'I can't imagine how tough it is for ordinary people out there'
THE SATURDAY INTERVIEW: HARRY CROSBIE:Juggling high-profile court cases and ‘in the process of going in’ to Nama, property developer Harry Crosbie says he has never known times as tough as these. Yet he seems to have escaped the public’s hatred of developers, and believes a dogged determination will see anyone through
HARRY CROSBIE is fresh from a court case when we meet, but he’s smiling. He has been at the Commercial Court to defend a claim that he owes some €3 million arising from the development of the Grand Canal Theatre, in Dublin’s docklands. It hasn’t dampened his characteristically high spirits, but he declines to go into the details of the case, given its ongoing nature.
He’s no stranger to the Commercial Court, having appeared there less than a year ago because of a dispute with the developer Treasury Holdings. Within weeks he’ll be back in court again, this time facing Dunnes Stores over a dispute about its proposed anchor tenancy of his Point Village development, next to the O2 arena.
“Either we win or we lose” is Crosbie’s equanimous take on the case as we sit over tea and Christmas cake in his Docklands home. “If we lose we have to revisit exactly what’s going to happen, and if we win we’ll go ahead and open up all the retail.”
Until then the shops at the €850 million Point Village are on hold, although this hasn’t stopped Crosbie, who pressed ahead with the opening there earlier this month of a market “of which I am hugely proud”, he says. “It didn’t cost a lot of money in the scale of what we do, but it exactly captures the moment.”
The 250-bed Gibson hotel, which overlooks the market, has also just been opened, while the long awaited “Dublin Eye” big wheel is already under construction. He has managed all of this despite an appeal by Live Nation, the operator of the Crosbie-owned O2 stadium, against his plans for the Point Village square at the rear of the venue. “We had an honest difference of opinion. It’s gone to An Bord Pleanála, and I hope I’m going to win. But it hasn’t affected our day-to-day business,” he says. “I tell you, what I do is not for the faint-hearted,” he says with a smile.
But don’t all the court cases take their toll? “There isn’t enough money in the big developments to go round, so people just go to litigation because there’s nowhere else to go. When there was plenty of money around and plenty of profit, people were much more casual about how they did business.”
He does, however, acknowledge that times are tough. “The world I live in has crashed about our ears, the market has collapsed completely and there are a lot of people being hurt out there,” he says candidly. “I’ve lived through three or four major recessions in my life, and I’ve never seen anything inflict the harm and damage this is.”
These are sobering words from a man not usually cowed in business. “I’m an optimist, I’m a grafter, I’m a worker, I’m a supreme entrepreneur. Even I’m finding it incredibly difficult, and I have every facility. I have huge resources available to me, I’m surrounded by people who work for me who are the best at what they do, I have plenty of capital to make these things work and even for us it’s a huge, huge struggle to keep everything together. So I can’t imagine how tough it is for ordinary people out there.”
The tough times have led Crosbie into Nama. “The Point Village is going into Nama,” he says, without evasion, though adds that he’s “one of the good guys” and is still paying his interest. “I’m in the process of going in at the moment. I’m just about there, and I’m very impressed with the way they’re doing their business.”
He also believes Nama was the right decision. “I haven’t heard, if anyone’s got a better idea! We have to get the bad loans out of the banks or we’re not going to have any banks, and the payback is we won’t be bartering a dozen eggs for a gallon of petrol on the corner.” Despite the fact that Nama is taking over his Point Village loans he remains sanguine about his dream to bring life to that part of Docklands. “I am going to make this work,” he says, simply, and there’s something about this otherwise jocular man that makes you take him very seriously.
So what drew him in the first place to an area that, when he first bought the Point Depot, more than 20 years ago, for a mere £750,000, or about €950,000, was rarely even visited by the Dubliners who lived on its doorstep? “My dad had a little business here, and I went to work for him as a kid,” he explains of his father’s haulage firm. “We were always from around here. My father was originally from a little red-brick two-up two-down in East Wall, and this is where we came from, this is where I feel comfortable.”
