It seems fitting that it is on International Women’s Day that I meet Avril Robson, the managing director of Corick House Hotel and Spa.
Flame-haired and impeccably turned out, wearing a beautifully cut skirt suit with black tights and shoes, she is the epitome of a successful businesswoman.
But, with a flash of her warm smile, the mother-of-four confides, in her soft, distinctive Co Tyrone accent, that she and her husband John share a hobby that takes her far away from boardroom meetings, conference calls, and wedding planning.
“We breed Aberdeen Angus cattle together,” she reveals, adding that as a typical farmer’s daughters, she loves “farming and being outside.”
She says: “I love showing cattle and getting them cleaned down and clipped and show ready. They are a lovely animal to work with. Through the Aberdeen Angus society we have met a diverse set of people. And everybody needs a hobby from the stresses of work. I think my ideal holiday would be going round some of the big ranches in Canada.” The revelation of having such an outdoorsy interest shouldn’t really come as any great surprise, because it’s clear that Avril is very hands on, in all aspects of her business and her family life.
The mother-of-four - she and Scotsman John are parents to Jake, 14, Tory, 12, Ben, 10 and Jorgia, 9 - worked alongside her late mother Jean Beacom after she bought Corick House in 1994, when it was a derelict building in need of much work, having been the home of the Storey family of Clogher for 300 years prior to that.
The Beacoms renovated and restored it, and after Jean sadly passed away in 2011. Avril and her brothers Haldane and Andrew took on the running of it, growing it and developing it into the beautiful 43-bedroom hotel and wedding venue it is now, nestled in the rolling hills of the Clogher Valley.
It’s also the place where the siblings met - and married - their spouses.
“I suppose I probably didn’t have an option when it came to joining the family business,” says Avril, sipping her coffee.
“My eldest sister Jennifer was in the business along with mummy when she owned the shoe shops. She was killed in a car accident when she was 19. It was absolutely dreadful, my mother was heartbroken, we were all heartbroken.”
The young Avril was just 10 when her mother bought her first ‘business’ - a little shoe shop in Fivemiletown Main Street. She started off selling slippers, and then wellington boots as the winter weather arrived, and then ladies’ and children’s shoes, eventually opening larger premises. When Jennifer died, she “threw herself into her work”, battling through her grief, but then when Avril was 16, Jean took ill herself, and turned to her daughter for help in the family business.
Avril left Fivemiletown High School. and joined her mother, selling shoes, serving customers, dealing with the public. When the Beacom family then opened a restaurant in Fivemiletown called The Top Note, she was working there every evening except Monday, and serving in the shoe shops six days a week.
“The Top Note was great fun, I got a great buzz out of the very sociable aspect of that job,” she recalls.
The seeds were sewn for a lengthy career in the hospitality industry; however Avril is the first to admit that very first time her mother showed her Corick House, and revealed her dream of turning it into a country hotel and dream wedding venue, she was filled with doubt.
“It was this big, grey building with a tennis court at the side. Mum opened the front door and it had powder pink ceilings and powder blue walls. There was no heat, it was a big rambling building, and I thought, how could she ever think that she would have turned it into a hotel?
“The walled garden was a complete and utter wilderness.”
But Mrs Beacom, who actually used to farm the 300 plus acres around Corick as a girl, was a determined lady, and in spite of being told she was “utterly mad” by her good friends and family for wanting to take on such a “mammoth task” when she was not in brilliant health herself (she was due to go on to kidney dialysis), she resolved to realise her dream.
“I’m very glad she did,” smiled Avril. “Nothing stopped her, and the two of us worked hard on it. The first five years were a struggle. In those days there wasn’t the same talk of a wedding venue - you just went and got married in your local hotel and that was it, but mummy had this vision of Corick being a wedding venue.”
This September, the hotel will celebrate 20 years of being in business, and last year, it opened its new Spa. In 2013. it was officially granted four star status.
What all this means for Avril is that she is busier than ever, and works seven days a week - but she relishes the challenges.
“No two days are the same,” she says. “It’s lovely to have that sense of pride. of knowing that you have actually done something for someone and they appreciate it.
“Your work life balance is probably the hardest aspect. It is very tough, especially when you own your own business, because you feel you have to be there, that you can’t not be there 27/7. And I don’t need to be there every day I suppose, if I’m being honest. We have a team of exceptional people who very dedicated to their work. Perhaps it is because we as a family are there 24/7, and when we are it’s not as though we go in and sit in an office. We are there when there are 25 bedrooms that have to be serviced and two members of staff haven’t come in. Everybody jumps in and gets the job done. And they know that the directors of the company are very happy to get down and strip beds and clean rooms!”
She also pays tribute to the people of Northern Ireland, whom she says supported businesses like Corick during the dark days of the Troubles, and “not actually running a mile when things got tough.”
“I remember Drumcree when it kicked off back in the 90s. During those two weeks in July there wasn’t a soul in the hotel for the first two years.”
Since her mother died, Avril says she has had to learn so much more about running a hotel, and that her role has gone from “operational to managerial.”
“I learn by my mistakes. As somebody once said to me, ‘it’s not a good day if you haven’t learned anything.’ But I must admit I’m a real sponge, I love to learn new skills, new ways of doing things.” So what’s the secret to remaining at the helm of such a successful operation for almost two decades?
Well according to Avril, it’s drive and ambition, a love for what you do - and lists.
“Lists are vital,” she smiles. “I love lists. I have to do lists!
“You have to learn to decide what you’re going to do that day, and do it. Don’t overload yourself, have a cut off point. If you haven’t achieved them all, don’t beat yourself up about it, start afresh the following week.” She says she believes that women have an advantage when it comes to being successful because of their natural abilities at multi-tasking.
“Being a woman, you possibly have that double edged sword to be a little more understanding, and you know that you can multi task - women are very good at that, and at putting on that face and getting out and saying, I can take on the world today.
“It’s just about believing in yourself, and hard work. Success is not going to happen without it, and you have to love what you do because if you don’t, it’s going to be a struggle, so you have to wake up every day and think, I’m the luckiest person in the world to be able to go and do my job today.
“And have people around you that make you feel good about yourself, judge your friends, judge your company. If you are in the situation where you have to employ people, employ good people. And marry a good man!” In terms of other women she finds inspirational to her, the only ‘celebrity’ type female she names is film star and humanitarian Angelina Jolie (“she is an amazing person”); to Avril, it’s the local ladies, the women who work hard within their own communities, who deserve recognition.
“For example, ladies like Arlene Foster, who work diligently, and have a family and are away from home,” she says.
“There are also women in the community who on a daily and weekly basis do work for charities. We have Girl Guides and Brownies, and those ladies come in and they take their roles as leaders so seriously, and do such a fantastic job. They take children off on camp, they don’t get any money for it. I just think those people are what communities are about, the bloodline of what good people are made of.”