Follow the Leader - Sue O'Neill of Shellcove


In the latest of our series of interviews with business leaders about their journey so far and plans for future success, we speak to Sue O’Neill, managing director of association management company Shellcove.

Founded by Sue O’Neill in 2004, Shellcove provides management and specialised services to not-for-profit trade associations, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and professional organisations. Clients include the Irish Tyre Industry Association, Vintners Federation of Ireland and the Irish Medtech Association.

What is Shellcove’s elevator pitch?

“An association management company (AMC) is an American concept, where we offer bespoke management and marketing services for associations and organisations so they can focus more intently on their core business. The work we do for clients can include membership development plans, subscriptions/renewals, marketing, public relations and communications, such as developing websites or distributing press releases and event management. We also offer board support services, and finance, including budget development, and office and administration.

“In addition, we also work with SMEs to build their brand, profile and winning them new business. By using an AMC, organisations can lower overhead costs, free up resources and employee time, boost revenues through new membership and gain economies of scale through shared knowledge, technologies and networks.”

What was the key motivation and raison d’être behind your business?

“I set up my own creative agency, Generation, in 1993, offering advertising (including print), design (including graphic design) and marketing services to a broad spectrum of clients.

“During that time, I worked with a US-based AMC on a project involving an American medical association hosting their first-ever conference in Ireland. In fact, it was their first one ever outside of the States and I was their main Irish contact. I was fascinated by it, using my skills and network to make the three-day event with hundreds of delegates a success. I picked the brains of the management of the AMC and it sparked something within me.

“I sold Generation in 2003, regrouped and was looking for a new direction. I believed that there was an untapped market in Ireland for an AMC. Many associations and organisations face a struggle in remaining relevant to their members and growing numbers. They need new initiatives and sometimes they don’t have the skills or resources to do that.”


“Success is when I see a business we have helped grow their membership numbers or achieve their goals and targets”


Sue O’Neill, managing director, Shellcove

“We can help do this for them. One example is creating the National Irish Pub Awards for the Vintners Federation of Ireland and the Licensed Vintners Association. We wanted to raise the profile of the Irish pub and keep it relevant to customers and the industry with awards for the best music, tourist or innovative pub.”

Looking back now at the early stages of your business, would you do anything differently in terms of leadership?

“With the benefit of hindsight, I would have wanted to focus on developing our long-term strategy a bit more – our vision for growth.

“But it’s not easy when you start a business because you are so involved in the day-to-day running of it. You don’t have the time to think about anything in the future, you can only concentrate on the nine-to-five. Well, not the nine-to-five, as it was always much more than that!

“If I was doing it again, I would have engaged a mentor earlier that I could talk to. Someone outside the business, such as an individual you know well or have worked with before. They could be the ones to say to you: ‘You need to think about clients and growth or you haven’t given enough consideration to this part of the business.’ In short, someone who is a pain in the backside but is helpful!”

What keeps you engaged and motivated to drive the business on?

“It’s simply a love of what I do and a love of small businesses. I also love being in control of my own destiny, so I want to keep this business being successful. I come from a business background – my family had an advertising firm – it is in my blood.”

What does achievement and success look like for Shellcove?

“Success is when I see a business we have helped grow their membership numbers or achieve their goals and targets.”

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?

“I actually keep helpful pieces of advice, thoughts and quotes in an old notebook. It is nice whenever I am flagging a little to take it out and remind myself. The first one is from my dad, who once said to me: ‘Be at your desk first, always open the post and there will never be any surprises.’ I think he was telling me that if I got to work early enough and was ahead of the game then nobody would ever catch me out.

“The second is from the American author Mark Twain, who once wrote: ‘The secret of getting ahead is getting started.’ The third is one that I wrote myself: ‘You will not get any clients if you sit behind your desk; you have to be out and about.’”

What has been your proudest moment with Shellcove to date?

“When I was able to recruit my first employee. Then I really felt like I was contributing to someone’s life, society and the economy.

“Outside of the business I am really proud to be the chair of the Small Firms Association. I chair the board, help run events and lobby on certain issues to government and the media.”

Your approach as a leader is best described in which three words?

“Accessible, inclusive and empowering. It’s important to build a culture that is engaged.”

How are you preparing and planning for Brexit in your business?

“There is no point in looking at it negatively. In contrast, we see it as an opportunity. Multinational firms could be looking to relocate to Ireland and we can help manage field trips or events on the ground that they need to establish themselves and their services. Small companies coming to us from the UK might also be looking to have a base here and we can help with management and office services.”

Parting shot: what’s next for Shellcove?

“I would like to look further afield at new markets, such as the UK. We need to improve our online offering to help with our marketing if we want to do that. Also, I want to look at increasing our team numbers. We have a little bit of a constraint on our capacity at the moment. It would be nice to find another me! Then I could focus more on strategic thinking.”


Comments 1

Tara De Buitlear on Wednesday, 23 May 2018 16:43

Great to hear Sue's story... looking forward to hearing more from Sue at the SFA conference tomorrow -

Great to hear Sue's story... looking forward to hearing more from Sue at the SFA conference tomorrow -
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