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.
4. Diversify and innovate. Take rugby matches. While Liam enjoyed and played rugby himself, local matches were far too important a moneymaking opportunity to waste attending. Instead, Liam bought and sold tickets (when he could get them); programs; paper flowers in team colors (with photos of the major players pasted on top, courtesy of yesterday’s newspapers — yes, he sold those, too); apples and other fruit. He found a wall that overlooked the stadium, bought a ladder and sold places on top until the attendant confiscated it. (He figured the cost of the ladder into the ‘admissions’ he charged — or how much he had to pay the attendant to look the other way.)
Cullen also sold empty wooden fruit boxes to bystanders for a look at the game — when they got excited during key moments and broke the box, he sold them another box — then salvaged the broken bits and marketed them later as kindling. Each of his sales didn’t amount to much. But together, they brought in serious money.
5. Nothing stays the same. Cullen was said to have made millions when Renault took over his interest in the Glencullen Group in 2007. He also hosted four seasons of the European version of The Apprentice. He had other awards and honors given to him, including Irish Motor Industry Person of the Year (2000). He was also awarded a doctorate.
Much of that has changed.
The Apprentice was cancelled in 2012. (Reportedly, it cost too much to produce.) That same year, his darling, his motor-trade business, went into receivership. (Cullen, of course, lost control of his Renault connections when his interest was purchased by Renault.)
Bits and pieces of his auto-trade business were auctioned off to try to recover some of the debts incurred. Cullen blames his auto dealerships’ woes on Ireland’s poor economy. (It says a lot that Cullen was one of the biggest creditors. Needless to say, he and the others didn’t recover much.) And the hotel he unveiled with such fanfare is losing money – big-time.
Cullen is still heavily involved with philanthropic efforts. He’s also reportedly sinking his money (plenty is still left) into Irish athletics and politics. It will be interesting to see where this multi-faceted man ends up next.