Barry Phillips Meets... Gavan Wall

Posted in : Podcasts on 29 January 2018

Gavan Wall headshotA successful criminal defence barrister for many years, Gavan is now a serial entrepreneur owning a stream of SPAR and Subway stores across North Belfast. In a remarkably candid interview, Gavan talks about the only defendant ever to truly scare him, paying protection money and dealing with employees who steal. What he has to say about how to walk into the house every evening, even after a long hard day at work, is advice every parent should follow.

Listen to the podcast here:

Transcription

Barry: Hello. My name is Barry Phillips. I'm Chairman of Legal-Island. Today's guest is Gavan Wall. Gavan began his life as a solicitor but then qualified and practiced as a barrister in Northern Ireland for eight years. He was brought up in Windsor Park, South Belfast, which is where he still lives with his wife, Helen, and three children, all under the age of eight.

Around ten years ago, Gavan decided on a complete change of career and is now an entrepreneur. He owns four SPAR retail outlets, soon to be five, four Subways, and a YoggieBerrie business, all in North Belfast. He is passionate about cross-community work and is active with our city, Belfast. This is an organisation, which is an organisation which is designed to help people in North Belfast and to address social deprivation and the lack of opportunity that persists in that part of the city.

Gavan, welcome to the podcast.

Gavan: Thank you very much, Barry.

Barry: Gavan, there are a number of successful entrepreneurs who are also qualified barristers, but few of them have actually made a career of the bar and few of them have actually made a very good living at the bar.

So I think you're a very rare exception here and that fascinates me. I want to ask you about that in a moment. I've got quite a few questions for you in that space. For now, what I'd like to do is to ask you just to give an indication of what your last twelve months as a barrister looked like. What sort of cases were you doing? What sort of clients were you representing?

Gavan: My last 12 months as a barrister, exclusively criminal law. So my father was a solicitor. He was a criminal practice, did a lot of the terrorist work over the years through the Troubles. So I had an interest in criminal law. When I came to the bar, the only thing I wanted to do was criminal law.

Barry: Criminal defence?

Gavan: Criminal defence. Very quickly, if I got a civil case, this would be unusual. I passed it on, every single one. So I didn't do any civil work or any other work, other than a few judicial reviews that were linked to the criminal cases.

So I specialised in criminal law right from the outset. That specialism enabled me to get a lot of work very, very quickly because I became known for that rather than when you come to the bar, people generally do a wee bit of this, a wee bit of that. I just did the criminal law. So very quickly, I was doing significantly complex cases.

My last year would have been really good quality cases. For instance, Robert Howard, who was actually acquitted of the Arlene Arkinson, the young girl who has never been found, in Castlederg. My last year, I actually spent two months in Maidstone in Kent looking after as a legal observer because he was tried for a similar murder, similar fact case in Maidstone in Kent.

I actually spent two months there because the witnesses in the case from Northern Ireland, they all gave evidence in the case in England even though he hadn't actually been tried in Northern Ireland at that stage. That's a wee bit complicated, but I was doing really complex.

I worked with who I considered to be the number one criminal barrister in Northern Ireland, John McCrudden QC, who is a fascinating character, certainly would have been a mentor for me in criminal law. Some people think he's a little bit mad. Perhaps I am too, but I used to love working with a case with him. So in the crime court in Belfast, we did many cases together.

Barry: It's a clichéd question, but I feel I do have to ask it, Gavan. As a criminal defence barrister, I'm sure you were asked many times particularly by laypeople how you felt defending people who you knew to be guilty.

[00:05:00] Now, it's never that simple, I know. But when you were asked that question, what was your response?

Gavan: That was the one question, particularly because I was quite well-known for working on that particular case with Arlene Arkinson at the time, but that was the biggest question that you get asked, every layperson, every single layperson asks you that question. It was quite a simple answer. I never thought of it. I never registered in any shape or form thinking about the guilt or the specifics of the crime or the morality of it.

I was there to win a case. There's nothing more than that. I think also that was why I had quite a lot of success at it. I was really thinking about the strategy of winning the case. I got a lot of that from John McCrudden, thinking about the witnesses of the other side, thinking about the witnesses of the prosecutor, analysing their character, analysing the judge, analysing the case, all about winning the case, the only thing I thought about.

Barry: That requires you to drop down something of an emotional wall, doesn't it?

Gavan: Yeah.

Barry: Were you able to do that straightaway, or was that sort of produced?

Gavan: Straightaway. I think because of the experience of my father in criminal law, he would have been representing people on what would be in our divided society the other side of the divide and his. So we were probably . . . a couple of different walls being brought down in his lifetime.

I was used to you're not thinking about the crime. You're thinking about defending and winning the case. So right from there, I said it was never an issue for me. Interestingly, since I have stopped being a barrister and I have children—so, I didn't have children at that time and I'm no longer a barrister, I do feel differently.