Yet, though Crosbie himself wasn’t born in the docklands and remains cagey about where he grew up – “I’m sick and tired of all of that old penny-apple shit,” he says when pressed – he spent many of his summers home from boarding school at Rockwell in the area. “I always worked here, it’s where I know, and I always knew it was cool,” he says. “I left the biggest house on Shrewsbury Road to come and live here.”
It is often seen as being to Crosbie’s credit that he is one of the few developers to live in the area in which he has invested so much: his home on Hanover Quay, which may appear to be a modest warehouse from the outside, opens into a tasteful – he collects 18th-century furniture as a hobby – and strikingly spacious “lair”, as he calls it, the wide windows of which appear to directly meet the waters outside.
Here his wife Rita – he also has three children by his late first wife, Elizabeth – serves tea while Killer the cat purrs at her heels. Their banter is as down to earth as Crosbie himself comes across, and, despite the comfort of their home, the affectations of wealth are rarely visible. Although living in Docklands is a tribute to his belief in the area, Crosbie doesn’t extend the same faith to Dublin Docklands Development Authority.
“I think their time on this earth has passed,” he says. “I mean, what are they for? There’s not going to be any more development driven by State funding. Their time is passed. They haven’t covered themselves in glory down here . . . They were meant to be daring and innovative, and they’re none of those things. They’re just another mini corporation, and in my view they should just fold up their tent and ride into the night.”
Yet, from his comfortable living-room couch, he sees much of the Docklands development as a success, although many developers have lost money in the area. “It think the most successful part of it is right round here, this little bit of Hanover Quay and the square and the stuff around it,” he says through mouthfuls of Christmas cake.
“I want to get to happen over at the [Point] Village what happened here. I know it’s going to be a harder sell, but we’ll get there.”
It hasn’t all been plain sailing. Crosbie’s dream of Dublin’s first skyscraper, to be erected at the Point Village opposite the proposed U2 tower – “to have the two of them as a sort of a portal or gateway up the city, like the Pillars of Hercules” – has been scuppered. The foundations, which were already in place, had to be capped at ground level.
“I have €15 million trapped in the ground,” he says of his beloved Watchtower project. “I had to cover it over and forget about it.” His disappointment is obvious. “We put huge amounts of work into it. Years . . . But it ain’t over yet.” He hasn’t given up, then? “I sure have not. Are you mad? Give up? We don’t do giving up.”
It’s not the only knockback he’s had over the course of his career as a property developer. He had plans for a 35m-high “giant man” that would allow visitors to walk around inside and learn about how the human body works, which also failed to reach fruition. “I was refused planning permission. That’s another failed scheme, but I think they were wrong. You get stonewalled, you get refused, you get turned back . . . but you move on.”
According to Crosbie it’s this doggedness that is the secret of his success. “You have to have a quality of absolute relentlessness – unstoppability,” he says. “There is no market, the whole thing is on its arse, but to get up, go to work, move on . . . That’s much more important than all this fancy education, all the degrees. That degree of simple courage and unstoppability is what defines people who will last this out.”
His advice to young entrepreneurs trying to get started in these difficult times? “Don’t worry about all the fancy paperwork. If you’re going to do it, do it. Start and finish it. [The paperwork] will all take care of itself.
“Don’t ask anyone else’s opinion. If you believe in it, do it. Just do it. Simple!” It sounds suspiciously like a slogan for sporting footwear, but it seems to have worked for Crosbie. As well as the success of the Point Depot, now the revamped 13,000-capacity O2, he’s got Vicar Street – he rubbishes rumours that he may put it up for sale, calling it “a brilliant little yoke” – and the recently opened Grand Canal Theatre, disputes over debts notwithstanding.
Even a slight limp, a legacy of the Lyme disease he contracted on a US trip, hasn’t halted his gallop. “No, but it softened my cough,” he admits. “I was very, very ill, but I’m okay now, no whingeing.”
