Podcast Ep 05 – Fintan Cooney, Manager, Fanagans Funeral Directors

A Pivotal Moment Podcast Ep 05 - Fintan Cooney, Manager, Fanagans Funeral Directors
Fintan Cooney had a successful career in advertising, spending 25 years in the industry and rising to a senior level. However, his interest in the funeral undertaking business, which his great great grandfather started in Dublin, never waned. He had even considered opening a funeral home in Mullingar, but the opportunity slipped away when someone else beat him to it. As Fintan’s advertising career progressed, he started to question if it was truly what he wanted to do for the rest of his life, which led him to seriously consider making a career change.
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Podcast Episode Transcript – Fintan Cooney, Manager, Fanagans Funeral Directors

Mark Cahalane 

Hello and welcome to A Pivotal Moment, a podcast series about ordinary people who made extraordinary decisions, both in their business and personal lives. I’m Mark Cahalane and in this episode I will be talking to Finton Cooney, who, having had a career as a senior executive in an advertising agency, made a decision to follow an old family vocation as a funeral undertaker. So, Fintan, thank you very much for coming in. We might start by you telling us a little bit about your background, where you grew up, your family. 

Fintan Cooney 

Well, I’m originally from Mullingar. I grew up there with my parents, Fintan and Mary. My father was a vet there in Mullingar. I had five siblings growing up and I’m the eldest. I went to boarding school in Dublin. And then I went to UCD and studied commerce. 

Mark Cahalane 

And when you were in university, Fintan, had you an idea; a thought process about what you might like to do after you left? 

Fintan Cooney 

Commerce was the sort of default thing after the Leaving Cert. I wasn’t quite sure when I started the course. But while studying commerce, I started to study marketing, and it took my interest. So that was an area of interest to me in college. And then I had a sort of a lucky opportunity when I was in second year in commerce where I met somebody who had just started up their own advertising agency. And I was invited to come and work as a summer job there in second year in college. So, I sort of fell into that career then that resulted in me getting a full-time job in the advertising profession after I left college. 

Mark Cahalane 

You would ultimately spend some 25 years in advertising, moving up to a very senior level in the industry. What was it that attracted you to the industry and what did you enjoy about the industry? 

Fintan Cooney 

I think one of the things I enjoyed most about it was the people I worked with and the sort of pace at which it moved. It’s an exciting business to be in. You’re working long hours. You’re working under pressure, but it’s exciting and you’re creating things. You’re creating communications that you’re usually quite proud of at the end of the day. And I just enjoyed the overall sort of the excitement of it, the sense of achieving things. In the advertising business to get new clients, we have to pitch and that process is a very sort of intense but exciting process. It can be heartbreaking when you aren’t successful, but it can be very exciting when you win. 

Mark Cahalane 

So a successful career. 25 years long. But you’re also thinking that there might be something else you want to do? You’re aware that there is a family business back in your past that you may have an interest in. Can you tell us about what was going on for you after 25 years and you’re thinking of making a move. 

Fintan Cooney 

OK, well, I suppose I probably need to go back towards the very beginning of my career and I’m not long after leaving UCD and I’ve started working in advertising agency. And my interest is peaked in the funeral undertaking business. The reason for this is, that on my mother’s side of the family, going back to my great, great grandfather, there was a funeral undertaking business in Dublin. And I thought this was an interesting profession. I would see these funeral undertakers conducting family funerals and so on. My grandmother was telling me about the background.  

So that was then combined with my background in Mullingar. It was a relatively small town at the time, but it wasn’t terribly well serviced in terms of funeral services. And one of the things it didn’t have, was a Funeral Home and it quite badly needed one. And as a young sort of business graduate, I thought, oh, this might be a business opportunity. So, I started to look into it quite seriously. Looked into the possibility that I could be the person to open the badly needed funeral. And I started to look into it. I was introduced to a funeral director in Dublin who gave me a lot of good advice. I started to look into premises and suppliers and so on. But unfortunately, I discovered that somebody had beaten me to it, that another person in the town actually had the same idea as I had and was probably in a much better position to start their business. And they opened the first Funeral Home in the town and I retreated back to my job in advertising, which I continued to enjoy for as you say about the next 25 years. But I suppose always at the back of my mind was this other career that might have been. 

