Ep 01 – Stewart Kenney, Ex ceo Paddy Power

Podcast Ep 01 - Stewart Kenney, Paddy Power
In this episode of A Pivotal Moment, host Mark Cahalane talks with Stewart Kenny, one of the founders of Paddy Power, a bookmaker known for its cheeky and irreverent brand. However, what many may not know about Kenny is that he is now a psychotherapist and coach, with ADHD playing a central role in his work. Stewart grew up in a family that valued social justice, which stuck with him throughout his life. In this conversation, he shares how he transitioned from being the son of a devout Methodist and Supreme Court Justice to founding one of the biggest bookmakers in Ireland, going on to be Chief Executive of the public company and giving it up at 50.
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Podcast Episode Transcript – Stewart Kenney, Paddy Power

Mark Cahalane 

Hello and welcome to A Pivotal Moment. A podcast series about ordinary people who have made extraordinary decisions, both in their business and personal lives. I’m Mark Cahalane and in this episode I will be talking to Stuart Kenny, one of the founders of Paddy Power. And the inspiration behind the early cheeky, irreverent brand. What is perhaps less known about Stewart is that he is now a psychotherapist and coach. Not so long ago he was diagnosed with ADHD and that is central to the counselling and coaching work he does. I started out by asking him about his background.  

Stuart, tell me. A little bit about your background, where you grew up, your family. 

Stewart Kenny 

I grew up with a family of four; two kids, my brother Roger, who was two and 1/2 years older than me. And myself and my father and my mother. My father was a barrister first. He became a High Court judge, appointed by Fianna Fáil. And he was actually promoted by Fine Gael. My mother came from… originally from a Quaker family. She was a Methodist. And Quakers, as we know, part of their belief system is that they give 10% of what they earn to charity every year. And you know the Bewleys were famous for looking after their workers, so we were brought up in a belief system of social justice. So, my dad would have been a great admirer of Declan Costello’s the just society. And of course, Declan Costello was a colleague of his and my mother would have had beliefs about social justice and not being flash about money. You know, if you become wealthy, you know, you’ve got a duty to society. 

Mark Cahalane 

So very clearly, values that we’re going to stick with you throughout all of your working life, and indeed,  the work you do now which will come to in a little while. 

Stewart Kenny 

Yes, and for my brother Roger, he would have very strong views on social justice. And so those values were always there. I am not saying that I always kept them, but they were a core belief, so… There is a guilt surrounding, you know, when I skied off piste from those values. 

Mark Cahalane 

So, moving on a little bit, Stewart. How does the son of a Quaker and a Supreme Court Justice become the founder of a bookmaker? 

Stewart Kenny 

Well, my mother, in fact, was a Methodist. Her father, I think, was a Quaker and I’m not sure how the family switched from Quaker to Methodism. And it was only after death that when we read the Methodist catechism that drinking and whoring are sins. But the biggest mortal sin is gambling in the Methodist catechism. And, my mother, she did not force her beliefs on me. I only later found out she didn’t approve gambling, but she believed I must be allowed to do what I want to do. 

Mark Cahalane 

So how did you get there? How did you get to decide this was something you wanted to do? 

Stewart Kenny 

I was a small little runt of a of a boy. I’d been on cortisone as a young kid for very bad asthma, stunted growth, and all sorts of things, but cortisone in those days was the wonder drug. And they couldn’t get me to have fresh air. I couldn’t exercise properly because I had bad asthma. And they couldn’t get me to get fresh air. So my dad asked one night at dinner in the King’s Inns, I think. Has anybody any ideas? And they said “Oh bring him horse racing,” and I went horse racing and I saw Terry Rogers and Sean Graham. They were everything that I felt I wasn’t at the time. They were loud, they were big, they were leading the pack. They were on top of a box, shouting odds. That’s just attracted me so much that I wanted to do that. Now, as it turned out, I would have been the most hopeless on course bookmaker. Because I’m just a song and dance man. I’m a marketing man up. In fact, I tried it at the greyhounds for quite a while, but I was hopeless at it. 

Mark Cahalane 

You originally set up Kenny O’Reilly? 

Stewart Kenny 

No, the first day I traded I think was around 20. I was around 21. Maybe 22. I set up under my own name, Stewart Kenny. And on the first day I started betting on Nixon resigning from the White House. And I couldn’t believe I got from page of both of the evening papers. There was the Herald and Evening Press at the time. And I said this is amazing. You can get so easy publicity. And I’d always been a political junkie anyhow.  

So in fact, what led the whole way through to the setting up of Paddy Power was political betting. That got you onto the front page. Betting on horses, which only 12% of the population are interested in. In fact, I’d say it’s much lower now; will only get you onto the racing page and hardly anybody reads the racing page. So, betting on politics just got your front page. And I could see that none of the bookmakers really had seen this opening. This gave me an opportunity to market constantly. And yes, I was betting on Nixon resigning from the White House and under the other political things I that saw. And I got front page, and then I could see that if you could tap into entertainment.  

