A long way from penniless grapples for Bill Cullen

Car dealer and former TV3 ‘Apprentice’ star has come full circle

Bill Cullen, the former Apprentice television star and one-time king of the Irish motor industry, bounds into his new dealership like a man three decades younger than his 72 years. He is a half hour late and extremely apologetic.

“I got a call to go into town and I thought I’d make it back in time to meet you,” he gasps through his finely-honed Dublin patter.

He might be getting older, but Cullen still has a handshake like a Bulgarian weightlifter.

“I’m really sorry. But hey, at least I sold a car in the meantime. That’s good news, isn’t it?”


Cullen’s tale of rags to riches and back to rags, followed by a humble fresh start, is the perfect parable for the modern Irish economy.

He is the Celtic Tiger in a snappy pinstriped suit, the man who rose from the Dublin tenements to build a Renault empire worth €100 million, with assorted bits and bobs of property like every Irish millionaire during the boom.

About 18 months ago, his world began to fall apart when the banks seized first his Glencullen motor sales business, followed by the Muckross Park five-star hotel in Kerry he owned along with Jackie Lavin, his companion of 35 years.

“I spent six months trying to get my head around how it happened the way it did,” he says. “It put a little stop to my gallop for a while. But as soon as I copped on, I said I’m not having that and I’m going to do something.”

His schtick requires him to play up the classic you’ll-never-get-me-down attitude, but he looks genuinely wounded recalling his troubles.

Loud, opinionated, admired, derided, hounded by banks but still resolutely supported by those close to him, Cullen remains an intriguing character.

Love him or hate him – and some people do – the doughty Dub who revels is his own rambunctiousness hasn’t gone away, you know.

This is how you get back into business in your eighth decade, after one of the most high-profile personal downfalls of the economic crisis.

Six weeks ago, Cullen announced his business rebirth with Bill Cullen Premier Cars, a modest Ssangyong dealership on the Naas Road in west Dublin.

“Ssangyong – most people can’t even pronounce it,” he says of the Korean car franchise. “But I’m always ready for a challenge . . . ”

He had better be.

The dealership, located in an old tile warehouse, is bright and airy, but spartan. Cullen leads us into an office looking out onto the showroom.

The flatpack furniture is shiny and new, but from the look of things he doesn’t do much work sitting behind his desk. Cullen was never a desk man.

“The business is owned by Jackie – I’m working for her. We have 30 cars on site, and it will be 40 from next week because Ssangyong will now be giving us a good stock of vehicles,” he says.

According to his first book, A Long Way from Penny Apples , his Renault business had peak sales of about €300 million a year. For his newest venture, Cullen's aim is to sell about one car per week.

Cullen and Lavin have had several high-profile court scraps with banks and receivers since the downfall of their previous empire.

Last year, he told another newspaper that he planned to take “warrior actions” to get the better of his detractors. That is now the name of the holding company for the new business.

He still has financial difficulties. Ulster Bank, for example, has an €8 million judgment against him. So where did he get the cash for the new venture?

“I think we did it for about €50,000. I know a DIY fellah who got good deals for us, and the fit-out was probably 40 per cent less than it should have been. Any few bob that Jackie had and that we could raise from friends, it’s gone into this business.

Old acquaintance
"Our target for the year is only 60 cars, so a bit more than one a week. I'd love to do two a week or three a week. What else can I do but sell cars?"

Cullen called on an old acquaintance, Robert “Pino” Harris. A part of the family-owned Harris motor group owns the Ssangyong franchise for Ireland.

There are parallels between Harris and Cullen. They’re the same age. Both came from modest backgrounds to become motor industry millionaires. But where Harris has always eschewed publicity, Cullen laps it up.

“It’s great to work with a man who I have known all my life, whose mother was a friend of my mother’s. I’m very happy to work with Ssangyong,” he said, not wanting to dwell too much on the relationship.

Of the 30 cars currently on the lot, 20 of them are high-quality used cars from a variety of manufacturers. The rest are brand new Ssangyongs.

The brand currently represents “about 20 per cent” of the business, Cullen says, although the objective is to get it up to 50 per cent by the end of the year.

“To get any of the other [better known] franchises would have been too difficult for us. There are too many specific criteria [for the showrooms]. To start off here, I’d have needed 12 to 14 people.”

Bill Cullen Premier Cars has only four staff. “Ssangyong are saying: look, we’re all only starting off here, so let’s keep the costs low so we can get off the ground.”