You get the feeling Harry Crosbie wouldn’t set much store by whingeing. He’s too busy finding ways to channel his still palpable energy, even at 63. “I can’t not do it. It’s just a part of what I am. I have an intense, relentless drive, and I’ve always had it, and it frightens people sometimes, because it can be very, very powerful and very wearing, and people get pissed off with it, but when I put my mind to something I will not be stopped.”
The man is a combination of charm and chutzpah, with a self-conviction that is, thankfully, tempered by his curiosity about the world and people around him and his eagerness for their input. And, unlike other developers, many of whom have been blamed for the country’s economic crisis, Crosbie appears to have escaped the wrath of the general public.
Yet, though he may be suffering himself in these straitened times – “I am actually; I’ve never seen it as tough as this” – he’s certainly still comfortable and still very much in business. But money, he says, is not what drives him.
“Money is only a tiny part of the payback,” is how he sees it. “You need money. You need a house, you need a car, you need wages and all that. Once you have enough, which as you get older, if you’re any bit successful at all, you get a house, you get a couple of cars, it’s very difficult to slip into the vulgarity of nouveau riche, overspending. I never had any interest in that.”
Yes, he enjoys some high-profile friendships; he has a long-standing relationship with the members of U2, who have a studio that adjoins his home. “They play very loudly, and I have to bang the wall with a shoe,” he tells me of his rock-star neighbours. He was also extremely close to Gerry Ryan. “He wasn’t like that guy you got on the radio, all that spoofing and shouting and roaring. He was very quiet. He was a highly intelligent man. He had a very strong, trained mind, and we miss him terribly.”
But despite his celebrity associations, Crosbie swears he is as unmoved by fame as he is by riches. “Whatever the opposite of a snob is, I am that. I am completely impervious to money, social standing, fame. I couldn’t be arsed.”
Yet if it’s neither money nor cups of tea with Bono, what is it that Crosbie is after? “My payback is just the satisfaction of seeing a contribution to a city that passes one basic test for me: is it better than when I was a kid starting out? Yes.” It’s that simple. And, though he says his only regret is not living abroad when he was a young man, he’s every inch a Dubliner.
“You listen to all the whingeing and the cock-ups, the mistakes and the bad government and the corruption, all that stuff you listen to, all of that, and then you ask the question: is this a better place than the place I was born into? And the answer is yes.” For Crosbie that’s the bottom line.
“Yes, there is still an underclass, but the majority of people are living lives that would have been inconceivable when I was a teenager. The quality of our lives has lifted and we forget, and we take it for granted, but I don’t forget, and I love the fact that Dublin has become a much more vibrant city.”
It’s clear the energy he describes is something he buzzes with himself. Even as he acknowledges all the obstacles to development he makes it clear that he’s on the lookout for new employees: someone to run the monster céilís he has planned as a monthly event in the Point Village square and, of all things, a gondolier. “I had a gondola built in Venice, shipped in. If you have a Grand Canal and you have a theatre, you gotta have a gondola,” he says impishly. “So I have a brand new gondola, and I’m looking for a gondolier.”
What next? “I’ve another couple of years left before bits begin to drop off me in the street,” he says. “I’m going to finish the Point Village. I’m going to get it absolutely perfect.” And then he’s going to live out his youthful dream and live abroad somewhere for a sojourn, he swears.
But he’s clearly getting a big kick out of Dublin still, as we take a spin up to the Grand Canal Theatre, where he bangs on the door – “It’s Harry. Will you let me in?” – to gain admittance. We stand on the theatre stage, but he can’t find the light switch, and all around is deep, black darkness. It doesn’t bother Harry Crosbie. He already knows what’s out there.
Rockwell College boarding school. He briefly attended college, but dropped out to work in his father’s business.
Property developer and entrepreneur, he owns the O2 stadium and Vicar Street, as well as several other properties, many of which are located in the Docklands, near his own home. He also holds the lease on the Grand Canal Theatre.
Married to Rita. He has three children by his late first wife, Elizabeth, and six grandchildren.