Barry: Wow. What's changed for you?

Gavan: Not being a barrister and having children.

Barry: Why do you think differently and in what way?

Gavan: Well, you come out of it because you're so cold about those cases. If I watch the news or things like that or I watch things that happen, I would not feel emotion because I put myself in a straightjacket of emotion because all I was thinking about was winning criminal cases. So even if I watched the news and there was a case I wasn't involved in, I wouldn't have had that much emotion about it, if I'm really honest.

Barry: But now you do?

Gavan: Now I do, yeah. I think about people's pain in other cases. I look at cases and I think, "Well, I used to be defending those." I don't regret any of that, but coming out of it has actually enabled me to breathe a little bit as a human being.

Barry: But you never go as far as saying, "Look at that scumbag defence lawyer on TV."

Gavan: No, definitely not.

Gavan: That person has a job to do.

Barry: Yeah. People often think of a barrister as being, if not in complete cahoots with a defendant, they'll think of the barrister as being part of the very strong defence team, which consists of the defendant, the solicitor, defence solicitor and defence barrister, and see them as being very firmly going in the same direction together, but were there ever cases in which you had kind of a difficult or fractious relationship with your defendant?

Gavan: With a defendant? Not really.

Barry: Any defendant's that unnerved you or even scared you?

Gavan: One ever, just one.

Barry: Could you give us a name or . . . ?

Gavan: He's one of the most famous defendants in Northern Ireland's history. I don't even know if I would want to mention his name.

Barry: What was it about him that . . .

Gavan: He was the one and only defendant who ever scared me. His eyes were just—I honestly never felt anything with any other defendant. That was one person. His eyes were just evil. It was absolutely bizarre. I can remember, I just go straight back into the room I was with him. I didn't take the case. It was actually when I was a solicitor, a trainee solicitor. I didn't take the case through to the end of the case. It was on to somebody else more senior. That was the only person ever, one I just felt, "This feels evil." It was absolutely bizarre. I still remember to this day clearly.

Barry: I'm interested in what you managed to take from your career as a barrister into your new world as an entrepreneur. As a barrister, you are often the person of last resort. You have the solicitor who comes to you and says, "What do I do next?"

[00:09:57] You have the defendant who will come to you with some very big questions, "How should I plead to this charge? How long will I get if I'm found guilty? What are my chances of acquittal?" This is big stuff you're being asked. These are not questions that you can bounce to anyone else. These are questions that you have to give advice on and you have to take decisions over which have very important consequences.

So there's a big leadership piece here. Did you ever feel that you could—did you manage to take that experience, that leadership skill with you into the business world?

Gavan: Yeah. I was very comfortable with that. The reason I believe I was very comfortable with that was because of my specialism, because I concentrated exclusively on criminal law. I maybe because I've got a good skillset for that type of thing, I believe I'm a good communicator, that was probably enhanced as a barrister.

That has enabled me to build good relationships in the business world. But if you have the knowledge and you have the communication skills. It doesn't matter what industry you're in, whether you're a barrister, whether you're in business. It's aligning those two, the knowledge and the skills. If you ally those two, it doesn't matter what industry you're in.

Barry: I guess what I was leading to in my quite clumsy question to you there, Gavan, was in the business world, you may take decisions, which might have a bearing on whether you make $100,000 or you lose $10,000, but as a barrister, you might be advising. The consequences of that advice might be somebody ends up in prison for life. So is there ever any sense in the business world that you think this is a big decision, but it's nothing like what I used to do in the bar?

Gavan: Interestingly, if I can just flip your question slightly, I took that very, very seriously as a barrister and the impact that it could have on a client. That was of paramount importance to me. I was always obligated to do a really good job. I made sure I was doing a good job. When I was making the decision about what I should do with my life, I can remember a case, and it was a plea in the crime court in Dungarvan. I remember going in and I just wasn't as prepared as I should have been. I know lots of barristers wouldn't have cared about that. They wouldn't have worried about that, but for me . . .

Barry: They would have tried to wing it.

Gavan: Yeah. And I got away. Nobody else would have noticed it, but I just didn't know an answer. That unnerved me and that told me that my business calling, which was getting stronger and stronger, that was the day I decided that I was going to leave the bar. That day of that plea, I said I wouldn't have done that. I wasn't as prepared as I should have been. I made the decision there and then.

It didn't happen there and then. That's when I said, "Do you know what? There's another calling for me. I don't want to come back to this and do this more regularly or do it again and actually get it wrong on another occasion."

Barry: Wow. So it was that, was it, that . . .

Gavan: That was the catalyst. I had already been thinking about it. That was the catalyst when I wasn't as prepared. The level of preparation I would have done that day, I'm not looking to knock other barristers and there are lots of fantastic barristers out there and I was looking to work with many of them. I just felt that I hadn't given that case everything.

