Filling gaps in the market will get your product on right track

I was in Dublin recently and got into a cab on the way to the train station only to find myself with one of those great Dublin characters as a driver.

He reminded me of some of the Dubs you hear on Hill 16 in Croke Park when the Dublin football team is playing. For instance, I was in the midst of them on ‘the Hill’ for one of the epic series of four games played out between Meath and Dublin in the Leinster championship in 1991.

For those of you not knowledgeable about the GAA, the Meath full-back was a legendary hard-man called Mick Lyons and I think he was marking a Hill 16 hero at the time called Joe McNally, whose non-athletic appearance (that’s an understatement) belied or maybe assisted his ability in front of goal. In those days, the big heavy guy with good feet was played at full forward and used as a target man, things were simpler then.

Anyway, Lyons was busy rabbit punching Joe in front of the Dublin fans but out of the sight of the referee when one of the aforesaid Hill 16 gentlemen in appreciation of Lyons’ off-the-ball skills shouted: “Go on Lyons, I hope your mother never marries”. You get the picture.

TED is a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to presenting filmed talks on the web on a vast range of subjects but with the common theme that they are ‘ideas worth spreading’. It’s a brilliant website. TEDx refers to independently organised events dedicated to bringing those ideas home to a local audience. The theme for the Stormont event was ‘Imagine’ and attendees heard talks from the first minister and deputy first minister, as well as Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody, Jim Eastwood of Apprentice-fame and Brian Cathcart, founder of the Hacked Off campaign.

Simon Hamilton’s of the DUP idea was about ‘gaps’, starting with the story of the original voice of ‘mind the gap, please’, Oswald Laurence.

Oswald’s iconic London Underground announcement was restored to Embankment tube station recently by Transport for London (TfL), following a request from his widow, Margaret McCollum. It was a really engaging opener from the DUP man because he told the story of how Ms McCollum went to the station every day to hear her late husband’s voice and asked for a recording of it, once it was withdrawn. When she wrote in to make the request, TfL bosses were so moved with the story, the recording was restored at Embankment station.

Simon then moved on to apply the notion of ‘gaps’ in expectation when we’re left feeling short-changed from government, a perpetual challenge for politicians. The main thrust of his talk was that there is a gap between people’s expectations of what government should do and what it could do and that that gap grows inversely with power. He brought in some of the economic challenges faced by the Northern Ireland Executive and it was interesting to consider exactly how far regulation affects businesses across , and to think about the ways that the public sector can drive innovation here and create spillover value. He didn’t have the all answers but it was a very well-crafted speech though maybe what struck me most about it was just its very simple theme – gaps.

In business, you’re always looking for gaps; gaps in the market for new products or services to sell or even gaps in your own or your company’s performance and how to fill them. One method that many business people employ when they’ve got a performance gap issue is just to talk. The question that sometimes arises though is who to talk to?

A place where I personally have found a lot of answers over the past three years is a private business organisation called Vistage. Started in the US in 1957, Vistage International now has more than 15,000 members in 16 countries and describes itself as: ‘The World’s Leading Chief Executive Organisation’.

The two groups in Northern Ireland include owners and leaders of some of our most innovative and successful businesses. The formula is unchanged in more than 50 years – in a trusted, confidential setting, executives from diverse, non-competing industries meet for one day a month in a peer-to-peer learning environment to share their knowledge and experiences and help one another become better leaders, make better decisions and achieve better results.

The two Northern Ireland CEO groups are brilliantly led by Vistage chairman Edmund Johnston, who’s like your dad, your bank manager, accountant, big brother, friend, business analyst and mentor all rolled into one. Quite a feat but he manages it for the 30 or so business men and women that make up the two Vistage CEO groups here. And now a third Vistage ‘Key Executive’ group, has also been formed under the chairmanship of Kate Marshall and no doubt those lucky enough to join it will feel the very positive value of Vistage too.

I’ve finished my stint with my group for the time being but I’ve listened and hopefully acted on things that have helped to fill the many gaps in my business knowledge and experience and I’m very grateful to my group and Edmund for that.

Mind you, I’m not sure what my Dublin cabbie or the Hill 16 lads would say about business people sharing their issues ‘in a peer-to-peer learning environment’. I suspect it would be lot less mannerly and expletive free than ‘mind the gap, please’.

Paul McErlean ( is managing director of MCE Public Relations.