Business winners and losers of 2015
Spectacular gains for certain Irish entrepreneurs were accompanied by failure and public opprobrium for others
John Collison of Stripe , speaking at the Web Summit in the RDS Dublin. Photograph: Eric Luke
Breege O’Donoghue, executive director of Primark and Penneys. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Colm Lyon of Pay with Fire. Photograph: Brendan Lyon/ImageBureau
Solicitor Brian O’Donnell with his wife Mary Patricia. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Former IFA general secretary Pat Smith and former president Eddie Downey. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Patrick and John Collison
It has been a very good year for Limerick brothers Patrick and John Collison of Stripe. In July their digital payments company, seen as one of the hottest start-ups in Silicon Valley, closed a funding round with Visa, which gave Stripe a $5 billion valuation. In October the duo, who sold their first company for $5 million when they were teens, scooped the EY Entrepreneur of the Year award. They also won top honours in the Best International Entrepreneur category. Patrick, Stripe’s chief executive, then landed the cover of Forbes magazine in November.
On the subject of digital payments, another Irish entrepreneur – Colm Lyon – struck gold in March when he sold his business Realex to US giant Global Payments. The deal valued the payments company he set up after leaving Ulster Bank in 2000 at €115 million. Lyon and his wife Niamh reportedly netted €90 million from the sale. Lyon won’t be retiring just yet though. The entrepreneur owns a separate company called Pay With Fire, which allows customers to hold money and make payments through a mobile phone app. It is intended to rival the traditional current account.
Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary’s belated charm offensive was rewarded in spades this year with record revenue and passenger numbers for the once-maligned airline. The outspoken businessman, who in the past has derided passengers as “stupid”, found that being nice paid dividends as he secured a 33 per cent increase in pay and saw the value of his near 4 per cent stake in the carrier surge. More than 20 years after he became its boss, it would seem that O’Leary is still very much the man to lead the airline onwards and upwards to further success.
Most people in their 70s are kicking back and enjoying retirement. Not Breege O’Donoghue. The septuagenarian executive director of Primark and Penneys is still hard at work, and one of the most powerful people in Irish retailing to boot. At 71 she is enjoying expanding the fashion retailer into the United States. The first Primark store in the US opened in Boston in September. The company then opened a second store, located at the King of Prussia Mall in Philadelphia, with another eight stores planned over the next year.
The abrupt closure of department store Clerys earlier this year upset many and with few obvious villains to blame all eyes turned on the hitherto relatively unknown Deirdre Foley. The businesswoman had kept something of a low profile during her many years working with developers such as Derek Quinlan and Dave Arnold. However, her 20 per cent stake in Natrium, the purchaser of the Clerys building, thrust her into the limelight. Natrium has been portrayed as an unfeeling bully for its part in the whole affair; and as the public face of the group Foley came in for plenty of criticism. She’s a winner though, given the money she will make from the deal and it’s still possible that with Natrium promising a major rejuvenation project she could come out smelling of roses yet. Pratt family Avoca is one of Ireland’s best-known family-owned Irish retailers, and a profitable one too. Last month its owners – the Pratt family – agreed to sell the business to the listed US catering group Aramark for a price rumoured to be upwards of €60 million. Simon Pratt along with sister, Amanda, and brother, Ivan each own 23.5 per cent of the shares in the business, while their other sister Vanessa has an 11.8 per cent share. Parents Donald and Hillary each own 8.8 per cent of the equity. The sale will turn them all into multimillionaires.
Jules Coleman left a high-flying role at PwC to set up online cleaner-booking service Hassle.com, dubbed “a Hailo for cleaners”. The move has certainly paid off. In July this year the Kildare woman and her co-founders reaped €32 million from the sale of the start-up to German company Helpling. Eoghan McCabe Eoghan McCabe’s company Intercom landed an investment of €30 million in August this year, bringing total funding to date to €58 million. The investors include Iconiq Capital, which manages funds from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey. At 31 years of age, McCabe is already on his third company. His second, Exceptional, was sold for an undisclosed sum.
Cork teenager Ciara Judge won the Google Global Science Fair in 2014 and was named one of Time magazine’s “25 Most Influential Teens” in the world. But we didn’t have her on our list last year. We do this year, though, as she has since set up two start-ups, and she’s just 17 years old. Ciara founded Germinaid Innovations with her fellow BT Young Scientist winner Emer Hickey. She also founded PurchaseMate of which she is chief executive. Finally, she is a founding member and chairperson of the Irish Digital Youth Council, which was formed to advocate for the use of digital technology within the classroom.