Barry: Okay. What was it that finally made you think, "Okay, I have to leave a very successful career here?" I know you said that and that probably planted the seed. Was there something that eventually said to you, "Yes, I've got to do this. I've got to go now?"

Gavan: So throughout my time as a solicitor and a barrister and from when I was very young, I was always doing different bits of business and wheeling and dealing. When I was a solicitor, I had an international phone cards franchise. Yes, as a solicitor. I went to London several times to meet HSBC Bank in my early 20s to talk to them about franchising.

I couldn't quite get away from law because it was a family connection. All my brothers have done law. I wasn't forced into it. My dad had a really successful practice. I sort of just ended up doing it even though business was what I really wanted to do. So there was a current of business that I had always done. As a barrister, I was actually doing business as well. The flip between the mindset for a barrister, the mindset for business was a difficult one. It was actually a lot of different principles and ultimately, I just couldn't keep doing them both. [00:15:00]

Barry: Eventually, your business activity and also your business aspirations pulled you away from the bar. In your first week as a fledgling business person, what was your feeling? What was going on in your mind? What was happening your gut?

Gavan: The first thing I should say, the final thing, the final reason that I left the bar was I loved it. I did love being a barrister, and I always said it's the second best career in the world, and I'm blessed to have had success at that before I moved into business. But for me, doing the same thing for the rest of my life, even though there were different cases, it was still the same thing. So that one case I didn't feel I had prepared just enough, but I never wanted to be a judge. That was of no interest to me whatsoever. That's the only thing in the law other than being a barrister. That was the next step, the logical step. That was never of any interest to me.

Being a barrister, the money was fantastic. I just didn't want to do it for the rest of my life. So business is infinite. Business is totally infinite. It might sound a bit like, I don't know if I can swear, but a bit like an arse to say that. But the bar is not infinite in terms of its opportunity, whereas business is infinite in terms of its opportunity. You might not get as far in business as you did as a barrister, but it's the infinite opportunity, which is the exciting bit, which gets me out of bed in the morning.

Barry: Okay. So early on in your career as a business person, were you feeling that sort of excitement that you're conveying to me now?

Gavan: Yes, I didn't have a clue where it would go, where the outcome was. I had a vision. I did a ten-year plan. I'm sort of in my ninth year of that ten-year plan now. That's on track, thankfully.

Barry: Okay.

Gavan: Trying to find out—you're pulling so many different levers. One of the first things, interestingly, I had to do was I had a member of staff who was a bully. There was some good staff in the business, but there was this one bully. She knew more about the business than me, and she was making a bit of monkey out of me as well as bullying the other people. It was like wrestling with an alligator trying to get over that.

Ultimately, I did a disciplinary hearing with her two days after Christmas day, after spending three days' solid, I think, almost with no sleep watching CCTV that I had stored together. I watched this literally for three days.

Barry: So that was in your first business?

Gavan: Yes.

Barry: Okay. What was your first business? Was that a SPAR?

Gavan: Yeah, first SPAR.

Barry: Why a SPAR? What attracted you about that?

Gavan: That was pure accident. I had a lot of property. I had dozens of houses and different things that I had built over the years and some land, etc. as well. Myself and another person owned that premises. We bought it as a property play. We bought it because it was on the edge. It's on the Crumlin Road in Belfast. It was on the edge of the Girdwood Barracks, which was a 26-acre site. It was going to be developed. There was going to be a ring road thing that was going go through where the filling station was. We bought it and rented it out to somebody.

So it was never meant to be a trading business for us, rented it out. The guy sold illegal fuel from it. So I arrived at the station. This is how I actually started the first business. So I arrived. I got a phone call to say customs are not at the filling station. There's something wrong. I went up. Customs were putting the pumps onto the back of a low loader.

They were extracted from the ground, the pumps. I said to customs, "What's going on here?" Then customs said, "Oh, well, he's been selling illegal fuel."

Barry: So this is quite an introduction or induction to your business life.

Gavan: Bizarrely, I said, "Look, I am a barrister. I obviously don't want anything to do with this. As such, he is a tenant of ours. What can we do here?" I said, "What legislation? What warrant have you used to take the pumps?" They showed the docs. I had been successful in a case under the same legislation.

Barry: Okay.

Gavan: I said, "Look, this guy will be back in here in 48 hours. What is it you really want?" They said, "Look, we really want to get him out. We've got four other stations that he's trading out of where he's selling illegal fuel." I said, "Put the pumps back in and I'll trade here tomorrow."

Barry: That's how it all started?

Gavan: That's how it all started. They looked at me as if I had horns on my head. I said, "Look, this is the opportunity I have been waiting for." [00:20:00] They said, "We wouldn't have the authority to do that." I said, "Well, who would?" I went down to headquarters. I saw the head of customs, a guy called. I signed a statement to say I would be in the next day trading.

