When Pat McDonagh told his mum that he was leaving teaching to go into the fast-food business, she wasn’t very impressed. “My mother was shocked,” laughs the founder of Supermac’s. “She couldn’t understand why I would give up a good, pensionable government job to go into something that seemed insecure to her.”
Happily for his mum – a former teacher herself – her youngest child was fuelled by huge drive and ambition. His first Supermac’s opened in Ballinasloe, Galway, in 1978, and the franchise has now grown to over 100 outlets.
Pat grew up in the village of Kiltulla in Galway and wasn’t the most studious at school, which saw him being packed off to the Carmelite College boarding school in Moate to help remedy the situation.
“It was lonesome enough initially but the experience was enjoyable overall,” he says. “I played a good bit of football and that gave me certain unwritten privileges that I wouldn’t have had otherwise, such as getting to go out to the local shop.”
It was while he was playing football that Pat received the name nickname “Supermac,” due to his skill and prowess on the field. He clearly pulled his socks up academically, as he went on to train as a primary school teacher and spent five years teaching at Kilrickle National School.
He had a love for business, and began working part-time with a guy locating pool tables who ultimately sold him the business. Pat bought an old supermarket premises in Ballinasloe with the intention of putting a snooker hall into it, but the town planners had other ideas and turned him down.
“I didn’t have enough money to convert it to a nightclub and there were already furniture shops in Ballinasloe,” he recalls. “Fast food was beginning to come of age, so I decided to go that route because people always have to eat.”
The fact that he wasn’t a food expert didn’t faze Pat’s entrepreneurial spirit. Not knowing too much about what you’re getting into can sometimes work to your advantage, he says, because you don’t see all of the obstacles. A local chef taught him all he needed to know and Supermac’s was born.
By the time he decided to pack in teaching to concentrate full-time on the business, Pat held the position of principal. “Well it was only a two-teacher school,” he laughs. “Bishop Kirby from Clonfert was my school manager at the time, and he asked why I was leaving? I told him there was more money in chips than algebra!”
There certainly was as Pat now presides over an incredibly successful business that encompasses food outlets like Papa John’s Pizza, Bewley’s, SuperSubs, Habaneros and On The Go. Not forgetting the Claddagh Irish bar chain in the US.
With the Barack Obama Plaza motorway stop and several other plazas under his belt, Pat will open a new plaza in Portlaoise this year. His Só Hotels Group incorporates the Charleville Park in Cork, Lough Rea in Galway, Killeshin in Laois, Castletroy Park in Limerick, Athlone Springs in Westmeath and Castle Oaks House in Limerick.
Pat met his wife Úna in the early days when he picked her up on the road as she was hitching a lift. She told him she was looking for a summer job and he offered her a position in Supermac’s. “She got a job for life,” he jokes, as Úna is an integral part of the business.
They have four children, Marie, Siobhan, John and Conor, all of whom work in the company. Not that Pat persuaded them into it as he believes that everyone has to follow their own path in life to be happy. “You have to follow your dreams and ambitions, or you’ll end up dissatisfied with yourself,” he says.
Úna has been a huge support to Pat over the years and kept family life on an even keel. “She tended to the family more than I did, and that would probably be one of the regrets I have,” he admits. “That maybe I wasn’t there often enough.”
“It’s a balancing act and there are sacrifices to be made, but overall, it worked out fairly well. I always tried to get home at night even when I was a good distance away. I was always there for matches, which was hugely important, and when your children come to 12 or 13, you’re no longer cool anyway.”
While running a business on his scale faces myriad challenges – not least from the insurance, legal, staffing and planning aspects – Pat takes it all in his stride. “It’s never going to be a straight road,” he shrugs, ”as there will always be a few hills and obstacles along the way.”
With a vision and drive than remains undiminished and a business that continues to flourish and grow, Pat’s mum can be assured that he made the right decision!