I think as the years progressed and you know it’s a stressful business advertising and on the bad days I would think to myself my life would be a lot easier if I was a funeral director if I’d managed to open that Funeral Home all those years ago. So, it was always something that I was going back to. But then a couple of things happened. But probably the two most significant things that happened in my life were I had gotten married and had a family, and our second child was born and she had a severe disability. And that was a major life changing event for me. And it made me begin to question a lot of things and it probably put my whole job into perspective. Things had changed a lot since I started in the advertising business. I was enjoying it less. I felt that we were working harder for less. The whole client agency relationship dynamic had changed a lot and I just wasn’t enjoying it as much and relationships with clients were becoming more tense and less enjoyable. So I began to think, is this really what I want to do for the rest of my life? 

Mark Cahalane 

So Fintan, this wasn’t a pivotal moment. Maybe it was more of a whispering soul, but an inner voice. 

Fintan Cooney 

That was an inner voice that was probably the first thing that got me thinking. And if there was a pivotal moment, it probably happened some time after that, a few years on from what I’ve just described. Things weren’t going well. I was having a difficult time in work. I was having some difficult relationships with clients. And probably maybe a crisis in self-confidence in terms of my ability to do this job. And I went home after a particularly difficult day in the office one day and I said to my wife, “you know, I think I can just pack it all in” and, you know, she said, “well, don’t do anything rash.” So I didn’t, of course. But I went and had a chat with my brother at the time who gave me some good advice. And you know, first thing he said was “well don’t do anything rash. Think about it.” But he said, “maybe you might go and see this guy who helped me. He’s a life coach. So I went to see this life coach. And we talked about career changes and so on and I went through a process with him. But in the end, the timing wasn’t right financially and things were improving at the agency. You know, as they often do, and I was happier in my job again. But at that point I decided that I’m not cancelling this. I’m postponing it until the time is right. About three years on from that, I decided the time was right and at the beginning of the year I set myself the goal that by the end of that year I would have left my career in advertising and found a new career. 

Mark Cahalane 

And you did that. 

Fintan Cooney 

I did when I had looked at the alternative careers with the work I did with the life coach, we identified them possible careers. Now the funeral undertaking was always on my list because it was something that I had been harking back to from the original time I considered it all those years ago. But I decided to be realistic. I couldn’t put all my eggs in one basket. I didn’t know if that was possible for me to have a career in that profession, so I sort of narrowed it down to two things. Another thing that had come up in my work with the life coach was possibly teaching might have suited me, so I decided to pursue two options – the funeral undertaking and as a backup secondary school teaching. So, at the start of this year, I started to look at both of those. Thankfully, the funeral undertaking thing happened for me. I got in touch with a company called Fanagans here in Dublin and I spoke to them and they said that they did potentially have a job that I might be interested in. And after, you know, speaking to them, coming in, doing some experience and various interviews, they did finally offer me a job. And I made the decision to leave my job in advertising and started with them literally on the 1st of January of the following year. 

Mark Cahalane 

So did you literally finish one week and the next week… 

Fintan Cooney 

No, I think it’s very important if you’re making a major career change like that that you do take a bit of a break. As it turned out, around that time my father was ill and we knew at that point that his illness was a terminal one. Although his death wasn’t imminent or anything. But he was getting treatment and I decided this would be a good time to take some time off to be able to spend some time with him to help bring him to and from his treatment and so on. I would have finished up my job maybe around October, and I officially started my new job on the 1st of January, so it was good to have that break. The other thing that happened, which I think worked out well for me, was that when I initially started my new job in Fanagans, it was on a part time basis. That was the position they had at the time. So I worked three days a week and that was a very good transition. So, I had my three days there. And then there were a couple of other projects I was working on. Some people had asked me to do things, you know, when they knew I had some time. I was helping out with my old school doing a project for them. I was doing a little couple of little freelance projects for other people and that was a good transition from one career to the other. 

Mark Cahalane 

Fintan, funeral undertaking is radically different in how you would perceive it to advertising. Had you any concerns, or when you think back. Were you nervous in terms of this being a successful change for you? 

