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Brody Sweeney

Brody Sweeney
Founder of O'Brien's Irish Sandwhich Bars

Founder Brody Sweeney took O'Brien's Irish Sandwich Bars through the lean times. But now there is meat on the bone as he expands around the world. When it comes to Irish franchises, not many spring to mind. At least, not many that have been expanding outside of Ireland. But O'Brien's Irish Sandwich Bars is bucking the trend as it gains the reputation as the fastest-growing Irish franchise company.

According to Brody Sweeney, the company's founder and managing director, there are now 130 outlets in six countries and plans are afoot to open 90 outlets this year. While there are 18 to 20 due to open in Ireland, and 10 overseas, Sweeney is concentrating on building the brand in the UK with 60 outlets proposed to go live in 2001, after 29 were opened there last year.

He claims that O'Brien's is now the dominant player for sambos-on-the-run in Ireland and Scotland and market leader in English cities such as Manchester and Plymouth. Sweeney, 40, says the 2001 UK rollout is part of the company's ambitious five-year plan to become brand leader in the UK by 2006.

Says Sweeney: "At the end of 1999 we had 70 outlets worldwide and by the end of this year we expect that figure to be over 200. The five-year plan is to have 1,000 outlets globally. He aspires to make O'Brien's a bigger brand name than Guinness. That's unlikely but such fighting talk has helped Sweeney raise funds at crucial times when his company was losing money.

Sweeney's franchise roots were with Prontaprint, where he and his father operated the master franchise for Ireland. On a trip to the States, he came across the Subway franchise and decided to adopt it for the Irish market. His first shop opened in 1998 on George's Street and traded poorly. His second outlet did much better in the newly opened St Stephen's Green Centre. Across the Liffey, a shop in Mary Street was, in Sweeney's words, "a disaster". He adds: "The first six years I lost money but eventually I ran out of mistakes to make.

Laments Sweeney: "Not only is the US a tough market but it is the worst place to do business. The red tape is incredible. Where it might take two weeks to open an outlet in Ireland it takes 14 weeks in the US. It is a highly-competitive market but the rewards are great if you stick it out." When one considers that coffee chain Starbucks opens 1,300 outlets each year, there is still tremendous upside left in the O'Brien's franchise. However he can't resist trying to squeeze more juice out of the existing business. "We are trialing internet kiosks in outlets through a partnership with a company that supplies the equipment," says Sweeney. He is also planning to put more focus on healthy food and possibly go down the organic food route and place emphasis on responsible farming. There are also plans to start selling O'Brien's branded products such as the coffee, soft drinks, crisps, chocolate bars and biscuits in other retail locations. While he does all this, Sweeney has to watch his back. Subway, the American sandwich franchise operation that inspired O'Brien's, has a toehold in the Irish market with sites in Dublin, Galway and Cork. The US firm has 14,500 sites in 73 countries and now Subway is also planning to ramp up its franchise rollout here, with talk of 20 new franchise outlets in the Republic by the end of the year. Subway is also active in the North, with eight outlets and more planned. That sounds like something for Sweeney to chew over.

(05/04/01) This article first appeared in Business Plus magazine.

By Patrick Sawyer

O'Brien's Irish Sandwhich Bars

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