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Bobby Kerr looks to the future after cashing in at Insomnia

‘I might do some investing ... consultancy or voluntary work’

Wednesday of this week had to be one of the most miserable days in a very, very long time. For many of us it was the second day back at work after the holidays, which means it was the first day we attempted any real work.

It also rained heavily in Dublin for most of the day – the gloomy lunchtime weather likely matching the mood of the office workers that I'm observing out the window, as they scurry about the city centre like damp little drones. The drenched vista is like a scene from Angela's Ashes.

As I sit in an office overlooking the intersection of St Stephen's Green and Grafton Street, there is a brass band on the pavement below murdering Come On Eileen in the rain. The absolute sadists. The Dexy's Midnight Runners tune is bad enough to begin with. But when it's being blasted at you from trumpets and trombones on a damp Wednesday in January, it is tantamount to torture.

The office in question belongs to Bobby Kerr, the former Dragon's Den panellist, current Newstalk broadcaster and erstwhile chairman of Insomnia Coffee Company. Kerr was even up early on Wednesday morning for a root canal – he should be the most miserable of all. But he just cannot stop smiling.

After selling his one-third stake in the coffee shop chain last month for a sum that must have been in the region of €10 million, who could blame him?

Kerr is having his photograph taken and I’m making small talk.

“That brass band aren’t too bad, sure they’re not?” I contend, lying through my teeth.

"They're not bad at all, actually," Kerr replies, lying right back at me through his own root canal and all. The band has moved on to Suspicious Minds and they're murdering that one too.

The photographer departs and the small talk ceases. It's time to get Down to Business, so to speak, in the parlance of Kerr's Saturday morning radio show on Newstalk. He also presents a separate Newstalk show on Sunday mornings. (It's a pity The Irish Times is, bizarrely, banned from the entire station following a recent group-wide edict from its management. Alas, we must rise above such petulance and turn a dignified cheek.)

Brass tacks

Now, for those brass tacks: How much did Kerr get, exactly, for selling his Insomnia stake back to his business partners just before Christmas?

The chain has 150 outlets that it operates itself or franchises to others, as well as 350 self-service machines in retailers in Ireland and, latterly, the UK, including Spar, Primark and Debenhams.

Kerr’s smile morphs into defiant laughter: “I told you on the phone already – you can ask all you want but I’m telling you nothing about the price.”

A decade ago, when Insomnia was less than a third of the size it is now, it was valued at €16 million. Three years ago, in a Sunday Independent interview with Kerr, it was valued by unnamed "industry sources" at €25 million.

The group’s performance has surely improved further since then, along with the recovering Irish economy and our growing penchant for caffeine. A net valuation for Insomnia topping €30 million does not seem at all farfetched.

“Look, I’m happy with what I got for it,” says Kerr, who is enjoying the intrigue.

His stake has been bought out by his partners, Insomnia's chief executive Harry O'Kelly and John Clohisey, who is also a major investor in BWG, the company that operates the retailer Spar. Kerr officially stepped down as chairman of Insomnia on December 28th.

His personal office was directly above the St Stephen’s Green outlet. As part of the deal he gets to keep his office in the building, albeit he will have to move it one floor up. Also, as part of the deal Kerr hasn’t yet collected the full consideration for his shares.

Skin in the game

“I’ve left some money in the business. It is not an earn-out [a portion of a sale price that is determined by future performance]. Rather, a part of the financing of my exit means that some of the payment we agreed will be deferred.”

Still a bit of skin in the game for now, then.

He will no longer be involved with Insomnia in any other capacity, however, having been its public face for years. He also must adhere to a two-year non-compete clause in the coffee sector.

“It was the right time for all three of us,” says Kerr, who has been an investor in the business for almost two decades. He founded Perk, one of the three coffee chains that merged 15 years ago to form Insomnia, in 1999.

“I’m incredibly positive about this deal. Harry, John and I have worked together for a long time, and we came to an agreement that suited everybody. But the process of closing the transaction was a little... frustrating.”

How so?

“It is amazing that when three people who know and trust each other agree a deal between them, others can get in the way. There was no frustration between the three of us. But the complexity that was brought to the table by others (possibly lawyers?) when we were trying to close it was most frustrating. Time is money. It was supposed to complete in October but it took almost until Christmas.”

