Public house

Irish pub chain McGettigan’s has grown from its UAE base to spread across more than a dozen locations on three continents. Founder Dennis McGettigan has ambitious plans to take the company public.

As business models go, opening an Irish pub was hardly a radical proposition. There must be few significant global cities without a humble drinkery inspired by The Emerald Isle – Dubai already had a good half-dozen when Dennis McGettigan opened the first branch of McGettigan’s in the JLT neighbourhood in 2010.

But six years later and the brand has spread far beyond the emirates, with more than a dozen locations on three continents. And that is just the beginning – another five McGettigan’s are set to open in 2017. The plan is to build an empire of at least 50 venues, worth a target value of more than $300 million, before going public and selling stock. Not bad for an idea, which started as a way to fill an empty plot of land, and help prop up a new hotel launched amid a world in financial crisis.

Dennis McGettigan

Dennis McGettigan

A hotelier by trade, Dennis’ father Jim had acquired a series of properties in Ireland and the UK when, in 2005, he was invited to buy a patch of sand in Dubai. Four years later, the Bonnington Hotel opened on that spot, one of the first six buildings to open in JLT. It was the height of the economic crisis, and largely adrift from the rest of the city, things got off to a sluggish start. Dennis, who had reluctantly bowed to parental pressure and flown out to launch the business, figured opening a bar would not hurt. “We opened at a really hard time,” remembers the 41-year-old entrepreneur. “Everyone had just gone bankrupt. “I got to know the town, and I saw an opening for a bar that was a bit above the typical ‘Irish’ venues.”

McGettigan’s antidote was to “contemporise” the Irish image, shunning the typical rural cliches in favour of the distinctly modern sheen which has become synonymous with the brand.

A difficult early decision was the name – McGettigan’s seemed “too egotistical”, but family history convinced Dennis otherwise. Because our story actually begins back in 1964, when Jim McGettigan, now 79, opened an eponymous bar in Dublin. The original McGettigan’s still runs to this day but, stuck in something of a timewarp, is not yet part of the global group.

McGettigan's Pub

McGettigan’s Pub

After the breakout success of the JLT venue – a huge 2,000-capacity complex soon beloved by expats – McGettigan was approached to launch a branch in Dubai International Airport, displacing another popular Irish pub name in the process. Simultaneously a building under licence from Dubai World Trade Centre was secured for a third venue. Both opened in late 2012.

“After the first three, I just went on a rampage,” says McGettigan, CEO of what became the Bonnington and McGettigan’s Group. His next move may have been the most audacious – selling his Middle East-born Irish pub brand to the Irish. In late 2013, McGettigan’s Letterkenny opened, in Jim McGettigan’s birthplace. It was the first of four venues in Ireland, with pubs now in Limerick, Galway and Bray. “To take something that’s so in-your-face Irish – with a shamrock on the logo and all – into Ireland was a little bit of a challenge,” admits McGettigan. “But all of a sudden it took on a life of its own.” A venue in Abu Dhabi, at Al Raha, was “only natural”, while a franchise in Fujairah recently followed.

The two bravest additions were Singapore and New York, with June 2015 seeing the opening of a McGettigan’s slap-bang in Midtown Manhattan. It all happened because McGettigan’s wife convinced him to take a belated birthday trip to the Big Apple. But unable to switch off, by the end of their five-day stay McGettigan had found a spot for his ideal bar – between 5th and 6th Avenue, a seven minute walk from the Empire State Building.

The story illustrates an important character trait – McGettigan is distinctly hands on. At the original, and still most lucrative, JLT venue, he hosts a full staff meeting every Monday morning, thrashing out every complaint and employee absence. He checks online reviews of his venues at all hours. “If something has gone wrong, I want to know why,” he says. “I don’t want to be sitting in an office somewhere barking orders at people. We’re all in this together.”

At one point in our interview he whips out a smartphone and shares a list of text messages, oblique lists of times and figures in exotic currencies – an hourly update of takings from every single McGettigan’s on the globe.

This interest in the bottom line is more ambition than greed. McGettigan talks openly about his ambition to build the business to a value of more than $300 million, within a target of four years, before selling shares to the public on the UK stock exchange. With the capital, he then hopes to invest in more hotels – McGettigan’s currently runs three of the family’s nine properties.

That dream certainly does not seem inconceivable. This summer being a case in point, the brand’s first UK outpost opened in Fulham, London and in Letterkenny, Co. Donegal they opened a brand new concept called Warehouse Bar + Kitchen. Back in Dubai, McGettigan’s opened in the popular tourist spot Madinat Jumeirah. The bullish CEO says he will kick start next year with pub openings in Glasgow, Jakarta and Doha, and add two further UAE venues – franchises in Al Ain and JBR’s Hilton Dubai Jumeirah Resort. Scouting is also underway for more stateside locations.

“The most important thing is to reinvent, reinvent, reinvent,” adds McGettigan. “The day I get complacent, is the day to give up.”