A long way from penniless grapples for Bill Cullen

Car dealer and former TV3 ‘Apprentice’ star has come full circle

Fri, Mar 28, 2014, 01:15

Old acquaintance
“Our target for the year is only 60 cars, so a bit more than one a week. I’d love to do two a week or three a week. What else can I do but sell cars?”

Cullen called on an old acquaintance, Robert “Pino” Harris. A part of the family-owned Harris motor group owns the Ssangyong franchise for Ireland.

There are parallels between Harris and Cullen. They’re the same age. Both came from modest backgrounds to become motor industry millionaires. But where Harris has always eschewed publicity, Cullen laps it up.

“It’s great to work with a man who I have known all my life, whose mother was a friend of my mother’s. I’m very happy to work with Ssangyong,” he said, not wanting to dwell too much on the relationship.

Of the 30 cars currently on the lot, 20 of them are high-quality used cars from a variety of manufacturers. The rest are brand new Ssangyongs.

The brand currently represents “about 20 per cent” of the business, Cullen says, although the objective is to get it up to 50 per cent by the end of the year.

“To get any of the other [better known] franchises would have been too difficult for us. There are too many specific criteria [for the showrooms]. To start off here, I’d have needed 12 to 14 people.”

Bill Cullen Premier Cars has only four staff. “Ssangyong are saying: look, we’re all only starting off here, so let’s keep the costs low so we can get off the ground.”

It seems an odd partnership, but Cullen and Ssangyong could work together. He gets a route back into business and the Korean brand, little-known in Ireland, gets guaranteed media exposure.

“I’m not looking beyond the next 12 months. I’d like to be able to say we helped get Ssangyong off the ground and helped move it forward.

“When I came in here I thought: ‘Here we have a brand that has been a poor performer’. But there’s new models coming in. I want to help get the brand a market share it can build on.”

Cullen wriggles a bit when asked how he finances the fleet.

“Harris are looking after us. The new cars are all financed by Harris. It’s like that for all of the big dealers like BMW, where the manufacturer will finance the new cars and you pay them when you sell it. You’d also get some finance for used cars. But you don’t get anything for used cars in a smaller operation.”

Dealing with the fallout
All Cullen’s boomtime debts were with foreign-owned banks: Rabobank, Danske Bank and Ulster Bank. “I’ll never cost Irish taxpayers a penny,” he smiles. The new business has a good relationship with “one of the local banks”.

“They are working with Harris as well, so we are quite happy. It is great to see one of the banks giving us support.” Cullen doesn’t name the institution, but Harris Commercial Vehicles, owner of the Ssangyong franchise, is with AIB.

Talk of banks drags the conversation back to his troubles. Cullen sets aside an hour each day to deal with the fallout, and forgets about it the rest of the time.

“I trusted my banks and they didn’t deserve it – they broke that trust,” he says. But wasn’t it just a case that that you owed them money and couldn’t pay it back?

“With the motor group, we had assets that cost us €80 million and we wrote that down to about €24 million. We still only owed about €11 million. But when you empty a dealership and take my name away from it, you reduce the value of everything.”

His mood darkens and he begins tapping the table.