The Magic Ingredient

Taking charge of your brand destiny and building a business that stands on its own two feet and really makes a difference.
The Age Of Convenience

Whether we like it or not, we are living in the age of convenience, the instant hit, the quick fix. Meals are taken at the counter and on the hoof. In the kitchen, the modern cook reaches more often for the readymade mix than for individual ingredients. Soups, sauces and salads come pre-prepared whilst meats of all persuasions arrive trussed, dressed and spiced and ready for action.

It is little different in the world of branding. For owners and managers, weaned on business books that promise immediate success, the temptation is to seek out and ask for the six steps or magical formula that will transform the business in an instant. Why reinvent the wheel? We are encouraged by the triumph of the franchise. If there is a shortcut to success, why not take it?

As a brand builder, I find it useful to organise the work to be done in making a brand into a framework of sorts. There is a lot to be said for drawing on the experience of others and a lot to be gained in standing on the shoulders of giants. But in my own experience, most kinds of business resist the formulaic approach alone and insist that something else be added.

So what is this missing ingredient? As an occasional visitor to Macreddin, Co. Wicklow over the past three or four years, I have been intrigued by the way in which Evan Doyle and his team are building a business and a brand that show every signs of being a success for a very long time to come. I recently met with Evan to find out whether his recipe owes more to an off-the-shelf approach or to something a little more original.

An Age In The Making

A newcomer to the village of Macreddin would be forgiven for believing that the cluster of buildings nestling in the crook of the river has been there forever. Which, in a sense, it has. There has been a settlement in this spot since the fifth century, but six years ago when Evan and his two brothers sought a site on which to build a hotel and neighbouring businesses, there was little remaining of the long-abandoned village. Now, Macreddin is home to the Brooklodge Hotel (over 80% occupancy in the first six months of 2005), The Wells Spa, The Strawberry Tree Restaurant (Ireland’s first to be certified Organic), Acton’s Country Pub & Brewery, The Orchard Café, Macreddin Smokehouse & Bakery, The Storerooms, Tao Clothing, Macreddin Centre & Stables and Ireland Xtreme Off Road Driving whilst construction will soon begin on a Conference Centre and Golf Course. Of these, only the building that houses the stables is original.

This more recent settlement has not emerged out of thin air. There was a previous Strawberry Tree Restaurant but not in this place. Evan and his brother Bernard owned a restaurant of the same name in Killarney until eight years ago, but frustrated by a lack of support for their vision for the business and its neighbourhood, the two determined to seek out and buy a site where they might independently follow their dream for a small village, “the way an Irish village should be, with the sort of hotel you’d like to stay in”.

They teamed up with a third brother, Eoin, and set out on a Good Friday to scour the countryside south of Dublin for somewhere “off the beaten track in a valley with a river”. Two weeks later, they came across Macreddin, near Aughrim in Co. Wicklow, and knew they had found the place. The Brooklodge and The Strawberry Tree opened in December 1999, with the other outlets coming on stream in the years since.

Whilst Evan was inclined to talk in a very matter-of-fact way of the rebirth of the village and the role of the three brothers in making it happen, this struck me as a huge idea, the sort that the average marketer would give his eyeteeth for. I quizzed him a little more on its origins. He struggled to pinpoint the moment when it emerged, describing instead a vision that has its genesis in his own passion for good company and great, unaffected food. He described too his own natural curiosity, the sense of ‘what if?’ that drives many of the initiatives around Macreddin and contributes both to its reassuring sense of order and its refreshing air of happenstance.

So, no formula there; nothing that we might neatly package and offer to others as a sure-fire way to build a successful brand. I turned my attention instead to ask how he built and maintains a team to deliver on this big idea.

Setting Their Own Pace

But something happened before Evan could answer. One of his team approached to tell him of a delay in starting some work on a piece of land to be used for developing the golf course. The cause of the delay? Some sheep from one of the local farms were grazing there and nothing more could be done whilst they remained. It’s not only in the city that time is money and Evan quickly made a series of phone calls to find out who owned the sheep and to ask that they be moved on so that work could begin as soon as possible. On hearing this, his colleague turned to go back to his task but Evan gently reminded him that he had asked that the sheep be moved on only as soon as the farmer had found somewhere else to graze them (which was unlikely to be that same afternoon).

Again, this was all managed in a matter-of-fact way, and I thought I might just have witnessed something of the Macreddin approach to building and keeping a team. What Evan had to tell me bore this out. He said that they use a flat-line management structure, which is marked by a continuous discussion on how things are done. Members of the crew (as they are described) are given considerable authority to tackle their work in the way they find best. Everything is seen in terms of how it gets the job done. If help is needed in the bar or kitchen, then Evan or any one of his managers steps in to do whatever is required, whether that is collecting glasses or stacking dishes. This is not seen as a lesson in humility, more as a practical attitude to playing your part in a dynamic community.

And, of course, this is underpinned by the respect that is unspoken in Evan’s request to the farmer to move on his sheep only when he has found somewhere else. At Macreddin, nobody works a split shift. Evan considers this system, which has been the lynchpin of rosters in the trade for as long as anyone can recall, as anti-social and unfair. And so he decided from the start that there would be no long days of work broken by a few hours of aimless (and unpaid), enforced leisure.

Taking Things Personally

This points towards something else that makes what he and his brothers have built just a little different. In business, we are often counselled not to “take things personally”. But, as Evan suggests, there is nothing more personal than the experience of being hosted in a hotel or restaurant. He reminded me how quickly the room and the table we are assigned become “my room” and “my table” and how personally we take it when something is done particularly well or badly.

There is something very personal about the way in which the team has developed Macreddin. Evan talks a lot about “the buzz” and about making things work for people rather than coining mission statements and developing work manuals. Everything here is taken to heart – the letters of praise and complaint alike – but he and his team have a great confidence in what they are building and in how it makes sense for them and their customers.

At the same time, there is no suggestion that this is a personal crusade. Whilst Evan’s hand is apparent in so much of what goes on at Macreddin, his is by no means the only one at work. The evidence from everyone I meet during this visit and others before is that pretty much everybody there takes things personally.

Perhaps more than the commitment to the authentic and the organic, (and without dismissing the distinctive and often quirky parts to this thriving business), it is this quality that is the magic ingredient at Macreddin. Whilst this doesn’t make our job of charting a route to brand success any less difficult Ð no three quick steps to branding heaven here! – it does offer some pointers towards what might be required if we are to take charge of our brand destiny and build a business that stands on its own two feet and really makes a difference.

To sample the hospitality of this one-of-a-kind village, visit