Barry: Now, selling fuel is one thing and I would think relatively straightforward despite what you told me there, but having a shop and going into retail, that's a big step and a big change. Was there anything daunting there for you?

Gavan: Yeah. I have not a clue. I literally—that bully I mentioned earlier on, she was able to do things. I was looking at the shop and I thought there's potential here. The guy is saying illegal fuel. He's not caring about the shop. There's stuff that we can do in the shop. So for instance, there were no chocolate bars being sold at the till area.

I was so green, I said, "Look, we should be selling stuff at the till area." She said, "It will never sell." I said, "Look, just try it and see." So I put a box of there. I go into the office and do a few other wee things frittering about. I would come back a few hours later, "How many sold?" hadn't sold any. This went on for three days. What I found on the third day was that she was replenishing the bounties that were being sold at the till area and the shelf, just making a monkey out of me. There was a steep learning curve about that time.

Barry: With your first SPAR, did you see business opportunities to actually improve the turnover? Did that work for you?

Gavan: Yeah. I immediately had a plan. I spoke with Henderson's because it wasn't a SPAR at that stage. So I spoke with Henderson's. I think they believed I wouldn't be there long-term, that I was an accidental tourist. They actually did a deal. I said, "I'm going to take this." I did it on the back of a five-packet thing, did my projections, what I could do, what I felt. They said that's impossible.

Barry: In terms of turnover targets and things?

Gavan: Yeah. Our turnover target was to add 50% within 12 months. They said that's impossible.

Barry: Did you manage to do it?

Gavan: We added 100% in 12 months.

Barry: So you thought okay, success, repeat it?

Gavan: Yeah.

Barry: So SPAR number two, number three, number four.

Gavan: That's exactly it. Yeah.

Barry: You scaled it in that way. In the early stages of this, was there ever a time when you were lying on the floor sleeping under a dusty shelf and you were thinking, "I made a big mistake here. I should be back in court addressing a jury and making lots of money?" Did you ever think, "I've done the wrong thing here?"

Gavan: No. When I talk about the focus, when we're talking about being a barrister and thinking about the morality and the actual acts, I'm very good at getting the blinkers on. The decision had been made do not deviate from the decision has been made.

Barry: Forwards only.

Gavan: Forwards only. Absolutely everything was ended. My wife, who is an accountant, and my sister-in-law, who's my accountant, they were melting my head about going back to being a barrister. I was getting serious.

Barry: Trying to get you back?

Gavan: Yeah. To any sane person . . .

Barry: They were right.

Gavan: They were right. Nobody else made sense. I had members of the bar, I had barristers who I had worked with who wouldn't have had the practice that I had who would have given anything to have my practice come up to visit me. I could see it in their eyes, they were saying he is mad. This was a tiny wee station. This station was only—the shop was 468 square feet, exactly, just 468 square feet. We since managed to expand it to 950 by knocking a couple of walls through.

It has the highest spend per square foot of any store in Northern Ireland, that store to this day. We've got expansion plans again for it. But barristers were visiting . . .

Barry: Thinking, "What's going on here?"

Gavan: . . . "This guy is mad. This is just crazy." I was getting a lot of pressure at home as well, but the focus was there.

Barry: Okay. I'm always interested how business leaders listen to people and take advice. So at that point, you were surrounded by family and your former contemporaries who were all saying to you, "Gavan, what are you doing? You've made a bad mistake here." So how were you listening to that, but at the same time, thinking, "No, I'm still right here?"

Gavan: It may be a streak of stubbornness as well. [00:25:00] I didn't listen to it. I blocked that out, like blocking out the morality of defending somebody that you think is—that was just blocked out. That has been part of the—not because I'm trying to do wrong, but just trying to prove me right. It's nothing against any of them, but they're seeing people. They're probably sensible. It's prove me right. I decided this is my route. I wasn't listening, to be honest with you.

Barry: Gavan, can I ask you why North Belfast? What is it about North Belfast that calls you in particular?

Gavan: This is absolutely bizarre. I do not know why this has happened like this. I'm from South Belfast. I still live on the same street that I grew up on in South Belfast, but I went to school in North Belfast. I had my first job as a trainee solicitor in North Belfast. This business is in North Belfast.

For some reason, it just keeps attracting me back to North Belfast. I don't know whether it's—part of my likes to help people. I'm a big giver, normally, in my life anyway. The more I get, the more I give back. North Belfast is a hotbed for people who need help or opportunity or guidance. That's why it keeps drawing me back.

Barry: It's a place with quite a colourful history. Can I put it like that? Do you mind me asking if you have to pay protection money on any of your businesses?

Gavan: The answer to that is unfortunately yes. On the whole, I am thinking I'm lucky enough that I don't, but the answer is yes. I may be lucky because we have a breadth of business. One of the things about us in North Belfast is that we're in lots of different communities. So if something is really prevalent in one community or in one section of one community, we might be in another community where it's not as prevalent.