So, we, Susan, one of their girls who was working with me in Wexford Street. Why aren’t you betting on Dallas? And we started betting on who shot J. R. I was on the Pat Kenny show the whole time on RTE. Every time he mentioned Dallas, he’d say. Now let’s see what the odds are. And of course we gilded the lily a bit. A fellow with a Tipperary accent arrived into my shop to have a hundred quid on, I think it was Stone’s widow and Larry Hagman happened to be staying with Fonzie O’Brien down at Tipperary at the time. So, I went down straight down and said I think he probably let the cat out of the bag in the pub last night, whereupon BBC Television wanted to interview me about it. So that was probably what I brought bookmaking. 

Mark Cahalane 

So clearly you are the driving force behind that fun, irreverent element that was central to the Paddy Power brand. It moved on, then, to become a major corporate player, and you were a chief executive. What was that like for you? 

Stewart Kenny 

Chief executive was great fun until it became a public company. But I always felt by 50 I wanted to change, that I wasn’t going to be a one trick pony. 

Mark Cahalane 

And Stewart, just before we come to that change. I know a lot of people misunderstand this, that they thought Paddy Power was Paddy Power. Where did the name come from? 

Stewart Kenny 

The person who came up with the idea was John Corcoran of Green Property, who was the longest-term thinker I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, chief executives don’t think long term. Now they only think as long as their contract is. And so most things are done short term.  

John, I remember going to him one day with a 7 year plan. I thought this is long term, and he said Kenny, you’re only think so short term. 20 years is what we need to be planning for. Go out there into the wilds of South County Dublin and buy us a few betting shops. I don’t care if there’s no houses there, there will be hundreds of thousands of houses there very soon. You know, and he had this idea. Let’s come up with an Irish brand that is personable, that has good customer service but is very Irish centric. And so, he asked me to run it. It was a joy. He was like a second father to me, John. He was a wonderful, wonderful man. We had so much great fun, even well, after I’d retired from Paddy Power. 

Mark Cahalane 

So, you were chief executive, you were thinking you don’t want to be a one trick pony. Was that a process for you of? Or was it an emerging thought process? Was it a pivotal moment? What was going on for you and you’re thinking about making a change? 

Stewart Kenny 

I’d been going to therapy for quite a while. More and more I thought business just wasn’t turning me on and I wanted to do something, not to run a voluntary organisation, but to be actually working at the coalface. 

And I had two aims. By the age of 50, I could go to Tibet for a few months and that I would retire from full time work in the gambling industry. So that was a process over probably seven or eight years, but it was interesting. It happened very quickly cause like there was a danger I could be 60 saying I’m going to retire at 50 and I went to a Charles Handy lecture. And I remembered well, it was a Saturday morning in Earlsfort Terrace. And he said, what is enough? He said John D Rockefeller knew what enough was; just one more and it stung me because that summed me up.  

There was always going to be another deal, always gonna be another stunt that we could do in Paddy Power. So, and he said, unfortunately, if you want to change your life, you can’t do it tomorrow. There is only it today, so I couldn’t wait for the end of lecture. I ran out, rang John Cochran and said, “I want to see you.” He said, “it’s Saturday. I’m watching the racing.” I said, “I don’t care what you’re doing. I’m seeing you,” and I gave in my notice. So, I’ll give you a year, but in fact, immediately afterwards I switched off my thinking. I’d moved on. I was a passenger for the year, so that changed and now business has very little interest to me. 

Mark Cahalane 

It was around this time, you discovered you had ADHD. 

Stewart Kenny 

That was about six years before, Doctor Michael Fitzgerald diagnosed me with ADHD and that kind of made sense of my distracted thinking. There’s only two time scales with ADHD; now or not now, so everything has to be done now and therefore have everything becomes a mess. And it was only that I was very lucky that I had some wonderful, wonderful people and Jimmy Mangan, who is a wonderful, wonderful person and the best person with people. John O’Reilly was very organised, who didn’t let me near the chequebook, and Rosanne Corcoran was a person who saw that people didn’t want to go into grotty betting offices. They wanted something much, much better. 

Mark Cahalane 

John was your successor as Chief Executive. How important was it to have a coterie of advisors around you in making that change? 

Stewart Kenny 

A coterie of advisors to make the change. No, no. I made the decision myself, but they actually picked up the pieces of me going missing for a year. So, the change I’ve never once regretted the change, but I thought I was totally organised for, and I did get to Tibet for seven weeks actually. It wasn’t seven years in Tibet. It was seven weeks in Tibet. Which is magnificent. I thought I was totally organised for semi-retirement because I qualified as a psychotherapist, but in fact I wasn’t half organised and if I was to ever advise anybody on retiring you can’t organise well enough for it and it’s no use just having physical pursuits. You must have an intellectual pursuit as well. 

