Luck, timing and a few master strokes key to Comer brothers’ success
With assets worth €2 billion, the Comer brothers have come a long way since leaving school in their early teens to work as plasterers
Brian Comer: Operates on a deceptively simple rule of thumb that if something is for sale in a top city at significantly less than it cost to build, it’s a deal. Photograp: Ken Lennox
Luck and timing count for a lot in the property business as Brian Comer knows only too well. In 1992, whilst driving to work with his older brother Luke he was involved in car crash that left him in coma for 17 days and paralysed down one side for six months. This simple act of fate – or bad timing – changed everything for the two brothers from Glenamaddy.
“I never worked on the building sites again after that. I suppose in one way it was a blessing in disguise because I think, my brother and I, we started using our heads more than our muscle. And we discovered we had some brains,” he explains, over a coffee in the unlikely surrounds of the Fairmont Olympic hotel in Seattle.
Up until the crash, the Comer brothers’ story was a familiar enough one of hard-working Irish men making good in the building business in the UK. They had left school in their early teens to become apprentice plasterers and went out on their own in 1978. In order to get work they had to undercut their established competitors and this required both brothers to be hands on – a pattern than only changed after Brian’s accident. The staff was the two of them and one employee, a labourer called Tom Donnellan, who is still with the business all these years later as a project manager.
They worked hard, plastering up to two flats a day, when a regular gang might take a week to do one flat. By 1981 they had enough money to try their hand at building and bought a site for 50 houses in Kinsealy in north Dublin .
“The first 25 of them we sold at, I think, around £33,000 each. We held back 25 because we thought we would get more money for them ... the most we got was £23,000, £24,000. Break even was just about £24,000. Well, it didn’t take any genius know that wasn’t a success,” he says ruefully.
The brothers didn’t lose money but their enthusiasm for risk-taking was tempered and they decided to stick to what they knew: plastering. “We went over to England to plaster one job and I am still there 31 years later.”
They did not give up on their development ambitions and eased back into it, doing joint ventures with several building companies before eventually starting to buy sites themselves.
The two brothers found themselves in a very good place come the UK property crash in the late 1980s. “We had very little borrowing and on the way out of the recession we purchased three or four very big sites for a fraction of what they were worth.”
One of them was the old hospital site in Ealing, west London. Along with Tom Donnellan and “a few labourers” they set about converting the old building into apartments and then one morning on the way to work they crashed the car.
Focus on selling
With a return to manual work ruled out Brian started to focus on selling, with dramatic results. “We started managing things totally right and when we finished the Ealing site we had a lot of profits,” he recalls.
More apartment developments followed, including the former Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum in Barnet which they bought in 1993. “We made massive profits on that,” he says. Things went from strength to strength but the focus was always on the future.
“We never took any money for any kind of luxuries like yachts, aeroplanes, or helicopters. We always invested the money back into new sites. Profits were reinvested into the business,” he explains. (They did make an unsuccessful £64 million bid for Aston Villa footbal club in 2005, however.)
The success of their London business enabled the brothers to pull off what in hindsight was their real master stroke. The timing of their exit from London and entry into Germany.
By 2005 it was clear to the two men that London was getting too expensive. “It [the market] had gone so high that any residential property was beyond the reach of the average person and any rational person would tell you that can’t continue,” says Brian.
An intermediary suggested they come and take a look at a property in Germany, an office block called Die Pyramide in Berlin.
“We went over to look at it and figured out the value was unbelievable. There was €170 million owed to the banks and it cost €198 million to build it.” They bought it for €3.5 million and that was the start of a German buying spree that saw the Comer’s spend €400 million in total, funded through the sale of London properties.
“Obviously everything we bought in Germany we didn’t work out well. But 90 per cent worked out well and some of them yielded 15-17 per cent. It was right place, right time. Banks had to get rid of stuff,” he says.
It was an amazing coup. All the more amazing given the two bothers knew very little about Germany. According to Brian, they applied a deceptively simple rule of thumb; if something is for sale in a top city at significantly less than it cost to build, it is a deal.