We spread our risk across a lot of different communities.

Barry: How does it make you feel to having to pay protection?

Gavan: To be honest with you, I try to get out of it.

Barry: How did you do that?

Gavan: Gut-wrenching. I really thought I would never do that. I try to get out of it with contacts that I had elsewhere and that was going to actually increase the amount. I was lucky the amount wasn't increased. Yeah, makes sense.

Barry: Okay. In terms of the amount, are we talking hundreds or thousands?

Gavan: Hundreds.

Barry: Okay. Thank you for being so honest.

Gavan: I'm lucky. There may be other businesses in North Belfast and other areas of Belfast that that's their total profit may be gone because they'll be small-scale businesses.

Barry: Gavan, the retail industry is notorious for the problem with people with their hands in the shop till of people stealing from you. I'm assuming now that you've been in the business for such a long time with so many outlets you've experienced. When this happens to you, do you go after them with the full might of the law behind you as a former practicing lawyer? How do you respond to that sort of behaviour?

Gavan: We call it shrink. In retail, it can come from many, many different angles. It can come from staff. It come from customers. It can come from delivery people. It can come from bad practices. It can come from your waste. It's everywhere in retail. The thing you have to do is try and put in processes to minimise it. The loss is one of the most difficult things for people. Again, it's about processing some of the losses and some of the things that have been done to me, thousands and thousands of pounds.

Theft of cash, theft by all sorts of people over the years. It's the type of thing that most people probably couldn't process without them going mad. Again, I process it very, very quickly and move on.

Barry: So you're not a man to hold grudges and you practice forgiveness quickly, if you can.

Gavan: What I say is that was your fault. You didn't have the right process in place. Let's get the better process. We've had one. We've had a significant cash theft, very, very significant cash theft recently. I reviewed it. I said the process wasn't strong enough. I take that on board. That person will get some judgement down the line somewhere. What I did on this particular case, I said it's time to get a company accountant. So we've now hired an accountant working within our business. So we will have a stronger process to help prevent that in the future.

Barry: If you dwell on it . . .

Gavan: It eats you. You just have to move on.

Barry: Moving on, I just want to ask you, Gavan, a little bit about your home life. [00:30:01] You have three young children. Can you say a little bit about how you managed to maintain a reasonable work-life balance? Are there any family things that for you are non-negotiables? Do you always insist on walking your children to school? How do you get the balance right?

Gavan: This is difficult. This is really difficult. This is maybe the biggest sacrifice that someone like myself and lots and lots of other people through Northern Ireland and the rest of the world, whenever they're trying to get success in business life that you do have to make compromises. A couple of things I always say is spousal support, whether that be husband, wife, it's mutual spousal support. My wife knows that I love working, that I wanted to have success in that arena. I make sure she buys into that. Even if you wanted me to go back to being a barrister when I was in business, but we talk about that, and you try and get that support.

And then you have to make sure that if your wife or husband is also working or is the person that looks after the household that they get support from you. If you do not do that, you cannot be successful because that will eat into your relationship from the inside if it's not mutual spousal support both ways. Sometimes the major breadwinner thinks that they're the person doing all the work. I don't take that view.

Barry: Can you give me an example there, Gavan, just to illustrate how you give each other mutual support?

Gavan: Now that the business has a bit of additional scale and management structure. To be fair, in the early days, it would have been very tough for me to do that. Now that we've got that, if Helen says to me, "Look, I've got a bit of a project with her own work. Can you take the kids today?" I'd do that. If she asks for that, that's done. Sometimes, I'll have to bring them into work with me. That's fine. I'll bring them into YoggieBerrie and I can do my work from YoggieBerrie, do a couple of meetings while they're in the next booth enjoying ice creams or we can go and do something in the back garden, etc.

But you have to be prepared. If Helen says she needs me, that's it. Don't ask a question. You just do it. I know that she's pushing as hard at her own things with the family and her own work as I am. We're both very, very committed. So if she says, "Gavan, I need you," I drop it all, whatever and clear my diary.

Barry: Can you just say a little bit about your typical business day?

Gavan: Can I say one final thing on the family side of things? I've done a post about this on LinkedIn. As you know, I did quite a bit on LinkedIn. The children, particularly, I say make sure the quality of the relationship is really intense and strong and loving. It is absolutely key.

So if you have less time. You have to make sure that when you come in that door, no matter how badly you've been battered that day at work, they get the smile and they get the hug and they get the love. That's the wee bit that they will remember. I don't remember if was daddy here for three hours or four hours. Was daddy here smiling and enjoying and giving us a kiss and a hug in that moment? That is the bit they remember. I believe, anyway. Maybe I'll find that I'm wrong on day. The intensity of that relationship is really, really important.

Barry: This book is on how to walk into a business the first part of the day. I wonder if ever anybody has talked about how to walk into your house at the end of the day?

