The survivor: Ben Dunne holds steady at gym business … as Covid-19 brings him closer to sister Margaret

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Ben Dunne has had his share of headlines. His colourful past is the stuff of modern folklore, but perhaps the stories from days gone by can overshadow a singular feat: that he turned his father’s business into one of Ireland’s first empires with a billion euro turnover.

So as he surveys the considerable damage caused to his latest project – a chain of gyms that up until the pandemic was generating an annual turnover of €14m and healthy profits – he seems as good a judge as any of what Ireland’s business owners need to do, if they are to survive the wreckage being caused by Covid-19. And he certainly doesn’t sugar-coat the advice.

First up – don’t let emotion get the better of you. “Hold your nerve,” he says, while standing outside one of 10 outlets that have closed for what he predicts could be up to two years.

“If you are scared, then your thinking won’t be rational. So I would get over that hurdle first. When you get rid of fear, the brain is extraordinary and it usually finds an answer. You will see how many things will start to fall in to place.”

Does he think we will face an economic depression come winter? “Jesus, if you weren’t thinking that way, you would want to see a psychologist.”

He considers the first weeks of lockdown, when some people’s concern centred around whether they could get away for their annual jaunt in the sun. Now, with unemployment at a record high of 28.2pc and Europe expecting the deepest recession in its history, he says: “If anyone is just worried about whether they can get their holiday this year, they have very little in their brain.”

One of the biggest problems he sees ahead is that there will be no escape for a young Irish workforce. “In the last downturn, people could emigrate. Now where do they go?”

He is adamant that business owners must stay brutally realistic: “Lower your standards. If you consider what was ‘the norm’ before, they are going to be far lower now,” and believes many “won’t survive after this pandemic is over”. He says the Government “should not bail them out. Putting money into those businesses is throwing good money after bad”.

He says this is going to have a “ferocious toll” on his own fitness centres, which employ more than 90 people and have 53,000 members. “And it was a hugely successful business. Whether [we] survive or not is questionable. Already, I am saying to myself maybe half of my gyms won’t open and I am focusing very hard to save the other half.”

Such an outlook may sound pessimistic, but Dunne says the best advice he ever received was: “Never promise the customer something you can’t deliver.”

He is able to hold his hands up and admit what some find it hard to say in a climate of constant opinions, where experts are wheeled out every day to give forecasts: he doesn’t know what lies ahead. Hasn’t got a clue. And he’s not about to spin a tale for anybody.

That’s not something that can be said of caretaker Government, he says. “To tell people there will be no increase in taxes lets you know how downright irresponsible our politicians are. The truth is they don’t know how much our deficit is going to be. I don’t think anybody has worked out what the worst-case scenario is. But there will be untold damage and no magic bullet.”

One thing that is helping him in recent weeks is his relationship with his sister. He says the darkness of the Covid-19 pandemic has brought him and Margaret Heffernan closer together. “Since it started, we speak more – because none of us knows which one of us could pick up the virus,” he says. “We are at a vulnerable age.”

The pair have resolved to leave business at the door – “Life is too short not to”. Despite their many high-profile business skirmishes, he maintains that they never let business get in the way of their family bond.

“The only disagreements Margaret and I had were about business but we never fell out as brother and sister”.

He finds humour to be the best approach to surmounting their difficulties. “There has never been a period in my life when I didn’t see a funny side. Even when I was kidnapped. I’ll always remember one night a guy came in with a balaclava and said to me: ‘Ben, is there anything you want? And I said ‘I’d love a bottle of beer.’

“So he shouts out ‘Major! The big fella wants a bottle of beer!’ and the guy shouts back, ‘Give him anything he wants – he is a paying guest!’ I was in a tight situation but I still laughed.”

The health crisis has given his siblings a wake-up call: “We see our mortality a lot clearer than we did before this pandemic.”

Although he and his sister haven’t seen each other for months “because we are cocooning”, he says they “speak at least once a week”. And age mellows most of us. “I think most people do overcome their difficulties. If the wheel turns often enough it eventually stops at the spot called common sense.”

Asked if formal apologies were made, he says: “I couldn’t say when a particular [conversation] happened.” But he adds: “Time is a great healer.”

On his feelings towards Margaret today, he says: “I love her as a sister. She is full of kindness and full of hope.” He can see why the doyenne of Dunnes, who famously ousted him, came to hold grievances. “Hindsight is 20/20. Of course, you can see where she was coming from.”

Now 71, he must face the mammoth task of rebuilding. He doesn’t believe a two-metre rule is safe for anyone when working out near somebody running on a treadmill. Despite gyms reopening with machines separated by clear dividers, he doesn’t believe think it will be safe to follow suit. He has also ruled out pools, jacuzzis and steam rooms in his reopening, which he says will be a “game-changer”.

You wonder how then he will keep the show going – “I won’t open again until it is safe to do so”. But he doesn’t recoil from what lies ahead: “I am working harder than ever. My main hobby is work, I wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t. I love the challenge.”

Source: Irish News