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

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

Fri, Jun 27, 2014, 01:10

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.)