Gavan: I am really particular about that, no badly I've been battered that day and believe me, I've been battered badly. These are times you walk in, that initial time, let them know they're loved and they're really important to you.

That washes away the fact that maybe you weren't there as long as somebody else who may be doing a more traditional working day might need to have that mindset when they come back in.

Barry: If not a, then I can feel another LinkedIn post coming on there, how to finish your business day.

Gavan: Yeah.

Barry: Yeah. That's interesting. Talking about LinkedIn, I notice you have a big presence on LinkedIn and quite a large following. Having looked at some of the things you posted recently, I see that you give quite a bit of advice to other people and other businesses. Do you see this as something that you'd like to do more often? Do you have your own mentor in business?

Gavan: I love helping people. Largely, it's a strength. Sometimes it can be a weakness because it can be heaped into my own time, but I do love helping people. LinkedIn, I have found, as well as keeping my own diary. I don't know if I've become, getting older or something like that. [00:35:00]

It keeps a diary. It lets other people, because people who may be starting out in business, they might say, "Oh, look, there's Gavan Wall, he has 140 staff and turnover, and he's got all these shops, but he got there because of some bit of luck or somebody bought him this or somebody did that or he was given this." Therefore, they don't even start their own journey because the mindset is they have some other particular benefit that I don't have, or it was easy for them, or they got lucky.

So I'm trying to leave the breadcrumbs, like Hansel and Gretel, leave the breadcrumbs and say, "Look, I feel pain. I get it wrong. I make mistakes. People steal off me. I've had three robberies in the last three months. This is how bad I feel. I don't get it right with staff all the time. Sometimes we go off on the wrong tangent. We make mistakes."

There's a lot of pain and failure on your journey and I'd like to let other people know that just because you're feeling this at the minute, stick with it, tomorrow, sleep on it, you'll feel a wee bit better about what happened the day before and you can have success too.

Barry: Do you ever look to go the other way with it? Is there anybody that you'd like to 

Gavan: Yeah. This is, I think, a weakness of mine. This is a weakness I've identified. In the last 18 months, I've started reading self-improvement books, which I hadn't done up until then. I was just ploughing my own furrow and doing whatever I thought was right. But 18 months ago, I started reading self-improvement books.

Now I've seen some of the things I've been implementing in my business in those books. I'm seeing a whole lot of new stuff that I haven't done that can help me on the next stage. One of those things is that most successful people have a mentor, and I have never had a mentor. I think that is something I will be addressing in 2018.

Barry: Okay. Anyone listening who would like to step forward, apply with him. Please.

Gavan: Yeah.

Barry: That leads me nicely on to the next part of this podcast, which is to ask you about success. I think to do that, I need to ask you, first of all, about failure, Gavan. Is there a favourite failure of yours that you have that you kind of look back on now and think, "Actually, that was very important to my success?"

Gavan: Yes. This podcast wouldn't be long enough to go into the epic nature of this failure, but when I had been doing property from the early '90s as a sideline, I had dozens of houses and all sorts of things, which were all very successful for a long period of time, and then I made a couple of critical mistakes just before the housing crash in 2007-2008. 

It was run in parallel to everything we've been talking about today. Basically, I lost all of that. Fortunately, the business, etc., was able to be [inaudible 00:38:15] from it, but there was massive restructuring and paying and the loss of family home as well.

Barry: Wow.

Gavan: Massive loss of family home. That was pretty serious.

Barry: What did you learn from that failure?

Gavan: So I learned from that, I think, some humility, which when I speak with a lot of people and I think it comes out in my LinkedIn as well, up until then, I had success, success, success. I drove Porsche 911s. I was a very successful barrister. I had lots and lots of property, lots and lots of equity, a massive amount of success. I took my eye off the ball there for a very short period of time, made a mistake on some advice, but I'm man enough to take responsibility myself.

That led to a catastrophe. I learned to be humble. I learned to protect the downside. This is something actually that Richard Branson talks about a lot. I hadn't protected the downside there. Now, when I'm looking at opportunities, I'm also thinking about what if it went wrong, how bad would the downside be.

So we had a business failure in a YoggieBerrie store. We had a YoggieBerrie store in West Belfast that didn't work. Before I went into that, I thought about the downside. The downside was X. The business could sustain that.

Barry: I'd encourage you to think, "In the future, when I do a certain business initiative and it goes well, then this could be the result," but let's just think about, "If it goes badly, can I survive that?"

Gavan: Yes, I do look at that now, whereas in the past, I didn't look at that because . . . [00:40:00]

Barry: Because you never had to.

Gavan: Never had to. I had only tasted success throughout my lifetime. I was very good about making money, very good at that. It never occurred to me that I could make a mistake.

Barry: You're smiling and grinning as you say that.

Gavan: Now I know. I look back on it. The one thing I am so thankful for is that happened in my 30s. That is the one thing I am so thankful for. I am regularly thankful for when I go to sleep at night because I know people that that happened to who are in their 50s. I know people who are in their 40s.

