Inside the Dragon’s Head (Part 1)

Published: 29th July, 2013Bobby Kerr

A frank conversation with Bobby Kerr, businessman, broadcaster &  public speaker.

I met with Bobby Kerr in his office above Insomnia on bustling Stephen’s Green on a beautiful day in late June. An Insomnia coffee in hand, he looked relaxed and at ease with himself as he welcomed me graciously and offered me coffee.

Lots has been written about Bobby and his bio is readily available with a click, so as we sat down, I hoped he was ready to show me the other side of the public man. I wanted to know how a successful businessman progresses through the various stages of a working life and what he sees as the real lessons along the way

 The Early Days

Bobby or Robert, as he’s known to his family, is the eldest of four and grew up in Kilkenny. The 4* Newpark Hotel was the family business and provided Bobby and all his siblings with their first jobs.

“…. the most boring, monotonous job imaginable” …

“There was nothing like starting at the bottom, sorting bottles into crates in a huge yard – you’re sticky, hot, being stung by bees- it’s the most boring, monotonous job imaginable” Moving up the ranks to garden maintenance and progressing to the kitchen, Bobby learnt the ropes as his creative and collaborative streak were nurtured. “I particularly loved working in the kitchen- the buzz, the pressure, the humour, the banter but also the fact that we were working as a team to create something”

“I thought we were polar opposites.”

I asked Bobby what influenced most from this early period in his life. Without hesitation he answered ‘the Old Man’- “He worked every day, he was an amazing man, although I didn’t think it at the time” he told me smiling a little at the thought. “I was 18 and he was in his late forties, maybe fifty and I thought ‘he knows nothing, you know everything’. I thought we were polar opposites. It’s only latterly that you realize that you’re the same. When you come back from working with other people, you appreciate that maybe the old man does know what he’s talking about. We got on famously after that.”

The early 80’s saw Bobby studying at Dublin College of Catering, Cathal Brugha Street, working a part-time job throughout his college years at the Coconut Grove, and continuing to work with food and drink. He worked a summer job as 2nd chef in Actons in Kinsale, adding to his experience and a final year 6-month college placement saw him working in AIB Bank Centre, in Ballsbridge. Bobby describes it as  “…the standard bearer for quality mass catering at the time” feeding 2,500 people a day.

Giving it everything

After college, Bobby landed a chef’s position on a North Sea oil rig. “The joke on the rigs was that we were 5* chefs with 1* customers. It was great money but life was tough there. “You learned the value of hard work and ‘staying at it’. You learned to come in early to get ahead of the workload if that’s what it took.  You learned to give it everything.” Thinking about it Bobby describes the lesson as

“You can still fail if you work hard, but your chances of success are vastly increased if you’re prepared to give it everything.”

It must have worked well for him because he continued with the same company to Canada learning the catering business of Parks and Stadiums in a junior management capacity.

By the mid 80s, Bobby was ready to come home and joined the Campbell Catering and Bewley’s Group. Starting with the operations side in Cork, Bobby progressed through the ranks to sales and operations. In the position of MD of Bewley’s for 6 years with an annual turnover of €40 million, he oversaw the business of running cafés and bakeries and gained expertise along the way in sales, the ‘High Street’, property and franchising as he oversaw the expansion of the Bewley’s brand to the UK, USA and Japan. Answering the question of what was the best lesson learned at Bewley’s, he replied

“Again, it was the hard school of knocks- if you weren’t committed 24/7, there was always someone else to take your job“

He credits the Campbell Bewley’s organization with teaching him all the elements of his working life today.

Taking the plunge- the birth of Perk

In 1998, Bobby was involved with Bewley’s in the acquisition of a small coffee shop in Boston called Rebecca’s. Seeing what was happening in the US with Starbucks gourmet coffee and others gave him some pause for thought. He considered what was happening to monstrous Cafes here being killed with rent reviews every 5 years. “Bewley’s Grafton Street had a rent of €350,000 then and it’s now in the region of €4.6 million.” He thought it might work if he could open somewhere that had a much smaller footprint and where the business would be primarily ‘take-away’.

“ If you think back to the mid 90s, no-one walked down Grafton Street with a cappuccino. In Bewley’s, there were two kinds of coffee- one was black the other was white.”

The first ‘Perk’ was opened in 1999 in the basement of Laura Ashley’s in Grafton Street, followed by shops in Dawson Street, Baggot Street and two outlets in UCD. In 2002 Insomnia Coffee Company, a competitor in the gourmet coffee business with five shops acquired Bendini & Shaw’s 6 sandwich shops. By 2004, Bobby sold Perk to Insomnia, reinvested all the proceeds into the company and joined them initially as Commercial Director and soon took on the CEO position. His view has always been one of collaboration and he has been quoted as saying

Insomnia Coffee Company Logo“I decided it would be better to be a small part of something bigger than a big part of something smaller”

All 17 shops were rebranded as ‘Insomnia’ in early 2005. Along with his partners, Bobby as CEO has since overseen, the expansion of Insomnia from 17 to 72 shops with turnover going form  €5-€21 million. In 2008, they sold 51% of the company to an Icelandic conglomerate Penninn for €16 million and bought it back again from the bank when the Penninn company went into liquidation in the financial crisis and it’s assets were all taken over by the Icelandic bank Kaupthing.

Although the facts of Bobby story are well know, I wanted the story behind the headline success story. Was it all plain sailing?

(To be continued)


 When the conversation continues, Bobby shares his Top tips and lessons learned in opening a business. We discuss his public persona, his down time and what the future holds in his estimation.