“Every day we survive is a day nearer the end of the downturn.”
The words of the newly elected President of the Letterkenny Chamber, John Watson, sound an optimistic note at a time when the business community has struggled to keep going.
Proprietor of Watson Hire, with outlets in both Letterkenny and Donegal Town providing a total employment base of seventeen, his has been a success story based on diversification.
It’s a term he uses often and one that in the current climate takes on an even more significance.
Formerly manager of Sam Hire, John left it in 2005 and started up his own business. “At the time we were primarily construction based but in 2007 I saw the writing on the wall and felt we had to diversify.”
And diversify he did, branching into homeware, hardware and gardening concepts to help ensure the future of his business concern.
“It’s only by doing so that your business can survive. All those businesses that are still going have had to be very resilient.” Cutting costs but maintaining quality is, he insists, all part of the diversification process while another key element is looking beyond the borders of Donegal.
Through its on-line service, Watson Hire has secured business from other areas of the country. “A lot of businesses are doing this and the customers can’t believe the vale to be had here in Donegal.
“It’s all part of diversifying and I would urge businesses here to look outside the county and not just depend on the local market.”
Watson Hire has not only survived but increased its employment level from fifteen in 2007 to the present level of seventeen. In the great scheme of things, that may not appear significant but seventeen people have jobs as the result of someone looking ahead and not being left standing at the station with the train gone.
“If you don’t move with the times, you’re gone. The easy thing to do is to walk away,” says John who launched his Donegal Town venture which boasts a staff of four full-timers.
“If you lie down, you’re finished,” he is adamant.
A long time member of the Letterkenny Chamber, he took a break from the Chamber Council six or seven years ago to concentrate on starting up his business.
One objective he has in his new role as President - he replaces Patrick McGinley - is to encourage an increase in membership. Five years ago this stood at 250 and now it’s at 220 but both he and the organisation’s Chief Executive, Toni Forrester, aim to raise it to around the 300 mark. “If we increase the profile of it that will help build the membership,” John maintains.
The Chamber also wants to continue its good working relationship with both the Town and County Council while the President has committed to keeping pressure on the locally elected T.D.’s to help create the best environment for business in the North-West.
Hard decisions have to be taken, he argues. Survival is, as he points out, another day closer to the end of the downturn. “Once we get the confidence back we’ll be flying,” he predicts.
Commenting on the recent comments in the Lonely Planet Guide, which referred to Letterkenny’s series of “faceless” retail parks, the incoming Chamber President admits: “We’re not going to be a beauty spot. Never were. The town definitely could have been planned better but it still has a lot to offer. Apart from the huge variety of shops and businesses, you look at the range of restaurants, hotels, theatres and the leisure complex. And the tropical world development at Alcorns which is amazing.
“I’d be confident the town can continue to do very well. I would encourage people to try new things such as the pop-up shops which are a very good idea for businesses trying to get a foothold. I’d also like to see secondary schools developing relationships with the local businesses.”
There has, the Chamber representative declares, been an increase in the level of customers coming over the border to do their shopping here with the sterling rate meaning good value is to be had here.
Back to basics - that’s the message from the new Chamber President. That and diversification can take businesses a step nearer the goal of survival and success.