Because I was in my late 30s, I was able to make a decision that I still had loads of vibrancy and energy and drive and motivation to correct it. Now, I have the knowledge that there is failure, massive failure, whereas other people didn't have that same timeframe to put it right. Some of those people aren't even with us anymore.

Barry: To talk about success now, Gavan, let's imagine tomorrow you attend a school reunion. You see some of your mates from when you were 12, 13. There's a few drinks involved and as a group, you start talking and you say, "Okay, who amongst us has been the most successful?" What do you think should be the group's definition should be of success? What should it look like?

Gavan: The first thing I will say, by the way, is that I don't drink. I gave up drink over ten years ago. That's an important point for me. In terms of being able to have family and the work setting and fit it all in . . .

Barry: You had to give up drinking?

Gavan: Yeah. That's the first thing I'll say about that. That really drives efficiency.

Barry: Okay.

Gavan: I went to school with a lot of very bright and very talented people, nearly all of whom went into the professions. Virtually every single one of them was either a doctor, solicitor, barrister. I'm sure they're very happy, and they're successful, and I have massive respect for them. Success is different to each person. My success, success for me is, I don't know what the ultimately goal is, but success is pushing yourself to grow.

So success to me is I know I've been successful if I have challenged myself to do various things. Some of them might be in work, some of them might be in home. Some of them might be miscellaneous, but every day, I am challenging myself to push myself. When I achieve those things and I grow and I realise, "Do you know what? That was something I hadn't done last year," and I haven't done this before. This is new, that excites me. That's what success is.

Barry: Where are you hoping that is all leading to?

Gavan: That's the $6 million question. I just do not know the answer to that. In my mind, I'm waiting for some . . .

Barry: Light bulb moment?

Gavan: Yeah. I just don't know what it is yet. Some days, I think my life would be easier if I could somehow scoop that wee bit out of my brain.

Barry: [Inaudible 00:43:31] as driven as you are?

Gavan: Yeah, sometimes. Sometimes I wish I could relax a bit more, just take it easy like most people do. That's not the way my DNA is.

Barry: Just on the subject of relaxing, when you relax, do you feel any guilt? Do you think I should be doing something when I'm here doing nothing?

Gavan: 100%. That is, perhaps—an affliction is too strong a word.

But yeah, I'm sitting doing nothing, there's always something to do, whether it be with children, whether it be in business, if I'm doing nothing, guilt is chronic. What I've found, I had a wee injury over Christmas, so I've been laid up a little bit, and I've been listening to a lot of audio books. I actually have found the detailed information I've been extracting out of audiobooks has made me feel not feel guilty because there's a lot of information I'm going through that's going to help The Wall Group on the next stage of its development in 2018.

Barry: So you are relaxing, but at the same time, you're relaxing into the idea that you're doing something at the same time, which is helping and developing.

Gavan: Yeah.

Barry: I get that. Finally, on this general topic of success, I'd like to ask you about success in Northern Ireland. [00:45:01]

Do you think Northern Ireland does success very well? Are we a bit embarrassed about success? Do you think we're too modest as a nation, as a people?

Gavan: Yes. I've done one or two posts on LinkedIn about success. I've had my first trolls on LinkedIn, which an interesting experience in itself. I talked about success and then had trolls that said, "What are you talking about money?" They all talked about money and cars. I drive a 14-year old Land Rover Discovery. It's worth £1,000. I never mentioned money and I never do. So I don't know if it's because of the nature of the Northern Irish state because it's had so many difficulties over the years that we're ingrained to look for failure or whether it's because we're modest as a people.

I believe if we are to progress our country that we need to start talking about success. One thing is for sure is that the politicians aren't going to deliver it for us, certainly not on their own. We need to grasp it more and start thinking. That's part of the stuff I do on LinkedIn is trying to leave the breadcrumbs out there, like, Hansel and Gretel. This is how we as individuals and collectively we can talk about this. We can learn from each other. We can all have success, whatever that looks like for each individual person.

Barry: We're getting towards the end of this podcast, Gavan. It's a pity because I'm sure we can talk for at least another hour, but I have to be respectful of everybody's time. We're at that section which I've labelled the rapid-fire random question session. I've got five questions for you. I'm hoping that it might lead to some quite interesting answers. My first question is this.

Is there any book, podcast, DVD or resource that you felt so passionate about you actually give that to other people or recommend it to other people?

Gavan: Yes.

Barry: What is that?

Gavan: A book called "The Chimp Paradox." It's by Professor Steve Peters. He's a guy who helped Ronnie O'Sullivan conquer some of his demons and he's helped Steven Gerrard and a lot of people in business and in sport. I read this about 18 months ago. It was the first or second self-improvement book I read. It literally blew my mind. Honestly, the impact it's had on myself and my relationships has been incredible. The biggest impact has been in my home relationship rather than work, which is interesting.

