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Johnny Ronan: The ‘sweat equity’ comeback of a flamboyant businessman

The former ward of Nama believes he is back. But there are mixed opinions on his financial renewal

It was early summer in 2014, and Johnny Ronan, then still a ward of Nama, was trying to kickstart the deal that he hoped would restore him to commercial success. Fittingly for the most flamboyant of Irish property developers, it was plotted over dinner in Mayfair, the heart of moneyed London.

They met at the fine dining restaurant of Cavan celebrity chef Richard Corrigan. In the property game business partners are rarely wooed over a sandwich.

Ronan's dinner companions included Englishman Guy Leech, who was his finance director before the crash and was now advising him, and a 35-year-old German executive Stefan Jaeger, a managing director with US private equity giant Colony Capital.

His friends say he is once again the biggest prime office developer in Ireland. But within the industry there are varying opinions on the extent of his financial renewal

Ronan, bruised and battered from the €2.7 billion collapse of Treasury Holdings in 2012, wanted to work with Colony, while the investment group wanted an Irish partner.

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Weeks previously, and with financial backing from a stockmarket-listed UK group, Ronan had been named preferred bidder on a Dublin 4 development site being sold by Nama beside the Burlington hotel.

His consortium topped the bidding with an offer of about €42 million. Colony, in partnership with Tyrone developer Paddy McKillen, whom the US company had just backed out of Nama, finished down the order with €32 million.

Following an introduction by McKillen, both sides met in Corrigan’s eatery to discuss joining forces to buy the Burlington site, which would give the straitened Ronan access to greater financial firepower to put up a prime office block.

As he cultivated Jaeger, another Irish accent kept rising above the restaurant din. It was Corrigan, in high spirits, repeatedly calling from another table: “Hey, that’s my mate Johnny Ronan. If you’re looking to do business in Ireland, do it with him.”

Jaeger liked Ronan and they did the deal, a turning point for the Carrick-on-Suir developer. He had just spent four years battling Nama and suffered the ignominy of business failure.

Ronan was also the target of public ire for his perceived arrogance and, his critics say, vulgar antics during the property boom. Ronan was the poster boy for everything that annoyed people about the Celtic Tiger.

Consortium

But now his consortium and McKillen's were teaming up to build the massive Vertium office block on the Burlington site, which was to be rented out to Amazon two years later in 2016, in the largest letting Dublin had seen in years. The deal secured Ronan's first few million euro for himself since his empire had imploded. It gave him the seed capital for a shot at a real commercial rebirth.

The Vertium deal was also the genesis of his relationship with Colony, run by US billionaire Tom Barrack, a close friend of Donald Trump. Colony and Ronan have since become symbiotic in the Irish market. Jaeger is Ronan's handler, and Colony, along with another group, M&G, subsequently financed his route out of Nama in a €300 million deal in 2015. Ronan paid back his personal loans to the State in full.

Colony has continued to back Ronan in a slew of huge deals since. In 2016, using mostly Colony's cash, they paid Nama €43 million for a prime site on Spencer Place in Dublin. The following year, Ronan began seeking permission for a 22-storey tower on Tara Street, which Colony will likely fund if it ever gets planning.

Three months ago they paid €180 million for another docklands office site, the Waterfront.

Last month, Colony and Ronan secured Facebook as a tenant for a €200 million scheme, Fibonacci Square in Ballsbridge, which will become part of the social media giant's new international headquarters on AIB's campus.

Facebook, which now will have space to add thousands of staff in Dublin in coming years, will pay Ronan and Colony an estimated €600 million in rent over 25 years.

Ronan – now often to be found holding court in the Ivy restaurant in Dublin where one of his favourite wines is Gevry Chambertin – thinks he is back.

His friends say he is once again the biggest prime office developer in Ireland. But within the industry there are varying opinions on the extent of his financial renewal.

Either way, a trawl of media mentions in recent years shows that, whereas reports on Johnny Ronan a few years ago tended to refer to his difficulties, now they are more likely to be about his new deals.

Ronan, who celebrated his 65th birthday on Tuesday, believes he can do it all over again.

Several Johnny Ronans

There are several Johnny Ronans. It depends on your view of the man, but he is the sum of their parts.

There is the talented, driven, ebullient son of a wealthy Tipperary farmer-turned-property developer. The Ronan who, along with his old schoolmate Richard Barrett, built Treasury Holdings into a €4 billion juggernaut, devising some of the most impressive commercial schemes ever built in Ireland, before losing it all in the crash.

There is the party animal Ronan, who infuriated everybody around him by flying off to Marrakech with a model on a private jet after a boozy session in 2010, to the disgust of taxpayers just as Nama was being established. This is the Johnny Ronan who paraded around town in Maybachs and helicopters, flaunting his wealth even as the walls were caving in during the crash. At that time he personified everything at which a chastened public was angry.