Irish Continental Group (ICG), the owner of Irish Ferries, has spent the year riding the wave of the boom in tourist numbers coming into Ireland. Its shares on the Irish Stock Exchange are up more than 60 per cent in 2015, profits and revenues are surging, and in December its market capitalisation breached the €1 billion mark for the first time. Rothwell, the former NCB stockbroker who is ICG’s chief executive and biggest shareholder, has amassed a stake of close to 15 per cent in the company. His involvement over 25 years has made him one of the richest corporate executives in the State.
IDA Ireland dominated the positive news headlines this year, with jobs announcement after jobs announcement. In the first half of the year, 9,000 jobs were announced with big projects secured including Apple’s €850 million data centre investment in Galway, Alexion Pharmaceuticals’ €450 million investment in Blanchardstown and Facebook’s plan to create a data centre in Clonee. Then Apple returned in the second half of the year to announce 1,000 new jobs for Cork. Technology firm Infosys intends to create 250 new jobs, Indeed announced 300 new jobs in Dublin, with 300 jobs from Sage, among others.
Sir Anthony O’Reilly
He has been in this list before, and he is back again. Once the State’s richest man, Sir Anthony O’Reilly was declared bankrupt by a court in the Bahamas in November, and given the go-ahead to file for a personal insolvency arrangement. He owed money to about 10 banks, believed to be in the region of €100 million. Days earlier, the west Cork holiday home of the former billionaire sold for about €1.5 million, 18 months after it came on the market for €2.75 million.
It could be argued that Denis O’Brien is a winner of 2015. He sold Topaz to listed Canadian retailer Alimentation Couche- Tard for a figure reputed to be about €450 million, which is well over double what he invested in the service-station business. He also purchased a new €60 million Gulfstream jet. But the biggest deal of the year for him was the proposed flotation of his Digicel Group in a move that would deliver the funds required for investment to confront increasingly aggressive challengers in key markets but do little to dilute his control over its affairs. Investors balked and the IPO was pulled, dragging O’Brien into the loser’s column this year. His latest legal action – suing the Attorney General, the Ceann Comhairle and the 10 members of the Oireachtas Committee on Procedure and Privileges over comments made in the Dáil – did little for him either.
It’s rarely a smart idea to burn your bridges in business. One man who attempted to do exactly that this year was Web Summit founder Paddy Cosgrave. He may be richer after moving the tech event to Lisbon but the fallout from his much publicised spat with the Government did little for his reputation. And while there was merit in some of the criticism made, his bull-headed approach to resolving issues meant that he lost some supporters.
Former Anglo Irish Bank chief executive David Drumm faces Christmas behind bars, and being in custody until March after a US judge refused him bail while he fights extradition to Ireland. The former banker has been detained since his arrest at his home in Massachusetts on October 10th. Drumm is wanted back in Ireland to face 33 criminal charges relating to transactions carried out while he was chief executive of Anglo during the deepening financial crisis of 2008.
Pat Smith and Eddie Downey
Things were supposed to be on the up in Irish farming following the quota lifting. Then everyone found out executives at the Irish Farmers’ Association were being paid more than the Taoiseach and President. When farmers, many of whom survive on very low incomes, found out IFA general secretary Pat Smith was paid €535,000 in 2013 and €445,000 last year, all hell broke loose. Smith resigned. Then IFA president Eddie Downey stepped down after it emerged that he had approved the €2 million payment awarded to Smith – on top of his €2.7 million pension pot.
Brian and Mary Patricia O’Donnell
Since the property crash, every year has been a bad one for Brian O’Donnell, a former managing partner of William Fry solicitors, and his wife Mary Patricia. But 2015 could turn out to be their annus horribulus. The couple, who founded Vico Capital, built up a €1 billion property empire during the boom on borrowed money. Bank of Ireland has registered a judgment against them for €71.5 million and, in April, it succeeded in evicting the O’Donnell family from their Gorse Hill mansion in Killiney. In December, the Supreme Court threw out an appeal by the couple against the BOI judgment.
Sean Dunne and Gayle Killilea
Sean Dunne, the developer who once boasted he had “balls of steel”, is bankrupt on two continents over debts of €700 million. His wife, the former gossip columnist Gayle Killilea, has been in and out of court all year in Ireland and the US, where the couple now live, in a blizzard of legal actions to frustrate the recovery of his assets and also in relation to delays over proposed new property ventures. To rub salt into their wounds, their former home on Shrewsbury Road was put on the market for €7 million by his bankruptcy trustee to help pay his creditors.