says. “The idea was to get people meeting on a regular basis to share ideas, discuss the industry and to network. It’s basically a networking event. Many companies have no marketing budgets at the moment and even if they’re hiring they don’t have money for recruitment agents. I believe that if you bring all these people into a group there’s bound to be opportunities that come out of it. And a lot of people have got in touch to say ‘thanks for sending my invitation, I just lost my job’.

“It’s an exciting thing to be involved in and it’s about taking an idea and running with it. I recently organised a competition. Connect gave me €1,000 of free merchandise from its website and I approached Dunboyne Castle Hotel who gave me a voucher for a weekend away and I’m running a competition for the group. The challenge is that they have to think of the most creative way to use the merchandise for marketing purposes. And I’ve assembled a panel of experts to judge the results. I’m ambitious. It’d be great to get corporate sponsors and then run spin-off groups around the country.”

“Frankly this has been in many ways a great opportunity for me,” says Karina. “I’ve sharpened my own skills and since I lost my job I’ve been learning about Twitter and Facebook and blogging – marketing tools I’d previously ignored but am now learning to understand and use. And networking is key. At the end of the day the more people I’ve met, the more opportunities I’ve had.”

Check out Karina’s website, www.121biznet.com;

The 121 business network meets on the first Wednesday of every month in the Mint Bar at the Westin Hotel, Dublin

Ian Clinton from vending machine man to entrepreneur

‘Iwas made redundant last Friday and by the evening I’d decided to start my own business,” says Ian Clinton. “I was an assistant manager for a vending-machine company and I thought things were going okay. I’d got some extra work for the firm before Christmas, so when I found out that I was going to be made redundant it was a bit of a shock. That evening I went for a drink with my wife and some friends and they asked what I was going to do and I said I was going to have a go at this business idea I had.”

He elaborates: “I was abroad twice last year and noticed that when coming home, because of the air charges for luggage, dozens of people at the airports were swapping luggage around, worried about the weight of their bags. So I got the idea that there should be a place where people could weigh their bags before they checked in. Basically, I want to set up coin-operated machines to weigh luggage. These could be set up in airports or hotels. Hotels could offer the service for free if they wanted, but I’d provide the machines. I’ve already sourced them.”

Already? He laughs. “Well, after being made redundant I decided to jump in straight away. I’ve been thinking about this for a while. When I first had the idea I thought of mentioning it to the boss because I thought it was something the company could do, but I got wind that things weren’t going great so I thought I’d keep it schtum. And I was afraid to go out on my own because if it didn’t work out they might have sacked me. Frankly being made redundant was the kick up the backside I needed. So now I’m checking it out with hotels. I’ve started talking to people in Dublin; then it’s the countryside and then Europe. In hindsight, maybe if I’d mentioned this to my boss it would have been the thing that saved my job!”

It’s Ian’s first business, but it’s not his first time doing something creative. “I wrote a book four years ago called Future Film Fiction, a book of short stories,” he says. “I got it published and had the material for another nine books, but because of the job and the hours I worked I never got time to do the rest. I’ll write them at some stage, but first I’m going to start this business. Then if I make a name for myself maybe I’ll write a book about that.”
March 8, 2009