Germany to Ireland
Another “secret” is to “do things where there are people,” he adds. And the last piece of the jigsaw was the decision to manage their own properties, which they now do in the UK and Ireland as well.
“We started managing our own properties, so there wasn’t a penny wasted. If you have an office block half empty, unless you are doing your own management, it’s costing you a fortune,” he says.
Having timed the move from the UK to Germany to near perfection the Comer brothers look like they may have done the same thing again, this time shifting focus from Germany to Ireland.
Germany was starting to look expensive in 2007 and 2008 while value – in terms of price versus build cost – was to be had in Ireland, says Brian. “We figured out that Ireland was fundamentally a very good country and things were way below build cost and we thought things were such good value we had to buy them,” he explains.
Their first purchase – and one of the first post crash deals of scale – was the Sentinel building in Sandyford. “We got it for €850,000 which was for nothing. The planning permission would have cost more,” he says.
More Irish purchases followed and they have assembled a large Irish portfolio including the former Veterinary College site in Ballsbridge, bought for €22.5 million in June last year. It previously changed hands for €171.5 million. Prior to that they paid Nama €75 million for the Gemini portfolio which included 640 apartments in Dublin and Cork and the 48-bedroom Glashaus hotel in Tallaght. They also bought the Palmerstown House estate and golf course with 688 acres on the Dublin- Kildare border for about€8 million.
Always the same mantra applied. Buy below build cost and near people. “It doesn’t always work, but anything we bought in Ireland has nearly doubled in value already,” claims Brian.
They are still looking to buy in Ireland but find themselves being out bid a lot of the time. He sidesteps a question about a bubble forming in Irish property but makes the point that prices are near boom time levels is some areas.
It sounds like another exit and entry is on the cards.
Comer Group is a private company. Its assets are reported to be in the region of £2 billion. Brian is reluctant to talk about just how successful the business is in financial terms. But its clearly successful enough for it to be worth the two men’s while to move their places of residency to Monaco.
It may make sense from the point of view of tax but the Monte Carlo lifestyle has limited appeal for him, he says. “It’s grand for a short time. But it gets a bit much.”
He spends most of his time in the UK where has turned a nine-hole golf course in New Gate Street village in Hertfordhsire into his home. Most mornings he is in the London office at 6am or 7am. He looks after the business in the UK and Luke is responsible for Germany. Both are involved in any big deal.
Their children work in the business. Two of Brian’s daughters Caroline and Jessica look after sales and lettings in the UK, whilst two of Luke’s sons, Luke Jnr and Barry also work for the company. Barry looks after their Irish interests.
Luke spends more time in Monaco, but according to his brother is not overly enamoured by it either. “He is not the flamboyant type.”
They are still very much a team after all these years and are joint entrants in this year’s EY Entrepreneur of the Year programme which has brought Brian to Seattle for this year’s finalists retreat.
How would he describe his relationship with his brother over the past five decades? “We bounced off each other. He was good at certain things and I was good at certain thing s and we made a good team,” he says.
He struggles to explain the difference. “I think I have good people skills. Now, Luke’s not bad either. Luke is very good at spotting deals,” he responds before deflecting the question.
“Obviously, we were brilliant plasterers,” he says with a smile.
It’s a humorous nod to the root of their success and an acknowledgement of the importance of their fraternal bond.
“We could do everything ourselves.We opened a show flat within two weeks of starting on site in London once. We were working to two or three in the morning. If you were depending on someone else it probably would not have happened.”
CV: BRIAN COMER
Name: Brian Comer
Job: Chairman and founder along with his older brother Luke of the Comer Group, a UK based construction and development company with assets of €2 billion
Education: Left school in his teens to become an apprentice plasterer
Something you might expect: He is tax resident in Monaco and golf is his passion
Something that might surprise you: He played minor football for Galway and bought a nine-hole golf course in Hertfordshire that he turned into a family home