Businessman behind superpubs empire

Sat, Dec 1, 2012, 00:00

HUGH O’REGAN:Hugh O’Regan was one of the Celtic Tiger era’s ground-breaking business figures whose career matched the highs and lows of the country’s economic boom and bust.

The self-made Dublin entrepreneur is best known as a publican and hotelier and for changing the capital’s social and hospitality industry by building an empire of trendy superpubs through the 1990s, culminating in the chic Morrison Hotel on the city’s north quays.

Born on April 3rd, 1963, he was one of four sons and was four years old when his father died. He studied electronic engineering, economics and English, and law for brief intervals, and worked in AIB and Gunne’s estate agents before moving into the pub trade.

Following his mother’s death when he was 22, O’Regan and his brothers sold the family home, earning them €19,000 each. In 1988 he and his brother Declan bought their first pub, Flannery’s in Temple Bar as the Dublin city centre location was about to blossom into a cultural quarter ahead of its later incarnation as a tourist magnet.

O’Regan was instrumental in fighting to save the area from becoming a bus station and securing EU funding.

“Temple Bar happened because of him,” said O’Regan’s friend Brian McDonald, an architect who designed many of his bars. “Flannery’s was the heart of it; it gave it a pulse.”

O’Regan opened Thomas Read’s and took on The Crane and Hogans (which Declan now owns) in the early 1990s. In 1994 his sale of a €63,486 option over the Jameson Distillery in Smithfield, Dublin, for €2.5 million allowed him to grow his Thomas Read pub chain into one of Dublin’s biggest. He modernised the traditional Irish pub into bright cafe bars serving a range of good food.

“He could take a sow’s ear and turn it into a silk purse,” said his friend, music studio owner Paddy Dunning.

O’Regan later expanded his chain with the opening or revamping of Pravda, Life, the Budda Bar in Blanchardstown, Searson’s on Baggot Street, The Bailey off Grafton Street, Ron Black’s on Dawson Street, the 40 Foot restaurant and bar in Dún Laoghaire, and O’Riada’s in Galway. He also ran the bars at Dublin Airport.

At its peak his business employed 900. His appetite for new projects was insatiable.

“Every time I met him I would feel both inspired and pedestrian,” said his friend, the music promoter John Reynolds. “His mind was so active and he was so inventive. Most of us might try to think outside the box; Hugh thought about the box that hadn’t been built yet.”

The jewel in his crown was the Morrison Hotel, which O’Regan, a perfectionist, described as his greatest achievement. The hotel, designed by John Rocha, was built on the old Ormond Print Works and was O’Regan’s first hotel.

It opened in 1999 when few thought a New York-style fashionable hotel would work on Dublin’s north side but, on future trends in the hospitality industry, O’Regan had shown his ability to see around corners.

“I would say to him that he was five years ahead of everyone else and he had to let people catch up – I think he knew that and that this tortured him to some degree,” said McDonald. The Morrison became as popular as O’Regan’s other businesses.“There was nothing like that in Dublin,” said Rocha.

“Bringing someone like me to work on a project like that was a brave move but he could see what I could contribute to the project beyond even what I could see. Even when his business was collapsing, the Morrison was still doing well.”

Soon after the tragic death of his brother Jack in 2002, O’Regan sold his pub group for €35 million and began investing in philanthropic, social entrepreneurial and environmental projects. He later embarked on the biggest project of his career – a plan to redevelop the Kilternan hotel and golf resort in south Co Dublin, bought for €12.7 million in 2001 and surrounding 330 acres, into a leisure and learning campus.

He wanted to turn the former Hibernian United Services Club he owned on St Stephen’s Green in Dublin into a philanthropic networking club.

The Kilternan project was close to completion when the banking crisis struck in September 2008. O’Regan later said in a court action with Anglo Irish Bank that the bank, which had supported him for 15 years, suddenly “became hostile”.

The final tranche of money that would have completed Kilternan was pulled. From 2009, Irish Nationwide Building Society and Anglo pursued him over debts totalling €172 million and €80 million respectively. The pressure grew intense and he eventually lost his properties and businesses.

“He put everything into Kilternan – his life, his soul and all of this money; it would finish him off,” said Rocha.

O’Regan was found on Monday on the side of the N11 dual-carriageway at NewtownmountKennedy, Co Wicklow. It is thought that he died of natural causes. One of his friends called on the Government to move more quickly to introduce the new personal insolvency legislation.

He is survived by his wife Adrienne, their four sons Stephen, Adam, Alex and Hugo, and his brothers Declan and Paul.

Born April 3rd, 1963 Died November 26th, 2012