It seems an odd partnership, but Cullen and Ssangyong could work together. He gets a route back into business and the Korean brand, little-known in Ireland, gets guaranteed media exposure.

“I’m not looking beyond the next 12 months. I’d like to be able to say we helped get Ssangyong off the ground and helped move it forward.

“When I came in here I thought: ‘Here we have a brand that has been a poor performer’. But there’s new models coming in. I want to help get the brand a market share it can build on.”

Cullen wriggles a bit when asked how he finances the fleet.

"Harris are looking after us. The new cars are all financed by Harris. It's like that for all of the big dealers like BMW, where the manufacturer will finance the new cars and you pay them when you sell it. You'd also get some finance for used cars. But you don't get anything for used cars in a smaller operation."

Dealing with the fallout
All Cullen's boomtime debts were with foreign-owned banks: Rabobank, Danske Bank and Ulster Bank. "I'll never cost Irish taxpayers a penny," he smiles. The new business has a good relationship with "one of the local banks".

"They are working with Harris as well, so we are quite happy. It is great to see one of the banks giving us support." Cullen doesn't name the institution, but Harris Commercial Vehicles, owner of the Ssangyong franchise, is with AIB.

Talk of banks drags the conversation back to his troubles. Cullen sets aside an hour each day to deal with the fallout, and forgets about it the rest of the time.

“I trusted my banks and they didn’t deserve it – they broke that trust,” he says. But wasn’t it just a case that that you owed them money and couldn’t pay it back?

“With the motor group, we had assets that cost us €80 million and we wrote that down to about €24 million. We still only owed about €11 million. But when you empty a dealership and take my name away from it, you reduce the value of everything.”

His mood darkens and he begins tapping the table.

“How does that make me feel? They took things off me and sold them for half of what they were worth. If I had been left alone, I could have got them their money. Right up until the day we lost it, I paid them their interest – €50,000 a month. There’s something wrong there.”

The situation at Muckross Park last year descended into a court battle, where an examiner brought in by Cullen and Lavin was trumped in favour of a Rabobank receiver.

Cullen is bitter, because he feels the bank let them do all the donkey work by restructuring the business, before suddenly taking it all from them.

Does he ever pop into the hotel for a cup of coffee?

“We’re barred. We got a letter from them [telling us] not to go near the place. Jackie went in one day and she was asked to leave the premises.”

Cullen could have escaped the sharp end of his troubles by decamping to Britain and declaring himself bankrupt, like developers Bernard McNamara and John Fleming and the broadcaster Ivan Yates. Cullen scoffs at the notion.

“Why should I leave this country? Ivan, whom I like, sent me a lovely letter when I went down the tubes. But I couldn’t do what he did. Every year has a winter, and this is mine.”

Cullen steers the conversation back to economic issues. He thinks the Government should raise corporation tax to 15 per cent to take the pressure off ordinary people.

“The big American companies won’t leave for the sake of another two and a half per cent, and small businesses don’t make much profit anyway, so they’d hardly notice.”

He also thinks the car industry is getting a little “overconfident” because car sales were up sharply – by about 40 per cent – in January, less so in February.

“The numbers are being boosted by pre-registrations. At the end of every month, each manufacturer has to get enough cars registered to meet their targets. Then they sell them to you the next month as secondhand at a discount.”

But, inevitably with Cullen, conversation veers back toward his background, his modest upbringing, his mother and family. In recent years, there have been dark moments here, too.

At the height of his difficulties towards the end of 2012, Cullen lost his brother, Aidan, and his sister, Rita, to sudden illness within weeks of each other.

Aidan ran his Swords showroom, and Cullen says he took the receivership badly. “It wasn’t Aidan worrying about himself, it was him worrying about me.”

Perhaps wistful for the past, Cullen launches into a barrage of anecdotes from his memoir, A Long Way From Penny Apples . He says he wants to write a new book, and jokes it will be called Rotten Apples .

He produces a copy of the book, which he says has sold 600,000 copies worldwide, and insists on autographing it: “For Mark. Enjoy these stories of my Ireland in the really tough times.”

Ever the showman, ever the publicist.

He then takes me out onto the shop floor, and starts showing me cars like a salesman. Still a businessman at heart.

CV: Bill Cullen
Bill Cullen
Age: 72
Home: Naas, Co Kildare.
Education: Parnell Square Tech, College of Commerce Rathmines.
Something you might expect: He feels that the Korean SsangYong brand will be "the next big thing" to hit the Irish car market.
Something that might surprise: He loves chicken wings.