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'I set up the first Irish bar in Jakarta. It took 18 months just to get Guinness on tap'

This former IT worker and salesman wound up as a pub owner in Asia.

Fora Staff

I’VE ALWAYS IMAGINED I would work for myself. But even when the recession hit, I couldn’t have guessed I would end up running the first Irish bar in Jakarta.

When I finished school, I wound up in Dundalk studying software development even though I wasn’t very interested in IT. I don’t know if I made the right choice, but I stuck at it.

My first job after college was in University College Dublin as a computer assistant, and after four months I was hired by RHM Foods as a computer technician.

In that job I became good friends with a girl from Australia and she told me there was much more work where she was from – so I decided I should try down there.

She introduced me to a couple of her friends and I spent three months in Sydney and then a year in Melbourne, which is where the Indonesian connection comes in.

While I was living in Melbourne, I met my wife Irene. She’s from Indonesia but had been in Australia for four years studying business in college.

We just met in a bar, as you do. She had no idea where Ireland was, and I had no idea where Indonesia was. Two years later we were married.

IMG-20170509-WA0002 Killian Murphy Source: Killian Murphy

Coming home

In April 2003 we got married and both myself and Irene moved to Ireland. She quickly got a job working for Ulster Bank, but there weren’t many jobs for myself in IT as things had quietened down.

It felt like there was a mini-recession going on, so I got into sales with a company called Calyx and worked in various sales roles over the next few years before the economic downturn hit.

Around the time the recession came in 2008, my wife lost her mother, which made her feel a little homesick. She wanted to go back home for a while, and that’s what got us thinking about a possible move.

So, in 2009 we decided that since the Irish economy was on its knees we may as well give Indonesia a shot. We really had no idea what we wanted to do – there was no master plan at all.

Irene went over first in 2009, bringing our kids with her, and then I followed her over about three or four months later.

When she first went over, I started researching what I was going to do in Indonesia and talked to a few Irish guys already over there, which is where the Irish pub idea came from.

One of them worked for Diageo, and he told me that there weren’t any Irish bars in the country. He also told me that his friend, who lived in Singapore, would be interested in opening an Irish bar in Jakarta with the right partner.

So I met the friend, Gareth, who was working for an investment bank, and we decided to give it a shot.

Quick turnaround

I met with designers over there and in June 2010 Murphy’s Irish Pub and Restaurant opened its doors – only four months after we started planning.

It was the first Irish bar in the city and we built it all from scratch in an old furniture store. It was a very run-down building and we had people working 24/7 on it, with one crew for the daytime and another for the night.

The first thing we tried to do was get draught Guinness in. They had Guinness in bottles over there – and it’s very popular – but nothing on tap.

It took us about 18 months to get Guinness into the bar, but we got Kilkenny on tap first. That was a big thing for us – to get a proper Irish drink – because up until then we just had the same drinks as everyone else.

Four years after we launched the pub, the Irish embassy in Jakarta opened. When we arrived back in 2010, the city only had a consulate.

So where there once was no Irish embassy, no Kilkenny, no Guinness, within a short period everything had changed. We even put together a band that played Irish music and it’s still going today.

By 2013, business was going quite well at Murphy’s, and we were employing about 40 to 50 people. So we opened another Irish bar called Molly Malone’s Irish Pub in a different part of Jakarta.

Both bars are still open today, employing over 100 staff between the two, and since then another Irish bar chain called McGettigan’s opened its own place in the city as well.

Capture1111 Irene and Killian Murphy Source: Killian Murphy

Big jump to Asia

When we decided to move, I wasn’t too worried about going over to try to set up a business in Indonesia. I had travelled on my own to work in America and Australia before, so it wasn’t daunting.

I suppose we had young kids going over there, but we were confident we could succeed and it just happened that the Irish bar opportunity came up.

The bar didn’t just happen though – there were a lot of stumbling blocks. In Ireland, I feel you can set up a business quite quickly if you fill in the paperwork, but over there it’s a lot about who you know.

In Indonesia, you can’t just go to an office and say, “I want to set up a company, what do I need to do?” You need to have certain people on board.

In the alcohol business it’s even tougher. In Indonesia, you have strict times around the holy weeks of Ramadan to deal with. You need to serve all alcohol in cups and mugs because you can’t show drink in a glass, you have to pull down your blinds and cover of all signage for alcohol.

Half of your business just disappears because Indonesians don’t go out as much.

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Doing things differently

If we were to do things differently, we probably wouldn’t spend as much money on the first bar. We really made it look like an Irish bar, but we probably could have saved a little bit of money on that and put it into something else.

Looking back, we may have been better going with a modern Irish bar. Murphy’s is an old traditional bar and it looks fantastic, but the locals want something that’s a bit more modern than the ex-pats, who want a traditional concept.

I have a new-found respect for bar owners now because I see how it’s a tough job. In the first year or two I was there all the time, maybe 12 to 14 hours a day, each day of the week.

It was a big challenge for me because I’m not the most open type of character, but I had to be like that to make these bars successful. I had to talk to everybody, get around to all customers and listen to their stories and have the craic.

Over the six years we learned an enormous amount, about customer service, running events, dealing with people and about ourselves.

Capture11111 Source: Murphy's Irish Pub and Restaurant

Happy to be home

It was a fantastic experience with the bar, but we eventually decided to move back to Ireland – primarily for our kids’ education.

I’m back in IT now and was lucky to get in with an ex-boss to run the Dublin office for an IT firm called Invistech, which offers tech support and telephony solutions for SMEs.

We only sold our shares in the pubs recently, so it’s nice to have it off our shoulders. I do miss the friendships and meeting to people from all over the world at the different events we would hold, but I don’t miss the hard work or the hours we had to put in.

People think running a bar is great because you can have a few drinks now and again and chat to people, but there is a lot more to it than that.

It’s tough on the liver, and you have to be switched on all the time. If you’re in a bad mood people will pick up on it straight away. Those six years happened very quickly and I wouldn’t change them – we had a ball but it was time for a change.

Killian Murphy is the co-founder of Murphy’s Irish Pub and Restaurant – Jakarta and business development manager at Invistech. This article was written in conversation with Killian Woods as part of a series on unlikely entrepreneurs.

If you want to share your opinion, advice or story, email opinion@fora.ie.

Written by Killian Murphy and posted on Fora.ie

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