Barry: Next question—if you could hang a banner from the Harland and Wolff cranes for a whole year and you could choose anything to put on it that you'd like, what words would you put on the banner?

Gavan: Other than The Wall Group, North Belfast: Come and Shop with Us—other than that . . .

Barry: That's an advert. You're not allowed an advert.

Gavan: I would say dream big, work hard, keep learning, and persuade as many other people to do likewise as you can along the way.

Barry: Thank you. Is there a business saying or piece of advice that you've heard quite a lot that annoys you, that you disagree with, that you think is more clever than true?

Gavan: Yes, I would say so. There are quite a few of these actually. One of the ones in retail used to be if you get your [inaudible 00:48:42], the rest of the shop flows. Older retailers used to say this to me. I'd just go, "This is just mad stuff." But the main one that I would say that goes across industries and life in general is when people say go with your gut, it's always right.

What I say is you shouldn't necessarily be using your gut that often, certainly in business decisions. Too many people are using that saying or use that saying to not investigate the opportunity correctly, to not do the work, to not do the preparation, to not speak to other advisors, such as accountants, etc. Just say, look, [inaudible 00:49:23]. Analyse the opportunity. Only in a few circumstances do I believe you will need to go to your gut. You will sometimes if it's very finely balanced. You have to make a call on it. But most of the time, the information is out there if you've done the research.

Barry: Okay. Thank you. Next question—are there any traits and characteristics that you feel have stood you in good stead since starting your business career?

Gavan: So [inaudible 00:49:53] absurd. An unusual one, do you think?

Barry: Yeah. It could be something you perhaps think, [00:50:00] "Maybe people think that's strange, but I feel quite comfortable with this. It's who I am. It's something that perhaps other people don't do."

Gavan: I don't know if they're strange, but there's a couple of traits I would say have really stood me in good stead over time. The first is authenticity. Authenticity is the first thing that can go when you're under pressure. So you take a short cut, you don't do something the way you said you were going to do it, and you lose that credibility.

So authenticity, it's not an unusual thing or an absurd thing, but if I tell a business partner or a training partner or a member of my team or anybody I deal with in everyday life, this is what I plan to do and this is the way I'm going to do it, I will always do that. That authenticity, you get payback because of it. People believe in you.

Barry: They see you under pressure when you have the temptation to take shortcuts, they really find out who you are.

Gavan: Then they start, "Wow, you could have taken a shortcut there. You have to pay me back that or whatever." I would say another one that I have in spades is resilience. No matter what the hit—I have now got a little mental way of something that might have taken me three days to get over, something really wrong, maybe eight or nine years ago or you might have carried a grudge or something like that, something that might have taken days to get over, I can literally get over that in two minutes, three minutes. I'm able to process that sort of pain into microscopic moments of time. Most of it I can get over one blink of the eye and I move on to the next issue.

Barry: I'm reminded almost of the beginning of our conversation right at the start of this podcast. We talked about the emotional wall you could put down as a defence lawyer. Do you think that's where it's come from?

Gavan: It's the same sort of strategy, the same thing. If I go out there and go into work and something really significant has gone wrong, I literally blink. That's it, processed, and then I move on to the next thing.

Barry: Okay. Which I'm sure many business people would be very envious of because it's so easy to focus on negative stuff and keep in that space thinking, "I can't resolve this."

Gavan: Yeah. I just couldn't. You can't expand your business because the bigger the business, the more times that happens.

Barry: Final question to you—is there anything that you've purchased in the last 12 months, perhaps in the value of £50 to £100 that has actually had a significant impact on your life that you'd like to recommend or mention to somebody?

Gavan: Yeah. Quite a simple wee device I purchased, a Hive Bluetooth speaker. It cost like £40. It's a really nifty device. If I'm listening to radio for a broadcast or a podcast or an audiobook or anything like that, whether I'm going into the shower, I'm in the next room or whatever, I just hook my phone up, whatever the material is coming through on, hook it up to this sweet speaker. It's got output. I can listen away to whatever it is I'm listening to. It's a cracking wee device, Hive Bluetooth speaker.

Barry: All right. Thank you. Gavan, that just leads me to wrap up now. Before I do that, can I just say how can listeners get in touch with you? Is it through LinkedIn? Is that the best place?

Gavan: Yeah. My biggest forum that I communicate with people on is LinkedIn, where I sort of diarise what happens in The Wall Group, the ups and downs, what happens in my life, the ups and downs, trying to leave information. So people contact me there.

Barry: Perfect. It just leads me to say thank you so much for your time. Thank you for being so honest and so generous with your thoughts and your views. I've really enjoyed this podcast. Thank you so much.

Gavan: Okay. Thank you, Barry.

Barry: Bye.

This article is correct at 29/01/2018
Disclaimer:

The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.