Loving the challenge of a new Discovery

May 20th, 2015 12:32 PM

By Siobhan Cronin

Dee Forbes has resigned as RTE director general.

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She cut her business 'teeth' in the family pub in Drimoleague, and today Dee Forbes runs a massive TV network of 27 channels with 276m viewers. But every Friday she comes home to get her 'fix' of West Cork, she tells Siobhán Cronin

PULLING pints in a pub in Drimoleague might not seem like the best training for running a major network of 27 TV channels, with 276m viewers.

But Dee Forbes says her West Cork upbringing is what made her the successful businesswoman she is today. Now running an arm of the company that operates in 220 countries, and five regions, she is based in London, but divides her work time between there, Helsinki and Copenhagen.

Running the family pub gave her a great grounding in hard work and in dealing with people, she said, speaking in Cork recently.

Dee was a guest of a Network Cork event – a group representing the female businesswomen of the county.

The very unassuming blonde, who appears to live by the ethos of ‘work hard, play hard’, revealed that she commutes from her London office to her home in Glandore every week.

‘That Friday evening Aer Lingus flight to Cork Airport means I can be home in time for dinner, and West Cork helps me recharge my batteries every week,’ she told The Southern Star.

Dee and her partner’s seaside home is just a half hour’s drive from where she got her first taste of running a business.

She helped her mum run the family’s East End Bar, while her father taught at Ardscoil Phobail in Bantry.

The current head of Discovery Channel’s Northern European arm said she could even recall ‘standing on crates and washing glasses’, when she was about six years old.

Her siblings, Aideen and Eamonn, are both still in Ireland, but they all remain close.

In fact, a very proud Aideen was at the Network Cork event to watch her sister address a ‘home’ audience for the very first time.

Dee’s Cork education spanned secondary in the convent in Clonakilty, and later a degree in History and Politics at UCD, working the summers at home in the pub.

Soon after leaving college in Dublin, she got a job in advertising in the UK.

One of her first jobs in London was a media planner and buyer for an ad agency with big name clients which included Robert Maxwell.

‘It was a great start to my life in London, as a lot of my class had left at the same time, so we had a great network.’ While they all worked pretty hard, they also had a great social life. ‘It was all very Mad Men,’ she recalled.

She also worked for Turner Broadcasting and struck up a great relationship with its founder, billionaire Ted Turner. ‘He is probably one of the most charismatic and influential people in my life.’

She remembered that when she went for the first job, and they asked her about her experience in selling advertising, she replied: ‘Well, I’ve sold a lot of pints over a counter in West Cork!’

With Turner, she sold advertising for the Cartoon Network. ‘All my friends’ kids believed Scooby Doo sat under my desk,’ she grinned.

After a successful time there, she was, in 2010, head-hunted by the Discovery Channel to run its UK and Ireland arm.

In both Discovery and Turner, Dee worked under some very impressive mentors. ‘But, really, the mentoring started much closer to home,’ she told the Cork Network audience. ‘I came from a family of very proud women,’ she said, referring to her mum who ran the family pub, and her grand-aunts and aunts who all had a very strong work ethic.

‘In my early days, mentoring wasn’t formal – but my female boss in Turner championed me, and when I was head-hunted by Discovery, she was the first person I spoke to.’

Since then, Dee has introduced a formal mentoring system at Discovery, and now mentors employees herself – as part of a scheme she recommended Cork businesses should consider, to encourage staff and develop their confidence.

One of her first mentors gave her a sage piece of advice in 1989 when he told her: ‘The future is not in advertising, it’s in media.’

‘I took a leap of faith, and that is where my adventures began,’ she said.

Today she works for a major organisation which has so much more than just the Discovery Channel on its books – it also owns Eurosport, Quest, TLC, Animal Planet, and many more.

When she was later promoted to running the European arm of the business, Dee said there was a lot of re-working of key personnel, and she didn’t flinch from the challenge.

‘When I was building the team at Discovery it was a case of “if you are not in for the ride, then you are in the wrong part of the company”,’ she said, adding that you have to be able to ‘trust’ in your staff in order to move forward.

‘The problem I found with middle management was that, with many, the engagement just wasn’t there. So I developed a programme called “Grow” to help to give people the tools to progress.’

The programme proved a major success: ‘Now a very big part of what I am doing is engaging, learning, and developing my team.’

‘We all see what happens when the world moves on and we remain static. Nobody wants to be another HMV or a Blockbuster.’

Dee was responsible for the risky strategy of letting her channels go free-to-air in countries like Italy, Spain and Germany, which had a poor pick-up for Pay TV.

‘We are now the third largest media channel in Italy,’ she said, proudly. ‘We became a force to be reckoned with. There have been lots of sleepless nights, but it’s been worth it.’

Last November, she was asked to take on the very diversified Scandanavian market – with keen competition among the mature TV markets of Sweden, Norway and Denmark.

‘It’s still early days in the Northern European story,’ she said.

‘My work ethic has always been “don’t stand still” but do enjoy it if your team has achieved something.’

The advent of Netflix, multiple viewing platforms and the advance of technology all mean that TV is moving at a faster pace now, than ever before in its history.

‘It presents a huge challenge,’ she admitted.

In recent times, Dee says she has begun to ‘look outside the office’ in an effort to ‘give something back’.

She is a non-executive director of The Irish Times, and is also on the board of Munster Rugby (‘my first passion in life’). She also works with Childline UK, and last year she rowed the Ocean to City race in Cork with Discovery colleagues, in aid of the charity, raising €45,000.

Through it all, she is determined to maintain a work/life balance: ‘I try to keep my weekends sacred,’ Dee explained, adding that her team have an informal rule that no emails or texts should be sent at weekends – if something is urgent, they make a phone call.

Speaking exclusively to The Southern Star after the lunch, Dee explained how her home in Glandore is her ‘fix’.

‘We bought it about 15 years ago, and we thought we might let it out and make some money from it, but the house was such a pull, we came back to it.’

Her home life is very removed from the Monday-Friday of her Discovery life.

‘My London life is so crazy. I could be in two or three countries in a week, but I couldn’t do a job I didn’t like. And no two days are the same.’

Dee says her TV show ‘fixes’ are generally confined to late night viewing – she only needs five or six hours’ sleep – or on flights, where she watches box sets of the Nordic noir series, along with Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul (‘It’s not as good as Breaking Bad’), Bloodline, Scandal and Suits.

Her own viewing habits are indicative of the changing TV landscape.

‘You have to be able to give people what they want, when they want it. TV is undergoing the most significant change ever. But I guess nobody has the answer yet. We are all just experimenting.’

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