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Talking business, post Covid, with Kevin McCarthy, President of the Tralee Chamber Alliance

Talking business, post Covid, with Kevin McCarthy, President of the Tralee Chamber Alliance

By Georgina Downes

KEVIN MCCARTHY is a leading light among the business community of Kerry. His name is synonymous with the Garvey Group, a remarkable company which began operating out of a humble corner shop in Dingle nearly 80 years ago. Garvey’s, now in its third generation, has evolved to become one of the most successful, independently-owned retail empires in Ireland with nine stores and two award-winning hotels under its belt. The flagship store in Tralee has won numerous accolades and is held up as a beacon of excellence within the Supervalu stable. In fact, having won the coveted title of National Store Of The Year in 2017, Retail Excellence declared SuperValu Tralee not only the best supermarket in Ireland, but probably one of the best supermarkets in the world.

Kevin began working as store manager in Garvey’s Castleisland in 1990 and was heavily involved in the new SuperValu store in Tralee in 1992. He progressed to regional manager in 1996, then joined the Board of Directors in 1998 and subsequently became a shareholder in the business. He was appointed Managing Director in 2006. As part of Garvey’s philanthropic endeavours, Kevin is involved in and supports many local clubs, charities and societies. He is a Past President of The Rose Of Tralee International Festival, was Captain of Tralee Golf Club in 2018 and was appointed President of the Tralee Chamber Alliance in 2019.

I caught up with Kevin this month to chat about the future of businesses in Tralee post Covid.

Firstly, did you always want to work in retail?
Well, going to school I wanted to be an accountant, but while in college in Cork, I got an offer of a job as Trainee Manager in Quinnsworth. I took the job for a trial-period over the Christmas holidays, loved the thrill of the fast-paced business, the interaction with the customers, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Garvey’s is a wonderfully inspirational triumph that continues to thrive through Covid. To what to you attribute its success?
Well, first of all, I contribute it to the fantastic team of fresh food enthusiasts and customer-focused experts we are so lucky to have in Garvey’s. We really have incredible teams in all our stores, who go above and beyond the call of duty, day in day out, to please our customers. They know our customers personally and they create a brilliant working and shopping environment in every one of our stores.

Second of all, Tomas Garvey is a proud Kerry-man and has always instilled in us that our Number One reason for being in business is ‘to serve and support our local community’. We have that as a cornerstone of our mission statement in Garvey’s. We also passionately believe in being the best fresh food retailer in the country, constantly investing in our stores, in new technology, and most of all, in our people. This enables us to not only compete with the international and online competition, but to win new customers and grow our business stronger every-day.

How did you get involved with the Tralee Chamber Alliance?
I had already been involved in the periphery of the chamber, in the Retail sub-committee which represents the retail traders in the town. Then Ken Tobin ( CEO TCA) and Brian Stephenson ( Director TCA) approached me about their initiative to re-organise and re-energise Tralee Chamber. The re-organisation involved going back to the roots of the chamber, redrafting a new constitution and setting up a board of Directors. The board of Directors would be supported by a Steering Committee, made up of all the sub- committees representing the different business sectors in town, including the ITT and a representative of KCC and one of the elected councillors. So, after listening to their plans , I was asked if I would consider going forward for election as President of TCA for a 2 year period. I agreed and so I was appointed at the AGM last December ( 2019 ).

As President of Tralee Chamber Alliance, what do you site as an achievement in 2020 and what would you like to achieve in 2021? Your goals may have changed due to Covid. Have you had to reassess what you believe possible?
Well, starting out last December, Tralee Chamber had a great calendar of events planned for 2020, starting off with a packed 2019 Christmas campaign which included a snow-day in the Town Square, which was a huge success. There was also a superb New Year’s Eve entertainment line-up and a fireworks display in Denny street. Following that. there was the very successful Chinese New Year Weekend at the end of January. We had great plans around St Patricks day too, and Easter, but unfortunately Covid hit the Country and all our best laid plans were put on hold. Just like the rest of the world, everything’s still on hold until we rid ourselves of this terrible disease. But I also had some personal goals too: to stem the closure of town-centre businesses; to unite all the different businesses in town under the Tralee Chamber Alliance umbrella, thus creating one strong ‘business voice’ for the town and finally, to strengthen the focus on job creation by working with elected council members and Kerry County Council to really push for new jobs and industry for Tralee.

