Maverick entrepreneur who went from boom to bust with Celtic Tiger

Farm boy with a flair for business built a fortune worth €1.7bn at its peak

Property developer Jim Mansfield, who died on Wednesday – he had been ill for some time and had suffered from Multiple System Atrophy (MSA) in recent years. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Property developer Jim Mansfield, who died on Wednesday – he had been ill for some time and had suffered from Multiple System Atrophy (MSA) in recent years. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

 

Jim Mansfield was a great, great character,” Noel Smyth, the former solicitor and long- term adviser to the late businessman, recalled yesterday.

The two men first met in the 1970s when Mansfield had a legal dispute about a Dublin nightclub he ran called The Fiesta.

“Jim was impressed that the judge knew my name and we hit it off,” said Smyth. Later their paths would cross again in a spectacular deal which made Mansfield very wealthy.

Mansfield was born on April 9th, 1939. He was brought up by his mother with his two brothers on a farm in Brittas, south Dublin. A strongly-built man, Mansfield had what he described as a “wild youth” but he was also industrious. He had an innate ability to do deals in his head despite leaving school at 14.

His first job was as a truck driver and he settled down somewhat when he married his beloved Anne from Terenure, Dublin 6. Three sons followed – Tony, Jimmy jnr and PJ.

He built up a small haulage business and from fixing his own trucks he developed a love of machinery. He started to trade in used equipment and vehicles and when Ireland entered a recession in the 1980s he snapped up disused building machinery and sold it on abroad.


Falklands war
The British prime minister Margaret Thatcher gave him his big break in 1983 when, after the Falklands war ended abruptly, she put thousands of tonnes worth of plant, equipment and scrap that had been shipped down there unnecessarily up for sale.

Mansfield teamed up with Smyth to buy the lot, backed by a loan from Ansbacher Bank. “We brought it all back to Atlanta and the UK and sold it off around the world,” Smyth recalled.

“We had great fun at that time. The department of defence [in Britain] and lots of other people were annoyed we won the deal! Jim was an entrepreneur who was very anti-establishment and he got a great kick out of it.”

Mansfield in his first interview two decades later said he made IR£100 million from that one deal. He was among the first Irish men to own a private jet as a result.

By 1998, Mansfield owned a 100-bed hotel called Citywest in southwest Dublin. It had a golf course designed by his friend Christy O’Connor Jr, but not much else.

Mansfield asked John Glynn, who ran the Burlington in Dublin, then Ireland’s largest hotel, to help. “Jim spoke like a man in the plant hire business and a four-letter word was not irregular but he was courageous and passionate about that part of Dublin [around Citywest],” Glynn said.

Mansfield and Glynn rapidly expanded Citywest to become a 1,400-bed hotel with a huge banqueting and exhibition hall, which was capable of competing globally.

As the business boomed, Mansfield used its cashflow to borrow about €300 million from Bank of Scotland (Ireland) and Irish Nationwide.

He bought tracts of land, Palmerstown House (whose contents turned out to contain a painting by Picasso) and Finnstown Country House in Lucan.

In 2002 he bought Weston Aerodrome for €12.7 million. He hoped to upgrade it and turn it into an executive airport.

When the Ryder Cup came to the K Club in 2006, Citywest hosted a gala dinner, with guests including Bill Clinton, Tiger Woods and Arnold Palmer. Glynn said he did not believe the Ryder Cup would have come to Ireland if a hotel and dining facility the size of Citywest had not been nearby.

“The Special Olympics was the same,” he said.


Pioneer
“Jim was a pioneer in the hotel and conference business,” Smyth said. However he admitted: “Poor old Jim, he thought you could build first and get planning afterwards, which wasn’t such a good thing to do. He was a maverick.”

At his peak Mansfield employed 1,300 people. His friends included Michael Fingleton, the former Irish Nationwide boss, and “Pino” Harris, a truck dealer, and a group of local friends he had known for decades.

In 2006, Mansfield’s son PJ married former Miss Ireland Andrea Roche in a society wedding, but their union ended in 2010.

A low point for Mansfield was when his jet was hired out to a third party who, unknown to the businessman, tried to use it to smuggle €10 million worth of heroin into Ireland in 2006.

In 2007 Mr Mansfield estimated his fortune at €1.7 billion.


Crash
He was ill-prepared for the crash. Glynn had left the business and Citywest began to struggle and dry up as a cash cow. “Jim bought and bought and built and built. He borrowed on the strength on the cash out of Citywest but when that did a U-turn he was over-stretched and ended up in Nama,” Glynn said.

Receivers were installed to Mansfield’s assets and gradually his empire was all sold off. “The hours, the effort, the risk, it was very sad in the end,” Glynn said.

Mansfield died early yesterday morning after a long period of ill-health that, until the end, saw him telling friends he hoped to make a last comeback.