Then there is the snarling, aggressive combatant, the Ronan who could get into a fight in a phonebox. Ronan regularly clashed with his commercial opponents, in the courts and in the press. His relations with Nama, whose leaders he publicly compared to “butchers performing heart surgery”, were also notoriously uncivil. Relations were strained with Nama in public, while in private he would crudely insult them.

He became embroiled in several bitter court cases with the State agency as it hunted down Treasury’s assets, including those in China, for the taxpayer. He was more acquiescent when it came to Nama overseeing his vast personal assets in Ronan Group Real Estate (RGRE).

A degree of mistrust developed between Nama and Ronan over his personal conduct in public, says a source in Dublin’s financial community. “He has to shoulder some of the blame for that himself.”

Although Treasury went into Nama in 2010, the more urbane Richard Barrett had avoided going into the agency personally because he had never given any bank a personal guarantee on a loan. He could walk away from his companies.

Ronan, the source said, “blinked” with a couple of guarantees late in the boom on personal assets, which meant Nama could train its sights on all that he owned.

Ronan believed Treasury’s proposed 8 million sq ft redevelopment of Battersea power station in London, in conjunction with Malaysian partners, would yield billions of euro, enough profit to keep it solvent.

However Nama, which would have been slated if it was seen to be backing his resurgence, pulled the plug. It later sold Battersea out from under Ronan and Treasury, to the same Malaysians with whom they had planned to develop it. This infuriated Ronan, who feels betrayed over it to this day.

Liquidation

In the finish it was Belgian bank KBC, and not Nama, that pulled the trigger on Treasury’s liquidation in 2012 over a €55 million debt. Nama could have prevented this by buying out KBC’s loans, but how would it have looked publicly at the time, during the nadir of the crash, if Irish taxpayers were to cough up on property loans to a foreign bank?

“Nama should really have bought out KBC. But with Marrakech and everything else that went on, could it really have gone out on a limb for him?” says one source.

Nama also held Ronan’s €400 million personal loans, hanging the sword of Damocles above assets all over Ireland and abroad, including office blocks and other buildings, his country estate in Enniskerry, wine collections and horses.

Relations between Ronan and Nama were difficult, so the agency installed an independent monitor, Ronan Barrett of Citadel Corporate Finance, to babysit RGRE.

Ronan’s friends say his best achievement in the Nama years was keeping the agency at bay for long enough on his personal assets to allow the rent-roll from his tenants to rise higher, helping him to attract a backer to finance his way out.

He remained bitter about his Nama experience, and was of a mind to continue fighting it in a succession of legal battles

Negotiations with Nama on his exit started in 2014. Ronan brought Leech in to front the talks. They came close to refinancing deals with AIG and Citibank, before Colony arrived on the scene in the wake of the deal for the Amazon building. Along with M&G, it backed Ronan to pay off his Nama loans. The State had lost out heavily on Treasury, but it was repaid in full by RGRE.

In April 2015, when his exit was confirmed, he held a huge party in his “Pink Palace” palazzo in Dublin 4. “It’s like getting me mickey out of a bear trap,” a relieved Ronan is said to have mused at the time.

He remained bitter about his Nama experience, and was of a mind to continue fighting it in a succession of legal battles. Sources familiar with his relationship with Colony say the group, as well as his daughter Jodie Ronan, RGRE's chief operating officer, convinced him to let it go.

Colony had decided it would invest heavily in financing huge prime office complexes in Dublin for multinationals. It wanted Ronan, considered one of the very best at such projects, to be its partner and to build them. This was partially why it had backed his Nama exit in the first place, to free him from its yoke.

“How could they have bought the sites from Nama to do office deals if Ronan had been suing Nama in the courts?” asks a source. The developer is said to have concluded that he might “piss Nama off even more” if he recreated his old success. He let it go and faced the future, leaving his past achievements, and his failures, behind.

Sweat equity

In less than four years, Colony, with Ronan at its side, has made a €3 billion bet on the Irish commercial property market. It believes that foreign multinationals, such as the major Silicon Valley tech companies, will maintain an “insatiable demand” for major office schemes in the capital for the foreseeable future.

Jaeger is known to be aware of all of Ronan’s foibles, but is accepting, even embracing, of them. Colony seems to have decided that this is all part of his entrepreneurial bent: his driven, ferocious approach to building schemes.

Ronan wants to build bigger, higher, better than anyone else. With Colony’s financial backing, he can let loose.

Opinions are split in Dublin’s financial and property communities over just how much money Ronan is making from his partnership with Colony, which is his lender as well as his development partner. Some believe he has very little equity of his own in the deals.

