William Connolly with Kate and Jessica Harrington at the Redmills Race Day at Gowran Park
A fifth generation Connolly, William descended from his namesake William Connolly, who started the Connolly’s Red Mills business with his father Michael Connolly in Goresbridge in 1908.
After living in Australia for some time William now lives in Gowran with his wife Sinead and their children Abigail (5) and Jonathan (6).
Red Mills is renowned worldwide for their superior animal feeds which are sold in over 80 countries across the globe. Red Mills opened their flagship store at Cillin Hill in Kilkenny City in 2017, where William is at the helm as the Retail Store Manager. He leads a dynamic team in Cillin Hill, spanning five departments and a coffee shop, where you can buy everything from calf nuts to fashion clothing and riding helmets.
The annual Red Mills Race Day will be held at Gowran Park this weekend. In keeping with tradition, Red Mills are sponsoring the landmark racing day, as they have for the last 41 years.
There is a long-standing relationship between Red Mills and Gowran Park, not only through this sponsorship, but also because Joe Connolly has been the chairman of Gowran Park for the last 20 years.
A key milestones on the road to the Cheltenham Festival the feature races at Red Mills Day, the Grade 2 Red Mills Chase and the Grade 3 Red Mills Hurdle, have produced some historic winners down through the years including, Danoli, Un De Sceaux, Our Duke and many more.
This year’s event is sure to produce another fascinating line-up but, for the first time in history the days’ racing will be behind closed doors, with a virtual Best Dressed competition! The theme for this year’s event is appropriately called ‘outfits that we didn’t get to wear’.
I caught up with William ahead of the race day to chat about his family legacy and the current economic environment of the retail business.
Here is a glimpse into William’s world…
William, your grandmother Mrs Connolly sadly passed away four years ago. She was a great woman - a home economics teacher by profession, rearing nine children in the middle of a mill. She also fed and boarded a number of the working staff. Tell us more about her.
Granny was the kind of grandmother you wish every child could have. She would always have jobs for all the grandchildren when we visited her over the years.
Whether it was collecting the eggs, putting away the ironing or helping in the garden, there was always a job to keep us busy and we were only delighted to be involved. If you asked any of her 26 grandchildren, we all have very fond memories of our time with her.
Her home famously stood in centre of a mill, with workers starting machines around her at 6am and going all day and sometimes all night. However, one of her last wishes was that she would be the last resident of the property. The house is gone today, but I am sure the memories will last forever.
I have great memories of the house, whether it was dropping in for a ginger snap biscuit and diluted orange on a visit with my dad and brothers or spending summer holidays playing soccer or chase with my uncles and aunts.
Even though the house is no longer there, we will always remember the happy times we shared there.
You were named after the founder William Connolly - what do you know of him?
Michael Connolly returned to Ireland from America 1866 to inherit the bakery in Bagenalstown from his aunt who had lost her husband and 10 children.
With his son William Connolly they bought the old disused flour mill in 1908 and setup contracts with local farmers to grow wheat for bread. William ran the mill successfully until he passed it on to his son, my grandfather, Liam.
Liam was good friends with legendary racehorse trainer Paddy Mullins, who trained locally. One day Paddy mentioned to Liam that he had a good horse that wouldn’t eat, so Liam worked on a formulation and suggested that he could cook the food in the mill.
The horse not only ate the food, but went on to win 1966 Powers Gold Cup and the 1967 Irish Grand National. This concept has developed into the business we have today.
Your career in Red Mills was not just handed to you, you had to do your time on the mill floor too and work your way up. What’s it like working a big dynamic family business?
We all have to start somewhere and to get a good grounding in Red Mills, the mill floor is the best place.
I spent many summers as a teenager working with my older brother, Gareth, taking and testing grain samples for the harvest. That progressed onto nightshifts during college summer holidays running driers and driving machinery moving grain around the mill.
In 2001, I moved into the daily running of the factory, spending time in the weighbridge where everything gets weighed and checked before arriving in or going out of the mill. This was a great place to work as it was a hub of activity throughout the day, with customers and truck drivers passing through with stories from their day.
In late 2002, I moved down to the mill floor where my education began on running the Cubing Plant, the Flaking Mill, the Extruders and finally the Control Panel. All of these are involved in giving the finished products which are used all around Ireland and 80 other countries around the world.
I travelled to Australia for a time in 2005 but eventually returned to the business in 2009, joining the marketing team in building and maintaining the Red Mills websites.
I stepped into the Pet Marketing role in 2016 to further the vision Red Mills had for the pet food we manufacture in the mill in Gowran. With all this experience, the opportunity to manage the store in Cillin Hill was one that I could not turn down.
As with the other five members of the Connolly family currently working in Red Mills, we have all been involved in different facets of the business from a young age. We work well together and we have each other to rely on and drive the business forward with our dedicated employees.
Life as a retailer at the moment is not what you envisaged when you opened the doors to Red Mills flagship store in Cillin Hill. How do you intend to drive the retail business on in the current environment?
The store is open as an essential supplier for animal feed and we are very happy to supply our customers with our range of equestrian, ruminant, poultry and pet food. We also supply fuel for the fire and food for birds on these cold days.
We have an online store also with next day delivery and this is very busy in these uncertain times. When the first lockdown hit us in March last year we had to make changes to our day-to-day activities, but we have a good team in the store who stepped up to the task.
With Red Mills Day on the horizon, we would usually see race-goers coming into the store to try out our latest fashion for the big day.
We are delighted to be able to accommodate our customers by providing them with the option of buying our exclusive fashion and footwear, online or over the phone.
Your family has sponsored the Red Mills Race Day for the past 41 years, but this is a first for a virtual best dressed competition?
While the racing action is taking place behind closed doors this year, we are taking our Best Dressed event virtual and inviting everyone to get dolled up for a great cause – The Irish Injured Jockeys fund.
With six categories in total, including the coveted ‘Best Dressed Lady’, the theme for this year’s event is ‘Outfits that we didn’t get to wear’.
So, get out that dress that you planned for weddings, the suit you were going to wear to the races, get glammed up, snap yourself and enter to win some amazing prizes, with the top prize worth €1,000, including a two-night stay at the Fabulous Lyrath Estate, plus €300 to spend at the Red Mills Store!
It’s €5 per entry with all proceeds raised going to charity partner Irish Injured Jockeys. People can enter as many times as they like, in as many categories as they like – the more the merrier!
Entries close on Friday and from there it will be over to our guest judges, stylist Marietta Doran and Ella de Guzman of Siopaella to choose the lucky winners!
Entry for Red Mills Day virtual best dressed competition closes at 8pm on Friday. To submit your entry, click here