The Sunday Interview: Oonagh O’Hagan

Oonagh O’Hagan
Lives: Ballsbridge, Dublin 4
Family: married, with two young children
Hobbies: takes philosophy classes a couple of times a week
Position: owner and managing director of Meagher’s Pharmacy group, and incoming chairwoman of Retail Excellence Ireland
…..
In a quiet room above the shopfloor of Meagher’s Pharmacy on Baggot Street, there is a large flip chart with the word ‘MOODLE’ printed in block lettering across the top.
Moodle? I vaguely recognize it from university – it’s an online learning platform that facilitates internet courses. But just what is it doing in a pharmacy?
“We introduced it because our policies change all the time and people can fall through the cracks,” says managing director Oonagh O’Hagan, who explains that her 60 employees use the system to keep up to speed.
“Instead of having to rely on external training courses a couple of times a year, everything is up online and people can get on with it themselves.
“Everybody’s on board with this. It takes you through the relevant material, it talks to you and it tests you at the end of every section. You never complete it, whatever your level; it keeps rolling. It’s good, isn’t it?”
Baggot Street is one of six Dublin pharmacies in the Meagher Group. It was also the first; O’Hagan took it over from Pierce Meagher – for whom she interned in her pre-reg year – in 2001.
O’Hagan is petite, upbeat and very energetic. Gesturing towards her computer screen, she explains that the Meagher’s edition of Moodle has courses tailor-made for employees of every vintage, from newcomers to those who started 12 years ago. Everybody enrols, everybody is periodically assessed. O’Hagan races through the advantages, clicking open folders as she goes.
It’s clear this kind of structure thrills her. Downstairs, the pharmacy is packed with customers. It’s lunchtime, and the staff – though visible – are easily outnumbered. This doesn’t seem to matter; everybody is being tended to in an engaged and efficient manner. The programme of professional development appears to be working nicely.
Still, O’Hagan is getting restless. Her favoured pattern of expansion is clear. In 2001, when she heard Pierce Meagher was selling, she immediately made an approach. “He told me what he had on the table, an offer from a multiple, and said that, if I could match it, he’d sell it to me,” she says. “Not days after, I went to AIB Bank with a business plan I drew up myself. I met them at 7pm in Artane, I’ll never forget it.” She left with the necessary finance.
Three years later in 2004, O’Hagan bought a corner unit pharmacy in Ranelagh (“I wanted a new challenge”). Two years after that, she bought a pharmacy in Glenview, near Tallaght, opened a fourth close by in Castletymon, a fifth on Barrow Street (to reclaim custom from workers relocating from the city centre) and finally the sixth, in Sandford Road, beside Ranelagh Clinic. According to accounts filed with the Companies Registration Office, the pharmacy in Glenview was the most profitable in 2011, making €444,903.
“I suppose it is a chain, is it?” she says, wrinkling her nose slightly at the term. We settle instead on ‘group’ and resume the conversation about its future.
After three years of standstill, O’Hagan is preparing to expand again. She plans to open a new pharmacy in the next 12 months. Although she won’t totally rule out a nationwide course of development, her focus for the immediate future remains on Dublin and its surrounds. “But if somebody came to me with a great offer [in relation to opening regionally], of course I would consider it,” she says with a smile.
Why now? Enough money in the bank and some let-up on the cost of rent; O’Hagan owns just two of her stores and rents the rest. With regard to rent reductions, she explains that she has had different responses from different landlords – corporate owners, single investors, a group of GPs – each under their own financial pressures.
“There are more opportunities out there now: greenfield sites offer rent-free periods or reduced rates and whatnot. There’s absolutely room for expansion in Dublin. We’ve been trying to get our costs under control and trying to buffer a series of cuts applied by the HSE, like every other pharmacy,” says O’Hagan.
“We needed to ensure the business was still profitable and everything. If you’ve got a bit of cash in the bank, I think now is the time. We’re happy; we’re in a comfortable position. We’re ready to go again.”
From the village of Plumbridge near the Sperrin Mountains in Co Tyrone, O’Hagan is the eldest of four children. One sister, Joanne, works with the group as customer and sales manager. “She’s like my right arm,” O’Hagan says. “It’s refreshing to have somebody cut in and say: ‘What the hell are you doing? Wise up!”‘
