Conal Keaney: Business isn’t just going to start as soon as this ban is lifted

Like most employers, Donal Vaughan and Conal Keaney came to stark realisations well before the recent government announcements.
Conal Keaney: Business isn’t just going to start as soon as this ban is lifted
Conal Keaney and Donal Vaughan.

Like most employers, Donal Vaughan and Conal Keaney came to stark realisations well before the recent government announcements.

That didn’t make things much easier. Being prepared to shut up shop or let people go even temporarily is as bad as the act itself.

Vaughan’s Shoes’ outlets in Castlebar, Claremorris, and Ballinrobe will open again but for now it’s their online store, which last year won a national retail award, where it’s business as usual.

“All the staff are working at home,” reports Mayo footballer Vaughan. “We worked very hard on automating a lot of our systems to save time because we can’t afford to be wasting resources so I’m actually able to manage it myself at the moment. In fairness, customer service can work remotely so that’s the beauty of that.

“We were working on the online store four years ago to diversify the business. Overall, you’d be massively down but a lot of people are 100% down so to have something coming through the door is a big help.

Touch wood, I’ll never have to do it again but it was nearly like you failed in business. Normally, closing down your store is the only scenario where that would happen. In fairness to staff, they’ve been brilliant.

Dublin hurler Keaney’s CP Adventure had also been thriving but as an outdoors company the impact of the coronavirus shutdown has been greater.

With bases in Blessington and the Phoenix Park, they had a host of Easter camps organised. Last year, they opened a new adventure centre on the grounds of Russborough House just outside Blessington.

“This was to be the start of the season for us. St Patrick’s Day to around the All-Ireland finals time is our peak season. It looks like this year it’s going to go from off-season to off-season. It’s going to be tough but we just have to get on with it. There’s nothing we can do about it.

“We had four or five working full-time. Then in the height of the summer you’d have had up to 20 lads that would have been season staff. Everybody’s gone now, everybody’s laid off because there is no work.”

Vaughan is appreciative of the Government wage subsidy scheme but there had been a lot of doubt for a period. “I’m part of Retail Excellence Ireland and they would have had communications every day.

“The Government were trying to introduce something then bring in legislation on the back of it. Everyone was finding the loopholes and there were 10 days there when literally nobody knew what was going on. It kept changing and the Government were trying to make it better but the uncertainty was a bit stressful alright.”

Keaney’s employees will avail of the coronavirus unemployment benefit as he tries to plan out what can be done when the precautions are lifted.

“Obviously, we have some reserves but I need those reserves to get back going again. Business isn’t just going to start as soon as this ban is lifted. Not everything is going to be rosy straight away because if it is lifted in June or July I’m going to need more to get going again and if it doesn’t then it’ll be an off-season for me when I’m going to be in a situation where I’m going to get staff back and try and hang onto them over the winter period. It’s going to be difficult. How we keep doing it, I’m not quite sure.

Our insurance is also up shortly and adventure and activity centres find it difficult to get cover anyway. That’s all up in the air now and I knew that was coming but this is a double whammy for us.

“We had put a lot of money into our centre in Russborough House. We only had it up and running last April when it reopened the doors and we were still trying to get things done and it really wasn’t finished so we were planning for this year to be the big lift-off.

“It’s there now idle and I’d be predicting nothing is going to be done with it this year. If we do get insurance this year it won’t warrant paying it because we won’t have enough business say in September, October, November.”

Before Friday’s announcement, Michael Murphy closed his Letterkenny sports store and put all the company’s focus on their online presence.

The Donegal captain had reached across rival lines to pick Vaughan’s brain about online retail a couple of years ago.

As Vaughan recalls, “I used an e-commerce company in Ennis called Magico and CBE, which are only over the road in Claremorris. Michael has that system now after we had our chat. If your system is poor, you have to do double the work.

“His business is similar to mine in that we had to forward order. Philip Knight from Nike brought this in. Once upon a time, all the brands used to carry the stock and the shops would order when they wanted. But for this summer you would have ordered last August so what we have in the shops now are items such as sandals for the good weather.

“All those orders are placed so the decision you have to make now is do you leave those orders as they are or reduce them. I think there’s still a bit of money in the economy but for how long is the question.”

As for football and hurling, neither Vaughan nor Keaney had lined out for their counties this year before the cessation. Mattie Kenny had been keeping in regular contact with Keaney.

“We were chatting over and back and I couldn’t give him a definite answer on it. He wanted me back at the end of the league but I just couldn’t do it because we have a newborn baby. Then this happened and I’m keeping myself ticking over fitness-wise so it’s a case of what happens now. There may not even be a Championship or a knock-out one so we will have to see.”

Vaughan married at Christmas and was about to return after a hip flexor issue before games were suspended.

“I was going to be back for the Galway game and was mad to get going but look everybody is in the same boat. We’re adhering to all the protocols genuinely. When it first came out, I said to myself that even when there were red warnings with snow we still managed to train. I was thinking would there ever be a day when we don’t train.

“But it became clear quick enough that this thing was too serious not to adhere to. It was summed up very well by somebody who said the community here have supported us going to games all over the country and this is the one chance to support them back by being ambassadors and abiding by the precautions.”

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