I just ‘met’ the most interesting man. William Cullen is an Irishman, first and foremost, then businessman, car aficionado, reality tv star, hotelkeeper and writer, not necessarily in that order. Bill’s 2002 memoir of growing up in Dublin, It’s a Long Way from Penny Apples, gained bestseller status in Europe, though it’s lesser-known in the U.S..
Cullen grew up working at his mother’s and grandmother’s stands. He only went to school through age 13, then began working at an auto dealership. Eventually, he became manager. After years of working with other dealers in the region, he purchased Renault from the Waterford Crystal group — for only 1 euro. But that price also came with a crippling 18-million euro debt. (The euro, by the way, is approx. $1.40 USD — more or less.)
After some difficult years, his Renault business, now known as the Glencullen Group, improved, and Cullen began expanding into other areas. He was heavily involved in raising money for various charitable causes, but never forgot his humble roots.
A sequel, Golden Apples: Six Simple Steps to Success (for which he won a Guinness World’s Record for signing 1849 copies in 10 1/2 hours), gives some of Cullen’s favorite maxims, including:
Sleep less. (He argues for 4-5 hours a night.)
Eat healthy. (The Cullens’ diet of mostly vegetables and fruit, augmented by a little fish, rarely other meat, was poverty-based, but kept the family well, Bill says.)
Exercise every day. (Walking, strength training, etc.)
Maintain a positive –and professional –attitude. (‘If your customer doesn’t have a smile, give him one of yours,’ Bill’s grandmother was fond of saying.)
1. Being poor is nothing to be ashamed of. Cullen’s father, Billy (or “The Da”) spent years in the military, and was one of the street wardens during WWII. Billy was strong, had a reputation for honesty and was a ‘Pioneer,’ or teetotaller. However, he had difficulty finding steady work that paid well, forcing Bill’s mother, Mary Darcy (“The Ma”), and her mother, Molly, to help out by selling fruits, vegetables and occasional fish on street markets.
2. Being slovenly, lazy and drunk is. Both Billy’s and Mary’s families drank; some were alcoholics. The Cullens lived in slum tenements for years, with smelly hallways and molding walls. It took at least a decade before they were able to move to better housing, and longer than that before Mary and Billy could afford their own house. Nonetheless, Mary scrubbed and cleaned regularly, and the family washed every day. (Contrast this with the alcoholic squalor Frank McCourt talks about in his Liverpool memoir, Angela’s Ashes.)
3. Families do best when they work together. Bill (known as ‘Liam’ when younger) was the fifth of fourteen children. Not only did he help his mother and grandmother sell fruit at their stands, but he acted as a messenger to buy and restock inventory, as well as expand into other areas. He also started several new businesses to make a pound or two, including buying clearance dolls and revamping them to look like Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, or Marilyn Monroe. (They sold like crazy.)
While Molly was working, her daughters cooked supper and watched the younger children — or helped out at the stands, as well. Billy would also help out when needed. And everyone took an active part during the Christmas season, when Molly and Mary added more stands to sell gifts and Christmas decorations to customers near the bus stations.