They say he subsists on development fees, as a sort of glorified hired hand. Others calculate that he gets a form of “sweat equity” from Colony, a stake of the proceeds that he has to earn as he goes along. The better Colony does, the more they give him.

The truth is that in almost all of his deals with Colony, Ronan has all three: real equity, sweat equity, and fees. Colony will not work with Ronan unless he puts some of his own money into projects, even if it is accepted that the US firm puts in the majority of finance.

He is a 50-50 equity partner with Colony on Fibonacci, after it bought out a stake held by Siobhan Quinlan, wife of property financier Derek Quinlan. She is a friend of Ronan's wife, Waterford native Mary Ronan.

Colony, a source says, seeks high double-digit returns on its property investments, but Ronan is heavily incentivised to achieve higher returns. The higher he goes over it, the bigger his percentage of the spoils: his “sweat equity”.

Ronan also picks up chunky development fees as Colony’s partner on the ground, identifying sites, planning schemes, ensuring quality and finding prestigious tenants.

Ronan, as he passes official retirement age, is reaching as high and as far as he can to restore as much as possible of his former empire before he runs out of time

Ronan is known in development circles for his attention to detail, and his stylistic flourishes. For example, tenants at Connaught House, a Dublin 4 office complex built by Ronan, point to its massive cast bronze door handles, which weigh almost as much as the doors themselves, as the sort of gilded feature that you simply do not find at other Dublin office complexes.

Outside the front door lies a huge, bronze Patrick O'Reilly sculpture of Queen Maeve of Connaught, radiating military and sexual power, bare-breasted and holding aloft the head of an enemy. Ronan liked the statue so much he is believed to have had a replica made for the garden of his Enniskerry estate.

Ronan was also centrally involved in recruiting a tenant, thought to be the US tech giant Salesforce, for the docklands scheme at Spencer Place. The 500,000sq ft deal, when it is announced, is likely to be the biggest office letting in Irish history. Last month's Facebook transaction, at 350,000sq ft, isn't all that far behind. The Tara Street tower will be the tallest in the city.

Rowan is known to be in regular contact with IDA Ireland, the State’s inward investment agency, about the needs of multinationals for large office spaces. Ronan is assessing one major project for Galway, although it is unlikely Colony will follow him there.

Colony is prepared to do deals with him in London, but not just yet. Ronan also has plans for luxury housing on a site in Cabinteely, where he is in a right-of-way dispute with a Nama receiver on lands next door – plus ca change.

Retirement age

Ronan, as he passes official retirement age, is reaching as high and as far as he can to restore as much as possible of his former empire before he runs out of time.

Yet it feels that something, or someone is missing: the calmer yin to his chaotic yang, his old Treasury Holdings business partner Richard Barrett.

There is no evidence of a major falling out between the pair. Perhaps it just a conscious uncoupling of their commercial interests. Yet Barrett is known to have been mortified by some of Ronan’s previous antics, especially the media feeding frenzy over the Marrakech jaunt. The strain of their respective travails with Nama must also have taken a toll.

There is little contact these days between Ronan and Barrett, who has interests in China, and in Ireland with Bartra Capital. They are still co-investors with Norwegian marine group Fred Olsen on a proposed €3 billion wind farm off the Arklow coast. But that appears to be the longest of long-term projects. Who knows what its ownership will look like by the time it comes to fruition.

Barrett and Ronan were spotted at the same private party recently in Dublin – an event one attendee joked had descended into something reminiscent of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch, the classical Dutch painter known for depicting scenes of sin and hell.

Ronan still knows how to enjoy himself. He might be almost old enough for a free bus pass, but he usually goes around in a chauffeured car.

Ronan also has an eye on the future at RGRE. As well as his daughter Jodie, who is his right-hand woman, its 17 staff includes her husband John Savage, and Ronan's two sons John Jr and James.

The most recent accounts for Ardquade, one of RGRE’s main entities, show bank loans of about €230 million, but RGRE’s assets are reputed to have recovered their values to well above that. His family’s financial future looks secure.

When not in Dublin Ronan spends most of his time these days in Majorca, acquaintances say, where he is believed to have access to a yacht. Friends say he cycles most mornings to keep fit.

Homeland

Ronan has many critics, and his return will always rankle in a society that is still counting the costs of the last property crash.

In many ways, with his shameless braggadocio and conspicuous flaunting of wealth, Ronan encapsulates particularly un-Irish traits. In others, his arc over the past few decades hasn’t been too unlike the one followed by his homeland.

Like Ireland, he had success upon success, which turned out to be utterly unsustainable. This was followed by a humbling reckoning that almost finished him, and then, latterly, an unlikely but spectacular resurgence with the aid of US investment.

Ireland learned some harsh lessons on its own, painful version of that undulating journey over recent years. If anything came of it, our society realised what we need to do better.

We will find out, eventually, if Ronan did the same.