Trailblazing businessman whose career mirrored the rise and fall of the boom
Publican and hotelier Hugh O’Regan, who has died unexpectedly at the age of 49, was a trailblazing businessman in Dublin’s social and hospitality scene. One of the most prominent businessmen of the Celtic Tiger era, the self-made O’Regan played a leading role in the growth of the Temple Bar area of Dublin in the 1990s and was instrumental in transforming the traditional smoky Irish pub into the trendy super-pub.
He was found injured on the side of the M11 motorway near Newtownmountkennedy on Monday and taken to Loughlinstown Hospital where he was pronounced dead. Garda sources said the cause of death would not be known until a postmortem is completed.
O’Regan changed the face of Dublin’s bar scene in the 1990s and 2000s, building the Thomas Read chain of super-pubs and targeting the growing affluence and spendthrift nature of boom-time Ireland.
The Thomas Read chain of pubs included many of the most fashionable venues in the city – Pravda, The Bailey, Ron Black’s, Searson’s, the Budda Bar in Blanchardstown and the 40 Foot in Dun Laoghaire.
The group also had the contract to run the chain of bars at Dublin Airport.
The pubs prospered, mirroring the rise of the economy and the vast level of consumer spending that accompanied it.
O’Regan marked himself out in business by showing his savvy eye for spotting emerging trends coupled with a strong conviction in his business ideas.
One of four sons, O’Regan’s father died when he was four. He studied electronic engineering briefly before joining AIB and completing an English and economics degree while working with the bank.
He studied law but abandoned the course following the death of his mother when he was 22. He used the proceeds from the sale of the family home to buy a house in Rathmines, against which he borrowed to start his business.
He began in the pub trade in 1988 with €10,000 purchasing the Temple Bar pub in Dublin for €190,460 with his brother, Declan, before the run-down area was transformed into the centre of Dublin’s social scene.
He played a lead role in securing European Union funding to develop Temple Bar into a cultural centre in the 1990s to save the city-centre area being redeveloped as a major bus station.
In one of his sharpest deals, O’Regan sold an option on the former Jameson Distillery in Smithfield in north inner-city Dublin, acquired for €63,486, for more than €2.5 million, marking him out as an emerging business figure to watch.
He had planned to turn the area into a technology hub but abandoned this when he failed to secure government backing.
Thomas Read chain
Prior to selling the Thomas Read chain in 2003 in a deal that netted him and his partners in the business €35 million, O’Regan reflected on the pub chain he built over 15 years.
“It’s not a bad achievement. It’s been a good journey. Now I’m going to throw the dice and see what happens,” he told The Irish Times in a rare interview.
He also put on the market the Morrison Hotel on Dublin’s north quays, which he described as his greatest achievement, but he later chose to retain the John Rocha-designed hotel. He said his “vision” for the business was for a large hotel chain to buy into the Morrison and roll out the trendy boutique brand internationally.
O’Regan’s subsequent investments in the former Hibernian United Services Club on St Stephen’s Green in Dublin city and the Kilternan Golf and Country Club in south Co Dublin came at the wrong time. He wanted to turn the St Stephen’s Green property into a philanthropic networking club. Kilternan, bought for €13 million in 2001, and the surrounding 330 acres he owned were to have become a leisure and learning campus called New Spring Fields. It was almost complete when Irish Nationwide pulled the final tranche of funding from the project in 2008.
In a later court case with Anglo, O’Regan complained that the bank had pulled a €26 million loan offer.
Anglo and Irish Nationwide seized control of the Morrison, the St Stephen’s Green club and the Kilternan project in 2009 by appointing receivers.
The crash left O’Regan with debts of about €80 million to Anglo Irish Bank and €172 million to Irish Nationwide Building Society. Anglo pursued the debts in the courts and in 2009 the High Court ordered him to pay €37.5 million to the bank to honour guarantees given on company debts.
Last February his former St Stephen’s Green club was sold for about €8 million and the Morrison Hotel for €22 million to Yelena Baturina, reputed to be Russia’s richest woman.
Sense of humour
A low-key man with a warm, self-deprecating sense of humour, O’Regan shunned publicity but inevitably ended up in the public eye due to the high-profile nature of his ambitious business ventures and, later, of his financial difficulties.
He is survived by his wife Adrienne and his four sons, and his brothers Declan and Paul.