Jim Carroll

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The business of doing business

There are times when you can sense the indignation from the radio long before the text messages start to roll. Last Saturday morning, property developer Simon Kelly, a dude who says he owes €200 million to the banks, got a …

Mon, Nov 1, 2010, 09:59


There are times when you can sense the indignation from the radio long before the text messages start to roll. Last Saturday morning, property developer Simon Kelly, a dude who says he owes €200 million to the banks, got a taste of what Seanie Fitzpatrick and, in a much earlier time, Joe Jacob experienced on run-ins with Marian Finucane.

He was on Finucane’s radio show to flog his new book “Breakfast With Anglo” about his experiences as one of the Irish property game’s masters of the universe. He talked about how his aul’ lad Paddy (him of the infamous BMW and champers in Glenties escapades) got him into the property business as a teenager because he knew how to operate a computer and could throw up a few spreadsheets. There were anecdotes about his dealings with Anglo Irish Bank – his man at the bank liked to breakfast at the Shelbourne Hotel hence the book title – the deals which were going on around town and how the business of constructing stately pleasuredomes went belly-up in the end.

Finucane, as is her wont on these occasions, let him talk away. She may have been sympathetic to his plight or she may have been sizing him up for his coffin. After she read out the text messages from listeners after 30 minutes, there was no mistaking how this one was going to go down. Kelly’s smug, pious, overbearing bleating was not what the plainly pissed off people of Ireland wanted to hear on a Saturday morning. Finucane’s tone became a little caustic after that.

To be fair, Kelly was not the only property developer who had the crack during the good times. There were tons of them, a cabal of pinstriped, pompous, red-faced builders who, in their pomp, threw hilarious Gordan Gecko shapes as they sold overpriced houses and apartments to the passive massive and threw the cash into another hotel offering with spa, golf course and penthouse apartments. Kelly, though, is keen to paint himself as a little different from the pack – in an interview with this paper on Saturday, he pointed out that he sold his shares in Anglo Irish Bank in 2007 because he saw the writing on the wall. Pity he didn’t tell the rest of us, eh?

Not that the passive massive give two hoots about Kelly boasting about his gift of prescience. Since the shit has hit the fan, the passive massive have reacted to how they were diddled into buying their overpriced houses and apartments by taking umbrage every time a builder, developer, politician or other vested interest has popped their head over the parapet (or else, if they can get away with it, they’ve written the same article a few times about it). When any of these lads take a deep breath and points out that no-one forced the passive massive to buy overpriced houses and apartments, the fuming and umbrage-taking is of legendary proportions. The builder and developer lads have long lost the right to point anything out (well, bar their spokesman Tom Parlon).

You can’t blame the massive for taking the hump. Not a week goes by without some learned gentleman (or Mary O’Rourke) telling us that we’re all in this together. We are where we are, as the cliche goes, because we all went mad during the boom. The billions which Ireland Inc now owe can be seen as the hangover from the night before. The truth, though, is a little harder and far more complex to convey in a mere soundbite or on the 11 minutes allocated to the topic on a radio show, which is why we’re probably only scratched the surface about what the hell happened, how the hell it happened, why the hell it happened and when the hell is it going to stop happening.

One very certain change since businessmen stopped having the crack is how we regard entrepreneurs. Once, these bustling men and women of commerce were protrayed as our future leaders, our brightest hopes, the people in a rush to get things done. They wanted to be the new Denis O’Briens and Dermot Desmonds. They wanted to be masters and mistresses of the universe, all hurry-scurry, Starbucks’ lattes and sharp shirts/blouses. When they came across a problem, they huffed and puffed and fumed about it until something was done. They argued for light touch regulation at every turn. The market shall decide, was the cry as these entrepreneurs skated on by.

And, oh yes, the market did decide. It always made me chuckle to see one-time free market buccaneers, the very ones who spent the good years advocating light touch regulation and market-facing policies, run to the government at the first sign of trouble for a bit of a cuddle. Who knew that the bankers, developers, builders and associates who saw Ireland Inc as their private fiefdom were such patriots and softies? Remember, there was no talk of togging out in the green jersey when times were good.

Aside from Kelly Jr the builder shooting himself in the foot several times, there was a bit of talk over the weekend about Ireland’s views and attitudes towards these entrepreneurs. This came out of the Dublin Web Summit and Founders, two gatherings of the great and good from the geek world – including the men behind Twitter, YouTube, Bebo, Skype, Last.fm and other sites you use every day – which ran in the city over the weekend.

While it’s seen as a badge of honour in the United States and elsewhere to have a failed venture or two under your belt, something which shows that you know what you’re on about, there’s a much different view in Europe. Here, having a company which goes bust is seen as a bit of a problem which you need to sort out. The web entrepreneurs mused about stringent bankruptcy laws and the general cultural view about failured businesses. I’m sure someone mentioned begrudgery at some stage when they talked about how they couldn’t just cut their losses and move on.

But such talk misses a very obvious point. While the people behind many of the successful internet start-ups listed above may have had a couple of SNAFUs to their name, they obviously learned from their earlier mistakes when they moved on. The problem is when you move on without actually learning an iota from your mistakes. It’s one thing to talk about the need to foster a culture of entrepreneurship in Ireland, but this shouldn’t mean a charter for chancers. We had that during the boom. So many companies which went broke at the end of the boom did so because their owners over-stretched themselves. They bought into the myths and half-truths and spin. The thought of them moving on and repeating the same errors yet again should not fill anyone with great joy. Just listen back to Kelly Jr’s interview and ask yourself do you want to see a repeat of that fandango in the years to come.