‘Baffling’ new company registrations in Northern Ireland

More than 70 cases since start of the year, and the number is still growing, says expert

Eighty-five Wellesley Avenue in the Malone Road area of Belfast is a terraced redbrick that has been divided into units that are rented out for student accommodation.

Unit 2, which has four bedrooms, was listed last year on the Propertypal.com website as available for £1,000 a month. It was rented in August 2021 by “four wee students from different parts of Northern Ireland”, according to Trevor Breadon, who handled the letting on behalf of the landlord, who is a friend.

On January 24th of this year, a company called Lisa Grant Ltd was incorporated, with Unit 2, 85 Wellesley Avenue given as its registered address in a filing submitted to the Registrar of Companies for Northern Ireland.

According to the document, the company is owned by a UK resident Chinese national called Zian Liang, who is also its sole director. His “service address”, according to the filing, is the student flat in Belfast.

The business to be pursued by the new company, according to the incorporation document, is the manufacture of breakfast cereals and cereals-based food, the retail sale of watches and jewellery in specialised stores, and retail sales via mail order houses and the internet. The company does not have an internet presence and The Irish Times could not locate its owner.

On March 10th, something oddly similar happened in relation to 30 Church Street, Ballymoney, Co Antrim. The address has a shop on the ground floor and office accommodation on the two floors above. The shop is home to the Nom Nomz Vape Store, which has been there for about four years, according to Sam Ferris, who works in the shop.

The office accommodation is empty and is being advertised online as available for a rent of £80 per week. A spokeswoman for McAlfee Properties, of Ballymoney, said they had been looking for a new tenant for the property for about a month.

On March 10th this year a company called Patrick Grant Orla Grant Ltd was established, with the incorporation document giving the Church Street address as the registered address of the new entity. Patrick Grant Orla Grant Ltd has one shareholder/director, Xingxing Zhao, who is a UK resident Chinese national, according to the document. His service address is 30 Church Street, Ballymoney. Mr Ferris told The Irish Times he had never heard of the company or Xingxing Zhao, while the spokeswoman for McAlfee Properties said she knew nothing about the company or its shareholder.

According to its incorporation document, Patrick Grant Orla Grant Ltd was set up to engage in the manufacture of soft furnishings, the wholesale sale of furniture, carpets and lighting equipment, and retail sales via mail order houses or the internet. The company has no internet presence and it was not possible to contact the shareholder.

On March 21st of this year a new company called Wirz Ludwig was incorporated and the Registrar of Companies for Northern Ireland was told that 2 Church Street, Ederney, Co Fermanagh, was its registered address. The address is an empty shopfront premises that was a hairdressers until the beginning of the pandemic. Now the empty building is on the market with the Propertypal.com website advising that those interested should contact Locate Estate Agents if they would like to be told the rent being sought. A spokeswoman for Locate Estate Agents said the property was left empty by its local owners during the pandemic, before being put back on the market about a month ago.

She had never heard of Wirz Ludwig Ltd, which the Registrar of Companies had been told would be engaged in the manufacture of kitchen furniture, the wholesaling of kitchen furniture, carpets, lighting equipment and office furniture, as well as retail sales via mail order houses and the internet. The company has no internet presence and its owner could not be contacted.

Common characteristics

The above three companies are on a list of about 70 entities that have been brought to the attention of The Irish Times because they share common characteristics such as having corporate names comprising first names and family names, have registered addresses that have recently featured on property letting websites, and have been incorporated since the beginning of the year (similar companies continue to be registered).

Almost all the companies have owners who are UK resident Chinese nationals. The companies were brought to the attention of The Irish Times by Graham Barrow, a UK banking expert who, among other activities, campaigns for more transparent corporate registries and is interested in automated regulatory and financial crime controls.

The addresses associated with the companies range from small office studios in old buildings in residential areas, to gleaming new office blocks such as the grade A East Tower of the Lanyon Plaza development in Belfast. Some of the addresses are those of business parks or office blocks with the address not being specific enough to identify the particular building or office that is the registered address.

Asked what he thought might lie behind the companies, Mr Barrow said it was “a real baffler” but there had to be something behind it. “I wish I could give you a sensible reply to that question. Clearly it is not something straightforward.”

Online facility

All of the companies looked at by The Irish Times had their incorporation document filed by Companies Made Simple, of Wenlock Road, London. Companies Made Simple facilitates the quick online formation of UK companies at competitive rates.

“I set up a business for the first time last night and it literally took 10 minutes,” says one testimonial quoted on the website. “Was very easy to do and I already have my documents through by email.”

“Over one million UK companies launched since 2002,” the website says. “You’re in safe hands.”

Companies Made Simple is part of the UK-based Moneypenny Group, an international business that had a turnover of £48 million (€58 million) in 2020. The principal activities of the group include telephone answering services, outsourced switchboards, and live chat services. In an email response to a request for a comment, Companies Made Simple said it would be fully investigating the matters brought to its attention by The Irish Times.

"We can assure you that we take this very seriously," the statement said, adding that the company was a registered Companies House formations agent.

The formation process it enabled was entirely online and completed by the customer, the statement said. “We can confirm that we carry out electronic verification and/or certification of government-issued photo identification to verify the identity of all our customers.

“With regards to the address information and evidence provided by the customer, this is forwarded to and accepted by Companies House in good faith.”

Companies House had limited powers to query and remove any information which may appear inaccurate, fraudulent or suspicious on the public register, the statement said.

A White Paper published in the UK in February sets out plans to give new discretionary powers to Companies House to query, seek evidence for, and remove and amend information on the public register, the statement said. “This is a change we support fully.”

A request for a comment from the Department of the Economy in Belfast was referred to Companies House UK, which said it was not in a position to comment.

Colm Keena

Colm Keena

Colm Keena is an Irish Times journalist. He was previously legal-affairs correspondent and public-affairs correspondent