When a deal was first mooted, who asked who to dance?

“John asked me and Harry to dance. We had just signed a seven-year deal with BWG. He came out of the closet [with a proposal] when we got a valuation. If I was a betting man, I’d say there might be another twist in it for John and Harry.”

Could one of the remaining shareholders make an offer to buy out the other further down the line? Kerr smiles again, then clams up.“Who knows?”

Catering college

Kerr, who trained at Cathal Brugha Street catering college in Dublin and ran the Campbell Bewley group before he set up Perk, has sold businesses before. He offloaded his stake in Dublin’s Bang restaurant earlier this year, while the wider Kerr family also sold its Newpark hotel in 2008 for €23 million. So the Insomnia deal alone can’t account for his good humour and grace.

Kerr’s bright demeanour is also that of a man who is lapping up a second chance at life. In 2015 he announced live on air that he had been diagnosed with head and neck cancer.

“At one stage it was looking like I wasn’t going to make it through. But I’m now 100 per cent. Totally clear. All good. They stick a snake up my nose every six months to have a look around but it’s fine right now.”

Kerr, who once upon a time used to carry a small amount of weight, looks fighting fit. He says the illness has affected his outlook on life.

“It has changed my view on mortality. I value each day now as a real bonus. I’ve sold out of Insomnia, but I won’t be sitting out at my home in Dún Laoghaire looking out into the sea. I’m going to be doing stuff.”

His wife has already warned him that at 57 he can’t shuffle around the house all day. Not that that’s his style anyway – Kerr, for example, runs 12km three times a week, starting at 6am on a coastal route near his house.

“I’ve never not been busy. I’ll still be broadcasting. I might do some investing. I might do some consultancy or voluntary work. I’ve always been alert to opportunities, and that hasn’t changed.”

He says he is more risk-averse in his investments these days – Kerr lost most of what he put in to the nine businesses in which he invested on Dragon's Den – but he is still interested in hearing from hospitality and food businesses that require backing.

Bricks and mortar

“I’d be looking for businesses that are a year or two old. Bricks and mortar businesses are my thing, rather than the online world.”

He will continue with his Newstalk shows, while this year he is also due to film another eight-episode series of Along Home Shores, a sailing and travel programme for TV3, which will air in autumn.

Kerr is excited about the road ahead, and, surprisingly, not at all wistful about leaving Insomnia. He is as “emotional as the next person” but rarely sentimental in business, he says.

“I don’t believe in falling in love with a business. It’s dangerous. I believe in keeping that little bit of detachment. You add value, and then you move on. Even when we were selling the family hotel in Kilkenny a few years after my father died I didn’t get sentimental over it. It was good to us and we got a few bob out of it. But I’ve no regrets.”

Whatever the future holds for Kerr, he’s going to have a bit of fun in the meantime. Throughout our interview I’m distracted by a large, curly brown object on the table behind him. Is that... what I think it is?

“Yes, it’s a joke hat in the shape of a pile of shite,” says Kerr. “I got it from one of my daughters, and I wore it to the Newstalk Christmas party.”

Kerr jumps up gleefully and pulls it on to demonstrate. It’s actually a full faecal face mask, and it is hilarious.

Good place

Out of Insomnia, but, thankfully, back in the full of his health, Kerr is quite clearly in a good place. Maybe it is getting the all-clear from the cancer, or maybe it is the chunky cheque he got for his Insomnia stake. Or maybe this is just the way the man always is.

His good humour salvaged a dreadful Wednesday, and it almost even made up for the pain of an hour of having my ears assailed by that infernal brass band outside.

Given the ride Kerr has been on in recent years, he deserves his happiness and whatever good fortune lies ahead.

BOBBY KERR: FACT FILE

Age: 57
Family: Married to Mary, with four daughters.
Home: Dún Laoghaire
Hobbies: Sailing, running, cooking (he used to be a chef on oil rigs before entering the hotel and catering industry).
Something about him you might expect: "I have perfected the art of making a killer espresso martini cocktail at home using Insomnia coffee."
Something about him that might surprise: "In 1979 I spent the night drinking with Thin Lizzy frontman Phil Lynott in Acton's Hotel in Kinsale when he was a guest and I was the night porter... on my first night on duty. [I pretended I was drinking vodka and coke but I drank just coke.]"

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