Posted by Denise McNamara, Connacht Tribune in Features.

We are never too young—or old—to learn; just ask Bridget Kearney.

After forty years of running her own successful garden centre in Claregalway, she decided to turn her hand to the family fencing business. She had leased out the garden centre, with plans to enjoy early retirement and a spot of golf.

Her husband, John Paul Kearney, founder of JPK Fencing, died nine years ago from cancer. Their son Kenneth had taken over as general manager in the company upon his death. When he suggested that she should join them, Bridget was rather reluctant. She knew nothing about steel or the construction industry.

“I thought I’d help out with the trivial stuff like lodging cheques. Then I started going to meetings, looking at accounts. It took a while for me to realise this is all about figures on a paper—whether it’s steel or flowers. Purchases, sales, balancing the books—it comes down to that.”

Her role in the company involves examining the accounts, looking at contracts and focusing on costings.

“We have a fleet of trucks—the maintenance on those costs thousands every year. I go into all the costings, they see me coming—they’ve all got their heads stuck into a computer—I’m with a sheet of paper and a calculator and they think what is she looking at now,” she laughs.

“I like to do stuff the old fashioned way. My system works. You know where you’re going. My husband used to always say keep it simple. I have that on his headstone—JP Kearney: Keep It Simple.”

A fortnight ago, Bridget was inspired by the positivity of fellow female entrepreneurs in the first Women’s Enterprise Day held in Salthill.

“It was so energising. Not once did the speakers mention a downturn in the economy, the crash in property prices or blame banks for too much lending or lending too little. The sky is the limit.” she reflects.

She recalls four decades ago going to a different bank to her husband in order to apply for a loan to open the garden centre. She had been doing flower arranging from her home and realised there could be a business in it. She had saved up €3,000 and was hoping to borrow around €4,000. She recalls a letter arrived from the bank manager offering her an overdraft facility for €300.

“That was the way they treated women in business back then. It has changed so much—nowadays you can learn about accounts by night, how to run a business. No matter what the business, customers will value straight-talking and value for money.”

As JPK Fencing prepares to celebrate forty years in business next April, the company has forty full-time workers and has won contracts on some of the biggest construction jobs around the country for palisade fencing, motorway safety barriers and pedestrian guard rails. The company plans to open up a second factory to expand their manufacturing.

Bridget plans to arrange mentoring for herself and some staff member with the Local Enterprise Centre.

For women out there planning on starting a business, she believes they should believe everything is achievable—but always have a backup plan.

“That way you’ll sleep better at night. Everything is doable out there, I’ve proven that time and time again, but there’s nothing wrong with a three-year plan or a five-year plan. It doesn’t all have to be done in the first year,” she advises.

She recalls a particular wall in the garden centre which she wanted to knock in order to let in light but everybody told her the structure would collapse.

“I went to the hardware shop and got a hard hat and a sledge-hammer and I kept hitting this block until it fell out. I could see the brightness. After two hours all these blocks were on the floor,” she recalls.

“I’m not suggesting women should knock a wall but things can be done. You’ll get there.”