Her mother, a company director, is also a regular sounding board. “When we were small, she managed a factory of 150 girls making lingerie for M&S. At the time, she was competing against all the big British factories, but she was always the one to win all the awards for quality, leadership and people. She’s incredibly fair. She’s my inspiration.”
O’Hagan has two young children and works a five-day week, starting at eight or earlier, working until five and returning to email in the evenings. Her work ethic is evident from her demeanour, but really becomes apparent by casting an eye over her commitments outside the business. She was recently appointed chairwoman of Retail Excellence Ireland, which has 11,000 members, for 2014 and 2015.
“Retail is the single largest employer in the country,” she says. “We feel we can support government in reviving the domestic economy. Many of our members have really good, really valid ideas. We would be supportive of having a minister or junior minister for retail or for it to be part of somebody’s portfolio.”
This year, she’s been chairing the organisation’s Women in Retail group. “Close on 80 per cent of those working in retail are female,” says O’Hagan. “Less than 10 per cent make it to board level. The group is about support – a lot of the time it’s just good to talk something out with someone else.”
Her chirpy voice mellows. “Making time for my children is my biggest challenge. How do I deal with that, how do I juggle? I try to talk about it, that’s the first thing. I think, when you’re working and you’ve got kids, the feeling is guilt, on both sides,” she says. “The thing is to accept that guilt, and set up systems that will help you manage. I have a lot of support in work, a lot of support at home. I had to learn to let go of the reins a little bit.”
As further testament to her ‘juggling’ prowess, O’Hagan finds the time to sit on the board of the Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland, the national regulator, as well as the wholesale board of United Drug. “I’ve definitely got a couple of separate inboxes on the go,” she says, laughing. “Sometimes I have to sit back and think, ‘Where am I again? Which folder comes out?”‘
The Baggot Street shop has obvious parallels with its owner: colourful, bright and neat as a pin. The only interruption of the tidy uniformity of O’Hagan’s shops comes in the form of small neon placards and double-stickers on products that have been marked down. Competing with Tesco and Boots isn’t easy.
“We can’t compete with them, we don’t have that buying power,” O’Hagan says. “There are suppliers, every so often, that give us promotions. If we buy in at a lower cost price, we can afford to pass on a reduction to our customers.”
In the past year and a half, O’Hagan got rid of “a multitude of low-margin products” from her stores. In the face of sliding purchasing power, how to sell toiletries? By slashing prices and pushing freebies.
“Where you’re getting a free bottle of eye make-up remover or whatever, customers are happier to buy. But suppliers have to be willing to support that. We can’t market the stuff otherwise, we certainly can’t,” she says.
In turning its back on toiletries, Meagher’s has allied itself more closely to healthcare. “People are going to their pharmacy first. Still, we’re completely underused.”
O’Hagan shrugs. “I don’t know if the Department of Health is even aware of how educated we [pharmacists] are. We could save the economy an absolute fortune, by pulling people out of hospitals and into pharmacies, out of GPs and into pharmacies.”
She isn’t short on examples to back up her contention, listing instances in Britain and the US: more minor prescriptions, blood tests, vaccines – some local pharmacies in both countries have begun delivering chemotherapy.
“Instead of taking up hospital resources and risking infection, you can drop into your local pharmacy to be treated,” she says. “What if you have a sick child and you’re sleeping on the hospital floor while you wait? It can all be done locally, at less cost. It’s a no-brainer.”
For the Irish health system to catch up, the onus, in her view, is on government. “They need to be doing that directing, telling people that they can go to their local pharmacy for this or that, telling them what we are trained for,” O’Hagan says. “Pharmacies are more than willing to do it – we didn’t study and train for five years to stick labels on boxes. A lot of pharmacists are disillusioned with the role after so much training.
“A form of national campaign would help us to become a more obvious port of call. We’re here; we don’t need any extra resources; we’re trained to do it. They should be using us. We want to build on our role. I just can’t understand what the hold-up is.”

 

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