Economy

Quinn’s world

Peter Quinn

A man of many talents, Peter Quinn shares his thoughts on business, economics and sport with Meadhbh Monahan.

Growing up in “relative poverty” in south Fermanagh didn’t hinder Peter Quinn, who has taken on prominent roles in education, business, sport and the media over the years.

An admirer of Seán Lemass and Barack Obama, Quinn is a chartered accountant and financial consultant with his own consultancy agency in Enniskillen. He is Director of the Quinn Group and a number of other organisations in the Republic, and is also Chairman of Irish language television station TG4.

Quinn was reported to be a member of Fianna Fáil amid stories about the party moving into the North, but he denies this.

“I’m not a member of Fianna Fáil or any political party but it’s very well recognised that I’ve been appointed to prominent positions by a Fianna Fáil-led government,” Quinn states.

“I was appointed for business reasons but there is no doubt that when you are appointed by a government minister, it is at least a semi-political appointment.”

Referring to the possibility of Fianna Fáil becoming all-island, Quinn says: “There was the view down through the years that Fianna Fáil shouldn’t mobilise in the North; it was deValera’s view and it was carried on by others. I’m not sure that view is still carried today.”

Family business

One of the most notable ventures in which Quinn is involved is his brother Sean’s conglomerate. Indeed, given that “family is the most important thing” in Quinn’s life, it is no surprise that he is at his brother’s side as Director. With its headquarters in Derrylin, County Fermanagh, the Quinn Group has interests in cement and concrete products; container glass; general and health insurance; radiators; plastics; hospitality; energy; and real estate. They employ approximately 5,000 staff throughout Ireland with a total of 8,000 employees in various countries across Europe and Asia, including Russia.

Commenting on how the group is performing during the recession, Quinn criticises what he sees as the excessive negativity of some commentators.

“There have been one or two prominent figures [in the media] who have been talking down the economy. If someone goes off to New York and says ‘Ireland is bankrupt’ and then within an hour the rate that the Irish Government has to pay for finance increases, that’s a very telling relationship and I don’t think it should happen. If the private sector operated like that we’d all be in far bigger difficulty than we are.”

He reports that the manufacturing side of the business has been doing “far better than could be expected” during a recession.

“We are very optimistic for the manufacturing side,” he says. What the Quinn Group are most proud of is that at a time when the manufacturing industry is reportedly “on its knees,” its profits for 2009 “were almost a record,” with only one year in the past topping that year’s statistics.

“That’s a consolation to us and to our employees,” Quinn states. “Some of our employees have suffered [and] would not be earning what they were earning in the past, but they accept that and are happy to take that on the basis that there will be better years to come in the future.”

The insurance side of the business is not so positive with rising prices and an increase in bogus claims.

“The problem about a recession is that it provides a lot of inducements for people to make claims for injuries which are not justified or are exaggerated. That makes the provision of any sort of financial services, but insurance services in particular, very difficult,” Quinn concedes.

He claims that reports about a downturn in the hotel side of the business – particularly the Slieve Russell in Ballyconnell – are “rubbish”.

“I’m not saying the hotel sector is making a fortune. It isn’t. But it’s not doing badly, it’s profitable.”Peter Quinn

He reveals that the Quinn Group is recruiting again and is pleased that it can offer job prospects to so many young people in the country, north and south.

“If there is one thing that I am positive about at the present time is Ireland’s young people,” Quinn states. The former Queen’s University lecturer’s “biggest worry” during this recession is also for the same group.

“People graduating from university, those leaving secondary school and newly married couples who depend on the stability of employment for high mortgages are the people who will really suffer.

“The last thing I would want to see is a lost half of a generation who would never know economic prosperity or a full-time job.” He refers to this prospect as “a tragedy” that would affect generations down the line.

Quinn says that the “fantastic cohort of young people” are “our greatest hope.”

Economy

After working on both sides of the border for 25 years, Quinn has witnessed recessions in the past, but none have been as bad as the current situation.

“I grew up in the 1950s when things weren’t great and there was a huge period of economic difficulty in the 1970s with massive levels of inflation and interest rates in excess of 20 per cent,” Quinn reflects.

“We’ve had a recession every year since and one of the reasons this is different is that it comes on the back of a decade of phenomenal economic growth.”

Quinn says the continuous upward growth from 2004 with a population and construction boom created “a bit of a false economy.”

He adds that the “massive amounts of prosperity” that were created “have not been used very well.”

Media

A fan of the Irish language, Quinn says it was not his grasp of the language that led to him being chosen for the role of Chairman of TG4.

“The reason I was selected was because it was a new business and they wanted to get it off on a good business-like footing,” he explains.

TG4 became an independent organisation in April 2007. Prior to that it was part of RTÉ. According to Quinn, the Irish language is as important as ever in the 21st century. “In a situation where we are all part of the European Union it’s very easy to get lost in such a cosmopolitan body. With so many people, so many languages and so many different cultures, it is very important that an Irish sense of identity is preserved,” he states.

TG4 became an independent organisation in April 2007. Prior to that it was part of RTÉ. According to Quinn, the Irish language is as important as ever in the 21st century. “In a situation where we are all part of the European Union it’s very easy to get lost in such a cosmopolitan body. With so many people, so many languages and so many different cultures, it is very important that an Irish sense of identity is preserved,” he states.

Quinn says there is an assumption that TG4 is a station for Irish speakers but he adds that the station gets a lot of viewership from people who are dependent on subtitles, in the North and the South. Its strongest feature at the moment is its sports coverage.

