Belfast briefing: taking on the banks on Great Victoria Street

Businessman Chris Donaldson’s ‘not for sale’ graffiti is symbolic of his bank loan battle

Ulster Bank could demand immediate payment if they ever believed the client was in breach of any loan conditions. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Ulster Bank could demand immediate payment if they ever believed the client was in breach of any loan conditions. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

 

Businessman Chris Donaldson may have no desire to take up a new career in the footsteps of English graffiti artist Banksy. But he hopes a one-off piece of graffiti on a window in a much contested property in Belfast city centre may attract as much attention to his struggle as any Bansky masterpiece.

Technically, Donaldson has not broken any laws by scrawling “Not For Sale” across the building on Great Victoria Street. That’s because he now owns it once again. But his graffiti moment could make him a hero to firms still trying to get out from under bank loans and regain control of their businesses. In just three words, it sums up his success in “taking on the banks”.

Four years ago Donaldson was working in his family’s business, specialising in property development.

His family has a long trading record in Belfast with its retail furniture business – Donaldson & Lyttle – established since 1918. Like many other family firms, Donaldson & Lyttle had branched into property development over the years and building up a small portfolio that included properties in England and Ireland.

Handing out money

Like countless others, to do this they decided to take out bank loans – back in the days when banks were happily and hurriedly handing out large sums of money to developers and speculators.

Donaldson, like them, had signed the small print that legally enabled the lender, in this case Ulster Bank, to demand immediate payment if they ever believed the client was in breach of any conditions – ie, if, for example, an overdraft was extended or if there issues with any of bank accounts, for instance if one went into the red.

Chris Donaldson never really believed this was a problem. As long as his business remained profitable, he was happy that the bank would be happy.

But one day in March 2013, Donaldson woke up to his worst case scenario Ulster Bank wanted its money back because of certain issues. He disagreed but the small print was on the bank’s side. Ulster Bank said he had a much shorter time to repay a loan – in the region of £2 million – than he had originally signed up to.

The bank’s view was that Donaldson had “breached his account facility” – his view was that he could transfer money from other accounts to resolve the issue and that the business “could trade out of any problem”.

Donaldson claimed Ulster Bank also told him the business was in financial difficulties; at the time it was making profits of £100,000 a year, he says.

Tried to negotiate

Both sides had their own perspective. He tried to negotiate with the bank but to no avail. Ultimately, Ulster Bank appointed receivers to Donaldson & Lyttle in May and June in 2013.

That, according to Donaldson, was really the start of his nightmare – one that may sound eerily familiar to many developers.

He woke up one day in June 2013 with no access to his business and no job. He had to sell his family home and left to set up a new business in Dubai in a bid to make a living.

But all the time Donaldson was determined that he would “not be beaten by a bank”.

“I wasn’t going to give up, I resolved to keep fighting, I launched legal challenges and I learned as much as I could about the legal system to represent myself and I also got fantastic advice and support from The Hub Ireland.

“I kept banging away at them – I stopped them selling the building on Great Victoria street and the short story is that, this January, we got it back. It’s ours, so when I saw the For Sale sign still there I just thought, no way, it is not for sale, not any more, so that’s why I got the paint out.

“My advice to anyone who finds themselves where I have been? Don’t give up – ever,” he says.

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