Fintan Cooney 

You know, I don’t think I ever did because I think I always felt that this was almost a vocation that was calling me. I always felt that I would be good at this job and thankfully it has turned out that I am. But I don’t think I had too many doubts. Obviously, it’s intimidating when you’re first going into a new job and you don’t know all about the technical stuff that you need to do and all of that, but like any new job, you learn that. And as somebody said to me, when I was starting in my new job and I think it probably applies to many, many professions: is that you’re going to learn 90% of this in your first six months here, and then you’re going to spend the rest of your life learning the other 10%. And that’s so true. So yes, there was a training in period and of course there were a couple of scary moments when I was dealing with things I’d never dealt with before and so on. But no, I think I was fairly confident that once I got a job in this profession that I would prove myself and that it would work out well. 

Mark Cahalane 

What is it about you that makes you good at the job? 

Fintan Cooney 

I think why I’m suited to this job is I suppose you have to have empathy with people. I think I have that. I think you have to have good organisational skills, good communication skills and I think you have to be a good diplomat. I think you have to be able to read situations and be able to know how to handle those situations. Because every situation you deal with is different and you need to be able to understand how a situation needs to be handled, how people need to be dealt with and so on. And I think that’s a skill that is hard to learn. That’s something I think that one has. I see people sometimes who come to work in our profession, and I can tell if they’re going to be good at this or not, because you have to possess certain key skills. We can teach somebody the technical side. That’s not the difficulty, but you need to have the right personality and you need to have the right way with people. You need to have this natural intuition that’s telling you what’s the right way. 

Mark Cahalane 

You’d get the impression both your careers they move at different paces. Was it an enormous transition for you? 

Fintan Cooney 

It was, but the interesting thing for me was as I came from, as I say, a profession that moved at a very fast pace and was very busy and very stressful. And I suppose that was another attraction of the career move. I mentioned to you earlier about how one of the key things that had happened in my life was the birth of my daughter. And her arrival put a lot of strain on my domestic life and I was really looking to try and take some of that stress away. To be able to divide my time more equally between my domestic life and my work life, so moving into a profession that moved at a different pace, that was less stressful, that didn’t have such demanding hours as the advertising was a positive thing for me. And when I had worked in the advertising agency that I finished up in. I was in a senior management position. I was the shareholder in the company. I was the director of the company. I had a lot of responsibility. I had a lot of people that I was personally responsible for. When I moved to my new job, I had less of that and that was a relief. That was an attraction to me. I had moved from being the sort of boss to the employee. And I know that might seem strange for some people that that would be attractive, but that was actually something that appealed to me because it took a lot of stress away from my life. 

Mark Cahalane 

Maybe two final questions, if that’s okay, Fintan. As you look back now, at the career you’re in now and your previous career, what have you learned about yourself in the transition and in the contrasts, what you were doing and do now? 

Fintan Cooney 

I suppose what I’ve learned about myself is that I think I probably always knew at some level that, even when I was leaving school, I’m probably more suited to a caring profession. And advertising is not a caring profession. So that’s one thing I learned about myself. That really I felt more at home when I was in a profession where it was more about caring for people, which it’s very important for me to get positive feedback from the people that I serve. And you get that in spades when you work as a funeral director, you certainly don’t get it when you work in advertising. And I suppose, as well, I learned that skills are transferable. So a lot of the skills that made me successful in my advertising career were transferable to my new career, people skills, organisational skills, dealing with difficult situations and managing your time and dealing with stress and so on. They’re all transferable. 

Mark Cahalane 

And finally, Fintan, some people on the podcast talk about having a pivotal moment. Others that whispering in our voice. What advice would you give to anyone who has that nagging feeling that you seem to have that they want to jump? They want to make a change? Despite the risks and the uncertainty, what advice would you give them? 

Fintan Cooney 

I would always advise people to listen to those whispers or to follow those nagging voices. I think life is too short to be doing a job that you don’t enjoy, but I would also say it’s not a decision to be taken hastily. I think you have to plan. It probably took me from first considering this to actually starting a new job. Probably, maybe nearly five years. That’s maybe a long time. But I would say it has to be planned. You have to think about it and you have to plan it. 

Mark Cahalane 

Fintan Cooney, it is a pleasure to meet the happier and more satisfied version of you. Thank you very much.  

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 marteloleadership.com. 

 

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