Commenting on the future of the media in Ireland, Quinn reflects: “I’ve been involved in a number of media ventures and clearly the present time is the most difficult that I’ve encountered, and that goes back to the 1990s.”

Advertising revenues are “significantly down” on both sides of the border and Quinn again points a finger of blame to sections of the media for their “huge level of negativity.”

“The business sector is getting fed up with that and that’s not encouraging them to increase their advertising.”

According to Quinn, local media will “always be strong” and will get advertising because it “creates a sense of identity.” This will leave the national media to face the brunt of the problems.

Sport

Captaining Teemore to championship victory in 1969 cemented Quinn’s passion for Gaelic football. A medical scare at age seven, which resulted in penicillin injections every day for 20 years, did not deter him from playing his favourite game.

“I suffered from ill-health and nearly died when I was young. I never played a game that wasn’t contrary to doctor’s orders.”

As a young footballer in County Fermanagh, Quinn never imagined that he would go on to be Chairman of the Gaelic Athletic Association. In 1991 Quinn took up this role after being President of the Ulster Council in the late 1980s.

The prestigious position was sweetened for Quinn when Down won the All-Ireland in 1991, becoming the first Ulster team to win since they had previously taken the title in 1968.

“I was lucky enough to present the Sam Maguire to three separate Ulster captains in three separate years,” Quinn recalls.

“The 1991 success was the big thing because Down had won the All-Ireland in 1968 and the Troubles started the next year, and no Ulster team won it until Down won it again in 1991. Then Donegal and Derry won it the following two years.” Quinn says that was the start of a “golden-era” in Ulster football.

Referring to the changes in the GAA rule book, on-and-off the pitch over the past 20 years, Quinn comments: “The GAA had suffered, certainly in Ulster, but nationally too, as a result of the Troubles.”

He said that when the peace process became “confident”, the GAA deemed it was time to recognise that.

Rule 21, which prohibited members of the security forces from playing Gaelic games was repealed in 2001.

“This came as a reaction to the peace process,” Quinn reflects.

“The GAA has become a more open organisation, and that’s only right because our games can stand in comparison to any other games in the world.”

He says that what “galvanised” change in the GAA was the Croke Park project.

“The re-building of Croke Park represented a vote of confidence in our future. That confidence had a cathartic effect on the association and made them more amenable to change and development.”

He admits there was opposition to the plan from people who thought the GAA was being “fool-hardy.” But, according to Quinn, the finished product is “the finest stadium of its kind and the best stadium owned by any amateur organisation in the world.”

A further rule change occurred in 2005 when rule 42, which banned any sports other than Gaelic games being played at Croke Park, was repealed.

These changes were a “result of increased confidence and the opening up of the association.” The subsequent rugby and soccer matches “generated a fair bit of revenue for the association.”

With the new Aviva Stadium almost complete, Quinn explains that the GAA has been prepared for this move.

“Clearly most of the soccer and rugby matches will now be played at the Aviva stadium at Lansdowne Road but we were always aware of that and that’s why the funding that came from the games that were played in Croke Park were distributed to clubs and counties. The association isn’t dependant on those funds.”

Milestones

Quinn cites starting an academic career as “an event that changed my life.”

“For someone who came from relative poverty in Fermanagh to be appointed lecturer at Queen’s was a big thing. It gave me a level of confidence I didn’t have prior to that and I’m still eternally grateful to Queen’s for that opportunity.”

His cites his other milestones as captaining Teemore to the championship final in 1969 and becoming Chairman of the GAA.

“But I don’t remember any satisfaction greater than the satisfaction on the day my first son was born,” the father of five contends.

Quinn says his greatest influence was his father, an illiterate farmer who taught him to “learn by doing.”

“He was a very intelligent man and was very good at mental arithmetic,” Quinn says. A “pragmatic” man, Quinn’s father always encouraged his children. “Even when we played badly he always put a good spin on it.”

When Quinn was 13 his father sent him out to “buy and sell cattle” in order to get experience. “Even though I spent much of my life in the academic world, I never forgot the lesson from my father that you learn better by doing than you learn anywhere else.”

Outside his family, Quinn admires former Taoiseach Seán Lemass for his attempt “to make the Irish economy a genuine economy, get rid of protectionism, start exporting, and become more international.”

He continues: “I am a big admirer of Barack Obama even though at the start of the election campaign I supported John Edwards.” He believes Obama has been great for the world and for America and points to his “positive impact” on American standing internationally.

In conclusion Quinn says that “like many Irish people,” he was influenced by John F Kennedy. “He brought a lot of hope and he was the first major statesman to emphasise the importance of young people.”

Profile: Peter Quinn

Educated in St Michael’s College, Enniskillen, Quinn completed his BA degree in Latin and economics at Queen’s University Belfast in 1964.

“If I was starting again, I wouldn’t do an arts degree, I would do a management degree,” he reflects.

In 1967 he became an associate in the Institute of Chartered Accountants and in 1977 he became a fellow.

In 1968 he became a lecturer of accounting in Queen’s and in 1972 he achieved an MBA by thesis from Queen’s.

From Queen’s he received a secondment to Manchester Business School in 1972 where he lectured on finance, economics and management.

From 1977 to 1979 he worked with his brother Sean Quinn in Quinn quarries.

He then spent 15 years working as a financial and economic consultant to various international banks before returning to Fermanagh in 1994 and setting up his consultancy service.

Quinn is married with two sons and three daughters and lives in Enniskillen.

As well as being passionate about Gaelic sports, he enjoys athletics, cricket, rugby league and American football. He would “love to go to a Super Bowl some day.”

He also reads “non-stop” and has recently begun reading biographies.

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