My first million: Brody Sweeney

Irish entrepeneur Brody Sweeney tells MoneyWeek how he went from being a school dropout to setting up a franchise worth €18m.

From the first store in Dublin back in 1988, the O'Briens Sandwich Bars chain has swiftly spread across three different continents. It's a business phenomenon that has made its founder Brody Sweeney, 44, a very wealthy man but success was never assured, he insists. Expelled from Dublin's Blackrock College; he found school a "waste of time". "I wanted to be out driving Ferraris and meeting women," he says. He was later asked to leave a business studies course at Dublin City University.

Luck came his way when his father, a solicitor with entrepreneurial zeal, bought the Irish licence to the Prontaprint business. After much persuasion, he let Brody run it. "It never made any money," he admits, but the experience wasn't fruitless. He had helped set up franchises throughout the country and became convinced that franchising was the area for him. "I had no hang-ups about what kind of business it was," he says, and a trip to the US in 1987 set him on the right track. While there, he came across the sandwich chain Subway, which had more than 500 stores on the eastern seaboard. "I liked the concept: relatively low investment was needed to set up one, there was no need for expensive ventilation and there was no cooking involved. That meant you only required a low-skilled workforce."

On returning home, he discovered sandwiches accounted for more than half of the UK fast-food market. "Subway had yet to set up on this side of the Atlantic, so there was no dominant chain for sandwiches." Not content with every aspect of Subway's business, he wanted to set up his own. He'd already found a location for the first store in Dublin; the only problem was that he had no money. Owing to his less-than-illustrious business experience, how did he ever get money from the banks? "I had to spoof a bit." You mean you lied? "Mmm, let's say I was creative. I had no money, and reckoned it would cost about £50,000. The bank wouldn't give me any, so I went to three finance houses in Dublin on the same day, telling each one that I needed £7,000 to buy furniture for a new flat."

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This strategy was no accident, as it meant that they could not run cross-references on him. At the end of the day, he had £21,000. So what about the balance? "I went to Bank of Ireland on College Green, telling them that I had £21,000 of my own money, would they provide the balance? And they did." In retrospect, he says it wasn't a smart idea, as the business had no capital base.

Rather arrogantly, he wouldn't listen to the advice of others, he says, and from 1988 to 1994 he opened and closed many stores, losing more money every year. However, by 1994, and with three stores, the business had turned a corner. He had run out of mistakes to make, he says, the brand name was gaining recognition and Sweeney sold the first franchise as the Celtic Tiger began to roar. There are now more than 300 stores, in over 13 countries across Europe, Australia and Africa. "I've never looked back," says the man whose business was valued at €18m in 2000, when the franchise had half as many stores.

Jody Clarke

Jody studied at the University of Limerick and she has been a senior writer for MoneyWeek for more than 15 years. Jody is experienced in interviewing, for example in her time she has dug into the lives of an ex-M15 agent and quirky business owners who have made millions. Jody’s other areas of expertise include advice on funds, stocks and house prices.