The winners and losers of 2012
It was the year when things got really tough for some of the biggest names in Irish business
The record will show that it was the sixth year of the crisis when things started getting really glum in certain moribund corners of the Irish business world. Nama was the new normal, boom-exploiters could be heard opining that business people had become “an endangered species”, and there was always some Forbes-listed upstart somewhere making everyone else look bad with their entrepreneurial ways.
Winning, losing, it was all relative. There was always someone better off, and millions worse off. But Business This Year tradition dictates that we begin with the losers, and finish on as much of an upbeat, congratulatory note as we can muster.
In the race to fall from the grace of their creditors, there were, amazingly, still those who had yet to cross the finishing line as calendars flicked onto January – 2012 was the year in which another batch of borrowers would be pushed over it.
Some of the losers...
It was a tale of two swimming pools for property investors Brian and Mary Patricia O’Donnell. There was a pool in the Westminster premises that they rented and their children owned, and a pool in their Gorse Hill, Killiney mansion. Which one did they swim in most? The couple spent much of the year arguing that their Anglophilia ran deep enough for them to qualify for bankruptcy in merry old England, where the laws are more lenient on that kind of thing.
They had hung out in the UK many, many times over the last seven years, they insisted, after Bank of Ireland successfully challenged their bid to become British bankrupts. After all, it was so much more pleasant than what Dr O’Donnell dubbed the “bankocracy” of Ireland, where “business people are an endangered species” and where she was understandably keen not to live. “Mansion is pejorative” anyway, as Mr O’Donnell told Bank of Ireland’s barrister. In short, London ruled.
But over at the Treasury Building on Dublin’s Grand Canal Street, Nama had bigger, hairier targets in mind: Johnny Ronan and Richard Barrett, the co-founders of the company that built the premises now rented by the State assets agency.
In November, it emerged that Ronan had asked Rowan Gillespie, the artist who designed the sculpted figure of a naked woman on the wall of the building, to give it a sex-change because, Gillespie claimed, “there was no way he wanted a naked man climbing up the wall to his window”.
It was an understandable viewpoint. But Aspiration, as the sculpture was officially titled, waned round Treasury’s way as the year’s bitter litigation progressed. Ronan and Barrett clung on to bricks-and-mortar, much like the good lady Aspiration herself. Their grasp loosened in October, as KBC Bank Ireland’s winding-up petition for Treasury Holdings, supported by Nama, went through unopposed. They did not attend court that day.
There was surprisingly little theatre, too, at the day of reckoning for Bill Cullen. In November, the one-time star of Monday night TV became the main protagonist of a Monday session of the Commercial Court. The car-dealer consented to an €8.2 million judgment against him after a spot of loan restructuring with Danske Bank didn’t quite work out.
Cullen’s dealership, Glencullen Holdings, had been put off the road a month earlier after 55 years in the motor trade. In a statement issued on his behalf, Ulster Bank’s appointment of receivers to the company was described as a “sad occasion” for the veteran businessman.
A decline in car sales had been partly to blame for Cullen’s demise. He wasn’t the only one in the domestic consumer-facing economy to find that consumers in 2012 still had their backs firmly turned.
The Guiney family
For the Guiney family, the economic malaise brought about the end of its 71-year ownership with Clerys. Kerryman Denis Guiney had bought the O’Connell Street department store out of receivership in 1941 and made a success of it, despite the challenge of 1950s austerity, by pulling in the country cousins.
But not even its embrace of the modern retail fad for Ye Olden Sweet Shoppes could keep its turnover from shrinking like hard candy. It fell back into receivership in September, with Boston-based restructuring specialists Gordon Brothers taking over at the tills.
For the company’s shareholders – relatives of Guiney, who died in 1967, and his widow Mary, who died in 2004 – it was closing time, while chief executive PJ Timmins found the exit six weeks later. Entrepreneur John Teeling, who had tried to buy the business from Mary Guiney in 1996, intriguingly revealed his plans for Clerys had included a nightclub on the third floor. But this department-store disco never came to be.
Back in Namaville, the September shop talk revolved around 29 emails containing “highly confidential and commercially sensitive information”, including, it was claimed, a master spreadsheet of all loans acquired by Nama and all properties acquired as security for the debts, specific asset disposal strategies for certain debtors and other data – all the good stuff, essentially.