Best of times and worst of times for ex-tycoon
Sean Quinn told the court he had initially thought Anglo was a “marvellous” company
Seán Quinn giving evidence at the Anglo trial yesterday. Drawing: Alwyn Gillespie
Seán Quinn rested his arms on the wooden ledge of the witness box and leaned into the microphone. “How times can change,” he intoned ruefully in a thick northern accent.
The businessman was responding to defence counsel Brendan Grehan SC, who had remarked that Forbes once named him among the 200 richest people in the world. “Your companies employed more than 6,000 people,” said Grehan.
“More,” replied Quinn without hesitation.
“You were making half a billion euro in profits as of 2006?”
“You were the richest man in Ireland?”
“I read that.”
These short, tennis-rally exchanges between Quinn and Grehan were a feature of the day. Back and forth they went, zoning in on Quinn’s fortunes – and his dealings with Anglo Irish Bank – in the years 2006-2008. Wearing a navy suit and a yellow-and-gold tie, Quinn told the court he had initially thought Anglo was a “marvellous” company. There were three planks to Quinn’s investment strategy: manufacturing, blue-chip companies and property. Anglo was a blue-chip. So were Ryanair and Vodafone. He invested in all three.
“Somewhere along the line, you met CFDs,” said Grehan.
“Yes,” replied Quinn.
The businessman couldn’t quite remember how he first came across the idea of investing in these investment products based on share price. He actually thought he was taking a “conservative” approach with the Anglo positions – after all, said Quinn, he was putting up just a 20 per cent deposit and was investing in a “blue-chip” company that was “regulated by the Irish authorities . . . I didn’t see it as speculative at all,” he said.
Quinn’s CFD positions in Anglo rose steadily. At the end of 2006, the figure was in the high single digits. By September, 2007, when he revealed the size of the holding to two Anglo directors at a meeting in the Ardboyne Hotel in Navan, it was 24 per cent.
Seized the opportunity
The “surprise” with which the Anglo directors greeted the news didn’t lead
Quinn to stop adding to his CFD holdings. He could see that the share price was falling, but at the same time profits at Anglo were increasing. “The [share] price was going down so much and the profits were going up so much,” he said. He saw an opportunity.
“You built up your CFD holdings in a pretty secretive way,” Grehan put it to Quinn.
He disagreed. It was partly in the nature of CFDs that the extent of his holdings wasn’t public, the businessman replied, but it was also the company’s way not to go looking for attention. When it would open a new hotel, for example, it wouldn’t hold an official launch.
“We just did our own thing, nice and quietly . . . We just got on with our business.”
In the witness box, Quinn made clear his sense of grievance and regret. Explaining that he hadn’t involved himself in the administration – as opposed to the operations – of his companies for the past 30 years, he told the court he had left school at 15 and had built a strong team of people around him in the business.
“I’m involved in spending money stupidly and making sure our business makes good profits,” he said.
As the court heard, Quinn’s interests were spread widely. In February 2008, Anglo wrote to Liam McCaffrey, then chief executive of the Quinn Group, about a commitment to
target debt reduction of €500 million by the disposal of a number of properties.
The list included addresses in Prague, Kiev, Nottingham and Istanbul. When Grehan stumbled over the pronunciation of the Russian city of Yekaterinburg, Quinn corrected him so casually that they could have been talking about a townland in Co Cavan.
In all, Quinn told the court, he lost more than €3 billion in Anglo. He alleged that the bank knew it was in trouble since October-November, 2007, but that he was never told.
He said he was given assurances from the bank and the financial regulator that it was doing fine.
Mr Quinn said that in September 2008, shortly after the bank guarantee, he met then Anglo chief executive David Drumm in Buswell’s Hotel in Dublin.*
“They were there to appease,” said the witness. “They said the bank was in rude health and we shouldn’t be pursuing legal proceedings, we’d come to a gentleman’s agreement and we’d all live happily ever after.”
“In 07-08 we lost €3.2 billion through the Anglo fiasco,” Quinn told the court towards the end of his evidence.
“You blame Anglo?” asked Grehan. “Totally,” replied Quinn.
Did he not take any share of responsibility, asked the barrister.
“I was a fool,” replied Quinn.
The witness spent more than four hours in the box. “Best of luck to you,” said Judge Martin Nolan, as he told him he could go.
Quinn stepped down, walked past the three defendants and retook his place in the public gallery.
*This article was edited on February 11th, 2014