Entrepreneur and media training guru Gavin Duffy talks to Gavan Reilly about breakfast radio, the problem with the Irish economy, and life inside the Dragons’ Den…
Nobody ever likes being woken up by a phone call – but when you’re picking the people who you’d least like to hear you sounding groggy and underslept, influential businesspeople are probably somewhere at the top of the list. Therefore, it’s a strange and bloody frightening feeling being woken up on the stroke of 9am by a phone call from someone from Dragons’ Den.
Thankfully, when Gavin Duffy calls – literally at the same second the clock radio starts to blare the 9am news – he’s merely arranging the details for an interview later that day, and isn’t expecting me to be able to interview him from bed, without as much as pen to take notes. As it transpires, when I get to chat to him again later that day (after, I hasten to add, a lot of coffee), I begin to get the sense that admitting my utter unprofessionalism might not have been as suicidal as I’d feared – because despite the preconceptions one might have about a mega-successful business and media magnate like Duffy, the Drogheda man is an extremely approachable and affable person.
Duffy is familiar to most of us as one of the five tough-talking venture capitalists from RTÉ One’s Thursday night show Dragons’ Den, but what most people our age might not cop is that Duffy began life – and still holds a burning passion – as a breakfast DJ on a local radio station in Dundalk. More true to the usual entrepreneurial stereotype is the fact that Duffy got into the world of business quite early, taking the DJing job at the tender age of 17.
“I remember finishing a breakfast show one morning in the summer of 1977 and driving back up to Drogheda, and helping in the family pub and going down to change a keg in the basement,” Duffy reminisces. “We had a radio on down there, and I heard the radio who had just taken over from me – and here I was listening from over 20 miles away in the basement. That just made me go, ‘Wow, this is some medium. How does it actually work?’” It was this curiosity – coupled with a genuine passion for journalism and community radio (“I would prefer to be involved with a Newstalk rather than a Spin in today’s context”, he suggests) – that led him to campaign for a licensed local radio station for the northeast, and ultimately to set up Ireland’s first commercial local station, LMFM.
“I don’t know whether that was a good career move or not,” Duffy surprisingly concedes, though, “because I really liked talking to a wall – I loved radio and the intimacy of the medium and all that… In the mid 80s I started working on Morning Ireland and to my great surprise, I think it was in 1987, RTÉ asked me to present their first television business programme called Marketplace… They’d been very good to me, but I still had this hankering that if I was to get real legal local radio, I had this ambition about doing it. Critically the station [LMFM] was, as local radios go, quite successful and began to do very well. It was well received and critically acclaimed.” So well, in fact, that UTV took the station off his hands in 2004 for €11m.
Nowadays the day job for Duffy is his Dorland media consultancy firm – again, a business that proved more lucrative than he had expected. “One of the things that worked out well for me was that we went around to a lot of the larger companies in Ireland from about 1999 onward, saying to them, ‘You’ve got a big brand, consider your reputation and risk management… If something ever untoward happens, you have our expertise 24/7’,” he reveals. “It was a type of insurance nearly that the large corporates were taking out with us. We probably oversold it – because since 2008 all of our clients have all, simultaneously, had huge problems because of the economic meltdown… It has paid me very handsomely and continues to over the years. I suppose I should be very lucky to say I’m in a recession-proof business, if we look at the media end of it.” 
It was also through his work with Dorland that he became first involved in the seed investments that have seen him gain more prominence in the intervening years – as often, he would take a more hands-on management role in companies seeking his advice on media relations. “One of the things that started to happen from the dotcom boom is that I would, once or twice a week, have these dotcom hopefuls saying, ‘Will you help us make our presentation because we’re going to a bank for finance.’ After a while I said, ‘I think you need more than that,’ and I would get involved with some of them. Instead of charging a fee, I would take a very small slice – anything from 2.5 to 5 per cent.
“That’s why when RTE and Shinawil [the producers of the Irish Dragons’ Den] started asking around Enterprise Ireland as to who might be a Dragon or not, my name was the one name that came up most frequently.”
It’s through his work in the Den that he’s become most widely known: as perhaps the least outwardly vocal of the Dragons, Gavin’s selective nuggets of wisdom tend to pack bigger punches than those of his colleagues. It’s also, he reveals, offered some useful get-out clauses at awkward social situations. “There’s a fantastic bonus for someone doing Dragons’ Den – for someone like me who’s been dragged up in pubs… we were trained from an early age to be nice to people, and it sounds awful but I’ve been nice to people all my life.
“Now, as a result of Dragons’ Den, I have a licence to be rude, and that becomes very effective! It happens to all of us. When I’m stuck at a Chamber of Commerce thing or a drinks party – we all get stuck in the corner with an incredible bore – what I do now is say, ‘Excuse me, I’m not interested, I’m out,’ and I just walk away. And I can hear the bore turning to their next victim, laughing, ‘That Gavin Duffy’s a great guy! Did you hear what he just said?’ It’s fantastic! It was worth doing the programme for that alone.”
Not, of course, that this is the sole benefit – aside from being given a chance to make significant money, the Dragons’ Den experience also seems to be great fun. “My best friend in the Den is undoubtedly Sean Gallagher – it’s not just that we share a dressing room … the other three think they’re D4 sophisticates, and it rubs me up the wrong way sometimes! We’re the two culchies and they’re the city kids. Niall [O’Farrell] is incredibly funny in the Den,” he adds. “Niall is just great fun, he’s just great company! He’s always got a yarn, always got a story. Whether it’s true or not doesn’t matter.”
I quickly ask Duffy what he thinks might get Ireland’s economy moving again, and – perhaps unsurprisingly – a media-based explanation is not far away. Ireland’s political system, he believes, needs total reform. “The Church in Ireland have lost all credibility, the judiciary is just moving too slow. The fourth estate, the media, has taken over, and I don’t think that’s a good thing. It’s not that we have poor leaders, it’s just that we have people who don’t want to be led by their strategies. I’d argue for a national government, and the media doesn’t call for that because it’d spoil their fun… We should have five years of national government with the three main parties, rotating Taoiseach every twenty months.” 
Duffy’s time at present, however, is being occupied by slightly more humanitarian matters, as a judge for the Vodafone Foundation’s ‘World of Difference’ programme. An unusually charitable programme, the competition offers four young people the chance to work for any charity they want – while Vodafone pay them a wage of €40,000 for the year. Crucially, though, entrants have to compile a pitch for what charity they’d like to work for, and how their work would benefit their causes and their communities.
“For a large corporation to be spending money in this sort of way is something I’m impressed with,” Duffy reveals. “It really does make a difference – instead of giving the money to an organisation, they’re saying, ‘Listen, if you have something that you really think will make a difference and if we have to pay the person would deliver that, what difference would it make?’”
And given his experience in seeing pitches in the Den, what makes a good pitch? “From a judging point of view we’re looking for dynamic people who are driven and passionate about what they want to do in the community. The standard of people who come in – and how difficult it is to select the top four – makes it a very challenging job when you’re sitting there as a judge. Somebody coming in with an idea that really is scalable, that could make a big difference – that’s what always impresses me and that’s what I would give the nod to.
“There’s no pressure whatsoever on us to pick one type of project over another one,” the Dragon concludes. “There’s no corporate considerations of things like that. I like the independence of this, the integrity of it. That impresses me.”
The Vodafone Foundation’s ‘World of Difference’ programme offers four people the chance to work for a charity of their choice, with Vodafone footing the bill. More details of the programme can be found at http://www.vodafone.ie/worldofdifference  or at the programme’s Facebook page .