Cullen and Lavin claim banks did them ‘a great injustice’

Apprentice star and partner speak out about loss of car dealership and hotel business

Bill Cullen and Jackie Lavin  have just opened a new car dealership in Dublin selling the Korean Ssang Yong brand. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Bill Cullen and Jackie Lavin have just opened a new car dealership in Dublin selling the Korean Ssang Yong brand. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Sat, Feb 8, 2014, 14:51

Veteran businessman Bill Cullen, and his partner Jackie Lavin, have spoken of the enormous toll imposed on their lives by the loss of their businesses.

In an interview with RTE Radio this morning the couple, who have just opened a new car dealership in Dublin selling the Korean Ssang Yong brand, were critical of the behaviour of a number of banks, whom they claimed withdrew support from their Renault car dealership and hotel businesses despite the fact they had never defaulted on a loan.

They said a “great injustice” had been done to them.

Mr Cullen, the former chief executive of Renault Motors in Ireland and main protagonist on the TV3 reality show The Apprentice, lost his Renault dealership business in October 2012.

The couple also lost control of the five-star Muckross Park Hotel in Killarney, Co Kerry in March 2013. They told Marian Finucane the banks withdrew support from these businesses despite the fact the value of their assets exceeded what ther debts.

“But that’s one of the things that’s happening. They are going to pull the people whose assets exceed the loan,” said Cullen. “We had an overdraft and they pulled the overdraft so we couldn’t write cheques, so we couldn’t buy cars. Therefore we couldn’t sell cars.”

The withdrawal of support from the hotel in March 2013 was, claimed Cullen, a “good move” for the bank as he and Ms Lavin had kept the hotel going though the leanest months between October to March, he said.

“It was when we came to the St Patrick’s week ... that’s when they pulled it, three days before and they got all the good work we had done to build the business for 2013.”

Ms Lavin also suggested the banks’ support might have lasted longer if their debts had been greater.

“I feel we were pulled because we didn’t borrow enough. We didn’t owe them enough. It was easy for them to pull us because our assets exceeded the borrowings... We were performing and we never defaulted on our loan,” she said.

When one bank pulled its support from the motor dealership, which she described as the “cash-cow” for the hotel, the banks involved in the hotel panicked.

“But basically, we had never defaulted on our loan. Up to the day they pulled the plug we were paying our interest bills... If everybody had calmed down and everybody had given us the time, we had other franchises ready to come in... Bill had done a deal with Renault. Renault were out. Bill had got an amount of money from Renault which he gave directly over the bank immediately. As soon as they got that money, as soon as the cash injection came in: [they said] ‘Now we’re done and we’re not supporting you anymore’.”

When it was put to the couple that they sounded “bitter”, Mr Cullen said they were “not bitter about anybody”.

Ms Lavin said: “I just feel a great injustice was done, not just to us. Injustices have been done to perfectly viable companies... I won’t say ‘bitter’ because bitter just eats into your psyche and only damages you and I have no intention of allowing that to happen... There are thousands of companies around the country that the same thing was done to, just because you have banks who want to do the grab-and-go, who no longer have any interest in Ireland because now the rich pickings in Ireland are gone.”

Mr Cullen, who will be 72 on February 19th, said they had lost “everything”, their life’s work and a question remained over whether they would be able to stay in their home.

Asked how they had paid for such basics as groceries, Cullen said: “There’s always money”.

Stress linked to events of the past 15 months had contributed to the deaths of his younger siblings, he claimed.

“So it took us a year and then we said, ‘What are we going to do? Are we going to run off?’ and I said ‘No, I’m not going anywhere. I love Ireland I’m staying here.’ So we said ‘Let’s see if we can put some money together’ . We got some money. We got some supporters. Within about three weeks of all this happening we got about 4,000 notes supporting us, and that has continued. Everywhere we go we get people saying, ‘How can we support you?’

“There has been a couple of people come forward saying, ‘Look I can get you cars and you can pay me when you sell them’; ‘I’ve got some credit here and you can have that’.

“So in that way we have been able to put a small dealership together. We’re up on the Naas Road. We’re leasing it. We got a good price on that as well. So we’re starting off. I’d like to think we’re starting from the bottom out.”