Hilary Pratt of Avoca Talks Business

HILARY PRATT, the heart, soul and matriarch of Avoca, on the sale of one of Ireland’s MOST ENDURING family businesses

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The moment that the animal spirit leapt in the bosom of the creator of Avoca is decidedly at odds with its image. “It was 1974 and Donald was closing a sale. He looked up and the other solicitor was asleep, drooling. Right there he decided he was not going to end up like that.” Hilary and Donald Pratt wasted no time. The teacher and her solicitor husband threw it all in and bought Avoca Handweavers. The rest is history.

Hilary Pratt, mother of all the Avocas, tells it as she tells everything: straight up, but with more than a bit of mischief. “Many of my friends are academics and I tell them that for me the most exciting thing in the world is trading. They think I’m talking about stocks and shares.” She’s talking of course about something far more fundamental: making and selling, the lifeblood of a country. “Donald’s great idea was that if you could sell the things you made, you would have a double whammy.”

To some, Avoca is an Irish Arcadian dream, a John Hinde picture postcard world of primary coloured tweeds and Irish cottages. To others it is The Good Life incarnate – gourmet food and boho style. The reason is simple. There were, and are, two Avocas, reflecting precisely two generations of Pratts. First came the pioneers. “A client of Donald’s was selling the mill. Donald thought it a shame to let it go. Luckily we were young, in our thirties, with five children. We had to do everything ourselves. Donald kept a few clients and against my feminist principles I typed for him at night. We had never thought about craft and colour, but we were totally hands on. We did all our own selling which was vital. We discovered what people liked.”

There was no plan. The plan was if somebody came with an order we just did it. We cut up our rugs, added hoods for capes and sleeves for jackets and put a zip up the front. Two out of each rug. A tailor from Bray did it all on a Sunday.

In short, they got to know their market – a tourist one. She name-checks all the state agencies which helped. But all the help in the world would be as nothing if she and Donald had not had a genius for improvisation. “There was no plan. The plan was if somebody came with an order we just did it. We cut up our rugs, added hoods for capes and sleeves for jackets and put a zip up the front. Two out of each rug. A tailor from Bray did it all on a Sunday.”  Irish Americans adored them. The Avoca map became an Irish Silk Road: Connemara, Chesapeake Bay, Bath, Belfast, Bunratty, Dublin, Vancouver and finally Kilmacanogue, the jewel in the crown. Kilmacanogue was Donald’s find. Intrigued by a hidden grove of beautiful trees, covered with brambles (and preservation orders) he came across the Jameson estate. Naturally, they bought it.

“That was 1986, when the children came on board. Amanda came first. She wanted her own fashion business, nothing to do with tweedy clothes. We didn’t know it, but Simon and Amanda had made a pact to change the shops. Simon’s the foodie and he started that. They were hard workers and with Ireland getting more prosperous, they brought it into the modern world.” Thus began the glorious second generation: with a plan. Of course it wasn’t all family. “Most of our managers in Avoca are women. In the early days, women who had never worked applied for jobs. In a few weeks they changed. Nothing like work and a pay packet to give you self-esteem.”

I was PRO. I’d bring the children into town in the Renault 4, tell Amanda to mind them and run in to The Irish Times, The Irish Press and The Independent with my press statements.

Pratt’s feminism is the subtext of all her conversation. The Women’s Political Association in the 1970s was “the most exciting time” in her life. The WPA lacked the headline-grabbing power of the mediacentric Contraceptive Train group but they were equally serious. They were middle class agitators: Pratt, Mary Henry, Gemma Hussey and the late Nuala Fennell got things done. “I was PRO. I’d bring the children into town in the Renault 4, tell Amanda to mind them and run in to The Irish Times, The Irish Press and The Independent with my press statements.”

Forgotten are all preconceived ideas of a formidable matriarch who created a business as iconic as Ryanair. Enthusiastic and expressive, Pratt’s emotions are close to the surface and her eyes cloud over when I mention the sale of Avoca. Amanda has left and Simon is on the record saying he does not want a third generation wrangling. Hilary Pratt is unflinching. “The mistake we made was not bringing outsiders onto the board when the children joined.” She speaks about the enormous burden on Simon as managing director. The inference is, things would have been easier.

Whether Hilary Pratt and her family transcend the conventional wisdom about family businesses seems immaterial. “We’ll do something else,” she says simply. And if a distaste for drooling solicitors could spawn something so emblematic of everything good about Ireland, I can’t wait. 

This article appeared in our September issue, for more features like this, don’t miss our October issue, out Thursday October 1.

Anne Harris

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