‘Buy & Sell’ the latest acquisition in Denis O’Brien’s spending spree

Billionaire businessman has recently added Beacon Hospital, Topaz Energy, and others, to his portfolio

Billionaire businessman Denis O'Brien has recently added the Beacon Hospital, Topaz Energy and others, to his portfolio. Colm Keena takes a look at the steady stream of Irish acquisitions by the businessman over recent years. Video: Darragh Bambrick

Fri, Jun 13, 2014, 06:52

The victory by Denis O’Brien’s Communicorp Group in last week’s bidding process for the Buy & Sell title and website was the latest in what has been a steady stream of Irish acquisitions by the billionaire businessman over recent years.

Communicorp subsidiary Dermica Ltd, in a process overseen by the Supreme Court, submitted a significantly higher bid than Midland Web Printing Ltd, which had at one stage believed its bid had been accepted as part of an earlier process overseen by the High Court. The price paid by Dermica for Buzreel Ltd, in liquidation, was not disclosed, but is believed to have been in excess of €300,000.

Last month, it was disclosed that O’Brien had taken control of the Beacon Private Hospital in Sandyford, Dublin, at a reported cost of €35 million. The American private hospital operator, University of Pittsburgh Medical Central (UPMC), had put tens of millions of euro into the venture over the previous decade but had been unable to successfully restructure bank debt of about €100 million owed to Ulster Bank.

UPMC, in a statement, said a generous offer had been made but the bank had opted to sell the debt to O’Brien. “The new debt owner will not restructure the debt and clearly indicated his intent to own, control and manage the Beacon Hospital,” it said. It said it was selling its ownership for a nominal value, and was relinquishing all management responsibilities. The hospital has 600 employees and 200 consultants. Accounts for hospital operating company UPM C Beacon Sandyford Ltd, filed this week, show it incurred a loss in the year to the end of June 2013 of €8.7 million and had a net liability position then of €65.8 million. (These accounts pre-date the purchase of the debt at a discount.)

O’Brien’s purchase of the debt led to UPMC’s managerial role being replaced by the Beacon Medical Group, with Michael Cullen, chief executive and co-founder of the group, being named chief executive of the hospital. Cullen is a long-standing friend of O’Brien’s, and of the long-time business associate of O’Brien’s, Lucy Gaffney.

Earlier this year, O’Brien, who had already been a minority shareholder in the business, took over Topaz Energy Group in a deal that again involved the writing down of bank debt.

O’Brien took a controlling interest after he bought about €304 million of the group’s loans from the State-owned Irish Bank Resolution Corporation (IBRC), in liquidation,for a reported €150 million.

The fuel retailer and distributor recorded an 8 per cent rise in revenues to more than €3.17 billion in the 12 months to the end of March last year, and made a small operating profit of €296,000. However, its interest bill on its debt pushed it into the red, with a loss after tax of more than €13 million. Topaz operates about 330 petrol stations across the State and accounts for about a quarter of the market.

The group had a turnover in excess of €3 billion in the year to end March 2013, when it reported a pre-tax loss of €12 million. The group had more than 40,000 employees that year.