Qualifying as a psychotherapist was because I was a fish out of water, the first time I tried the psychotherapy course, they refused to let me. And who was it? Who, who? Who said I always want to become a member of clubs that won’t let me in. But and I remember the first day when I was eventually let in, and they were right not to let me in. And my thinking was too disorganised.  

The first day going around the circle… “Yeah, I’m Mark. I’m a writer.” But most of them were nurses, nurse helpers and counsellors of one sort or another. And then I said, “I’m Stewart and I’m a bookie” and the place erupted in laughter. And everybody’s going… What the hell is he doing there? Actually, after I qualified, the first client, God love her, you know, I’m so nervous. I’m sure I made her even more anxious than she was before. I said; the second client I’m going to get right. And he walked in and said, we’ll call him Joe, “I’m Joe and I’m a compulsive gambler,” and I thought when am I going to admit the truth that I’m a bookmaker? After that, things did improve. I practiced psychotherapy for 10 years and in the meantime, I qualified as a coach. Coaching works probably better than psychotherapy for ADHD. 

Mark Cahalane 

That now, not now, thinking was probably central to the success of Paddy Power and probably gives you a fair degree of empathy obviously with your client base. What sort of issues are you dealing with them typically? 

Stewart Kenny 

Essentially, I’ll go back a little bit. Malcolm Gladwell in David and Goliath talked about dyslexia. The chapter was he made it not in spite of dyslexia, because of dyslexia. There are pluses as well as minuses to ADHD. Now, for the vast majority of people, the minuses unfortunately outdo the pluses. For me, probably, the pluses outdid the minuses. Now my partners mightn’t agree. Both romantic partners and business partners, with my level of disorganisation and distraction, so it needs inspired teachers in school to keep the concentration of the kids who have ADHD because they get distracted. They’re impulsive. Everything is now or not now. And can go down blind alleys and become obsessional about one sort of thing, rather than the whole thing. So, it can be very frustrating in a marriage because with ADHD your time management is so all over the place. So, you go from one thing to the other and then get sidetracked. So, you’re trying with coaching, you’re trying to bring them back into routine. And to become more aware, it’s awareness and choice. If you’ve got an awareness of when you’ve got distracted, you can bring yourself back. 

Mark Cahalane 

What gives you the greatest pleasure, and feeling of satisfaction out of what you do now? 

Stewart Kenny 

I suppose with the coaching, seeing people becoming aware and seeing that they can actually at times use ADHD as a plus. There are other things I do outside of the coaching connected in that area that give me great satisfaction, but that will be the main plus. 

Mark Cahalane 

Moving outside what you’re doing now, as you look back, what advice would you give anyone in a similar situation? Who has that inner voice telling them they want to make a change? 

Stewart Kenny 

Well, of course it was much easier for me, but one of the questions that I sometimes ask clients in psychotherapy, if you were told today that you five years to live, you have very good health for five years, but it will go downhill and you’ll be dead before you’re 60. What decision would you make about your life? That gets them to concentrate on it’s not about tomorrow. It is about I need to make a decision because one of the things about changing your life is people get into a rut. They know they want to change, and they think I’ll do it tomorrow. But in Five Regrets of Dying People written by, her name was Bronnie Ware, she talks about not living your own life, and it is so important that you live your own life. It’s never too late to change. Even in retirement. You do not want to look back. I think it was Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People talked about being with an army general in America who wanted to bring change and they brought Covey along to try and do it. Covey said, “Aren’t you retiring in a year? What do you want to bring change?” He said. “I’ll tell you why, my father died last year and, on his deathbed, he said. Son, I didn’t make a difference.” I don’t think you want that. So to live your own life is surely the greatest freedom. 

Mark Cahalane 

What have you learned about yourself that you didn’t know about yourself as the chief executive version of your life? 

Stewart Kenny 

I have less certainty about everything. As the chief executive, you have to be confident and certain and make decisions. Actually in life now I’m less certain about everything, and therefore I have to keep inquiring.  

Mark Cahalane 

Stewart Kenny, thank you very much.  

Stewart Kenny 

Thank you, Mark.   

Mark Cahalane 

You’ve been listening to a pivotal moment. My name is Mark Cahalane. I help businesses tell compelling stories to engage their stakeholders. I coach senior business leaders on systemic change and leadership. I partner business teams to help them drive high performance. And when business relationships go wrong, I help them all negotiate better ways of working together. You can find out more on my take on these topics at martelloleadership.com. 

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