Open for business: how Irish companies are adapting during Covid-19

Ella McSweeney's new role is helping provide information and inspiration for small business owners getting back on their feet, writes Deanna O'Connor
Open for business: how Irish companies are adapting during Covid-19
Ella McSweeney: Small businesses are the backbone of our economy.

RTÉ is firmly focused on the public service element of public service broadcasting with the new series Open for Business, which comes to our screens each Tuesday at 7pm. Co-presenter Ella McSweeney describes it as “a mix of information and inspiration” to support small business owners getting back on their feet.

“It’s been such a strange time, and to have a programme which is very much heavy on information is reflective of the need there is for people out there to understand what are the grants available, where is the public money going, how can you get it, what can you use it for.” Best known to viewers from reporting on agricultural and environmental affairs at Ear to the Ground, McSweeney presents from the studio in Dublin with business journalist Richard Curran. The show is a mix of case studies from real businesses around the country, expert advice and studio interviews with top CEOs.

“The amazingly talented team has been out filming in various towns around Ireland trying to gauge how people are adapting to this massive transformation to try and rebuild our pandemic-riddled economy.” Even if you’re not a business owner, the show is full of fascinating personal stories from around the country, what McSweeney calls “the small businesses that are the backbone of our economy… especially ones that have been in families for generations, ones that you’d find on the main street of a village or a town. Those story-rich businesses are always interesting because they are always so embedded in the history of the town itself.” 

Rearing their stock in the salty marshes of Roaring Water Bay near Ballydehob, the Hickey family have built up a strong market in the restaurant trade. “They have about a three-month growing cycle for their ducks, so they would have had three months of ducks ready to go and suddenly 80% of their business was gone overnight,” says McSweeney.

The town of Ennis in Co Clare has also been a particular focus, and the range of businesses looked at includes hairdressers, jewellers and a music shop.

“There’s a jewellers in Ennis that has been there for generations and the resilience that they show… no matter how old or young you are, what we have just been through is going to be new.

It’s so novel and so different and so shocking. Seeing the responses from different generations is always interesting.

The informational element of the show is geared at being a practical guide for business owners on how to access grant funding that is available. “It’s interesting to hear how people have adapted to the reality that they are in, how they’ve managed to use grants that are available from the government to quickly shift their businesses.” The knock-on effects of the pandemic have been devastating but as always, business recession has sparked innovation and new thinking. “There’s a really mixed situation that they’re in—dynamism, opportunity, hope, adjustment, doing new things—with the fact that they’ve had this horrific, challenging period of wondering whether they’ll ever open their doors again.” She points to another food business they will be looking at, Ballymakenny Farm in Co Louth, as an example of staying nimble and pivoting their business. When the restaurant market for their heritage potatoes disappeared, quick-thinking Maria Flynn set up a Drive-through Spudshack on the farm, and a ‘Potatoes by Post’ service to courier their produce to anywhere in  Ireland.

McSweeney reveals she has long been amazed by the capacity and willingness of Irish farmers to innovate and take risks to switch things up and says this show is teaching her it’s a trait shared by SME owners across the country as well: “Grabbing the opportunity while you can and being fundamentally optimistic, even in the face of what has been so devastating and difficult for them—I find that very inspirational. I think the series will really fire people up. It’s been such a hard time. There’s been a lot of challenge and negativity and I hope that this series will be a real antidote to all of that.” 

Open for Business broadcasts on Tuesdays on RTÉ One at 7pm.

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