Is Covid changing everything or can you see things going back to the old normal?
Change is part of life, but I suppose Covid will definitely speed up the rate of change in some areas, like working habits, new ways of communication and of course online shopping. These things were already changing slowly, but have exploded during Covid and some things will never go back fully to the way they were.

Should we be re-evaluating how we work now? What do business owners need to do going forward?
Yes, we should of course be evaluating how we work, how people shop and how business will be done post Covid. There are huge challenges now for businesses especially right here in Kerry with Hospitality and Tourism and the retail sectors particularly suffering. Some unfortunately may not make it through Covid, and for those that do, there will be many challenges in their businesses for years to come. But also, there will be opportunities in the new way of living and it’s up to us to spot those opportunities and to exploit them.

Is the retail high street over? Will towns primarily be centres for social activity in the future?
The High-Street is under huge threat and has been for over 20 years now, firstly with out-of-town shopping centres, and now with online shopping, which has really exploded recently. But good retailers will respond to that challenge and I know a great number of Tralee businesses are now trading online and engaging in lots of campaigns to promote their businesses.

However, there’s no doubt that town centres need support from National Government and from Local Authorities to help them survive. New creative ways need to be found to replace the closed businesses, and town centres need huge investment in infrastructure. I must say, KCC have been very proactive here and there has been great investment in the Mall and Town Square in recent years and I know they have great plans for the Lower Mall/ Bridge Street area and, of course, the Island of Geese will hopefully be transformed in the next year or two.

We have a huge amount of unused property in Tralee Town Centre. You just have to look above ground floor level to all the empty second and third floor buildings. Government, both national and local, really need to act quickly here to incentivise property owners to redevelop these buildings, for either offices or residential spaces. This would have a hugely positive effect on the town centre, both during the day and also at night-time.

Is online the inevitable future?
Online shopping will continue to grow, but it won’t fully replace the shopping in the bricks and mortar shops. It is up to us all to ensure we keep local businesses alive and keep our town centres alive. That is why it is imperative that shoppers shop Local and support locally owned businesses especially this Christmas, as 2020 has been the most difficult year in our history for Business Owners and the only way that we as a community will have a thriving town, is if we as consumers support the local shops, restaurants, hotels, pubs etcetera. It is a proven fact that 1 euro spent locally is worth 3 times that to the local economy.

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There are opportunities also, for local retailers to get their Business online and to build a solid base with their current customers and Business Owners must be willing to invest and to become Best and most creative retailers in whatever type of business that they are in, as only the best and most adaptable retailers will survive and grow in the new world of retailing.

Should out-of-town shopping centres be restricted to protect town centres?
Out-of-town shopping centres, I think, have an important part to play in the overall Town Retail Plan, as many new businesses would not have been able to come to Tralee without them, as the large scale units, that these retailers need, are not available in the town centre. But I think much tighter controls need to be put in place, and for any new businesses coming to Tralee, they must first search for a suitable town centre location and only if such a site is not available in the town centre (and that it shows that it will not adversely affect local town centre business), should it be allowed to open in an out-of-town-shopping-centre.

Should there be more tax applied to online shopping?
Certainly I believe any items purchased internationally online, that is, items coming directly into this country, should be subject to an ‘Online Shopping Tax’ so that the playing pitch is levelled with local town retailers, who remember, must pay overheads such as rent, Local Authority rates, water rates, local property tax, etcetera. In addition, I strongly feel that this

‘Online Shopping Tax’ should be ring fenced to go towards Town Centre enhancement projects.

Local Councils are reliant on revenue from parking metres/fines, while national government policy wants to see fewer cars in town centres and more reliance on public transport. What’s the answer?
The reality is that European, national and local government want cleaner, more environmentally friendly cities and towns. That’s great, but it is imperative that we get people into our towns. The Answer is, three-fold, I believe. Firstly, we need to provide an electric bus service to the greater Tralee town area; secondly, as outlined above, the ’Online Shopping Tax’ should go directly to local Town Councils ,to help replace lost revenue, and thirdly, local government needs to be properly funded by central government for the remainder of the revenue needed.

Finally, what will Christmas look like for you this year?
Well firstly, I sincerely hope that all businesses will be open for trade. If so, I have no doubt that it will be a very busy December in town. Tralee Chamber are running a fantastic Christmas window competition and the town will be lit up with the amazing Christmas lights, so I’m really looking forward to it.

Personally, I’m also looking forward to nice few days off with my family, after a hectic year.

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