The gentleman farmer revolutionising Dublin’s pub scene

Interview: Matt Ryan - ‘I was born to do business. Love doing business. Still get that kick’

Matt Ryan: ‘We’ve always just focused on being really good at what we do in our business and long may that continue to be our motto.’

Matt Ryan: ‘We’ve always just focused on being really good at what we do in our business and long may that continue to be our motto.’

 

Matt Ryan is making hay while the sun shines, both literally and figuratively. The Press Up Entertainment Group he co-founded with Paddy McKillen Jnr in 2009 continues to expand at a rate of knots. Some 15 new hotels, restaurants, bars and cinemas are slated to open this year and next.

Revenues for 2019 will touch €80 million (latest accounts for the group show they were just shy of €58 million in 2017) and Ryan expects them to comfortably exceed €100 million by the end of 2021.

It has also begun to branch out from Dublin, with hotels planned for Cork and Galway, and the company eyeing opportunities in London.

“We’ve a very strong pipeline ahead,” he says, with a fair degree of understatement.

To unwind from the stresses of the day job, Ryan has a 110-acre farm near Roundwood in Co Wicklow, which he bought two years ago and where he spends most weekends and some weekday evenings. After some inclement weather, Ryan’s team finally cut the grass last weekend and was waiting for it to be bailed. “It’s all cut so fingers crossed we’ll get it done,” he says.

Born and raised in Dublin, Ryan’s country roots draw him to the land. His father, James Ryan – a novelist and university lecturer – would bring the family to his “home place” in Laois every weekend.

His mother, the late Caroline Walsh, had a long and distinguished career with The Irish Times, latterly as literary editor.

Ryan recalls collecting his mother on Friday evenings from The Irish Times’ then office on D’Olier Street before heading to the farm in Laois. “We left [Laois] at seven o’clock on a Sunday evening and were back at half eight. So I never had a Dublin weekend. We went there for three months of the summer, two weeks at Easter, two weeks at Christmas and midterms.

“The farm is very suitable to being out and about and changing my scenario, my scene and my surroundings, while being able to continue my process of phone calls and emails.”

Business mix

Press Up is an eclectic mix of trendy venues in Dublin. It includes everything from the Dean and Devlin hotels to its Union cafes, Wowburger restaurants, Stella cinemas, the live music Workman’s Club, and a variety of hip cocktail bars.

In late 2017, it bought the popular Elephant & Castle restaurant in Temple Bar, and has begun opening it in other locations.

The group employs about 1,700 staff across 42 businesses, with 80 employees in its head office off Camden Street.

Press Up hit the headlines last month when it emerged that Fine Gael TD Maria Bailey was suing for compensation having fallen off a swing outside the company’s Sophie’s restaurant in the Dean Hotel in July 2015.

Her action generated huge media coverage, especially as Fine Gael was seeking to reform the insurance industry and change the claims culture for personal injuries.

The hotel contested the action and denied liability. In a radio interview with RTÉ’s Sean O’Rourke programme, Bailey said she was seeking only €7,000 to cover her medical expenses for the treatment of her alleged injuries.

She brought her claim to the Circuit Court, which has the authority to make awards up to €60,000.

There was a huge backlash against Bailey and Fine Gael, with the Dublin politician ultimately withdrawing the claim amid a storm of controversy. Fine Gael is currently conducting its own review of the matter, led by senior counsel David Kennedy.

Ryan says Press Up has handed over its files on the case to Fine Gael’s review.

“We have long moved on from it,” he says. “Press Up would deal with hundreds of these types of cases each year and, unfortunately, this is an area that warrants huge attention from the Government for Irish businesses.

“It’s not just Press Up: this is killing small businesses, the one-man band who is struggling with rents and rates. It’s a really serious issue.

“Maria Bailey definitely isn’t the only person in this category. We deal with this in multiple versions on a monthly basis.”

Insurance cover

According to Ryan, Press Up pays more than €700,000 annually for its insurance cover.

The swings remain in place, in spite of the controversy. “The swings are enjoyed and photographed by so many people who visit the hotel and we’re not going to remove them from the fray because the likes of Maria Bailey are intent on doing what she did.

“If that was the case, you’d be removing the door off the toilet for the lady who might cut her finger. This is the way it is in Ireland. We’ve got a very heavy claims culture. Maria Bailey is just a drop in the ocean for what goes on out there.

“I remember being really cross about the first few cases in the early days of my career but I very quickly got over it and realised that this is just a constant battle for Irish businesses.

“I’m not going to take happy things out of my business because a very, very small portion of people find a negative in them.”

Ryan is currently on a remote island in Greece for a Mama Mia-style wedding for his wife’s sister. But he remains in touch with the business, where plans are in place to open a number of new venues in the coming months.

This includes a “fantastically exciting” Chinese restaurant opening off Camden Street in late summer/early autumn.

A “really exciting” Indian restaurant called Doolally is also planned. “They’re our two biggest new conceptual things coming to Dublin city,” Ryan says. “We will also have the North Wall Quay hotel [The Mayson] opening by the Central Bank [in Dublin’s docklands] at the back end of the year. A very exciting project.

“We have a Mary’s bar/Wowburger combo, like Wicklow Street, opening on Thomas Street under an office block we’re developing. That’s a great area to be branching into.”

Only last week, it acquired the leasehold interest in the Clarence Hotel on Dublin’s Wellington Quay.

Press Up is also building a hotel beside Kent train station in Cork, and is planning to demolish the Howl at the Moon premises on Lower Mount Street in Dublin to build a Devlin-type hotel.

On Bray’s main street, it has a large development called Project Florentine that will include “some restaurant concepts”, possibly an Elephant & Castle, possibly one of its Union brands, and a Stella cinema.

“Hopefully it will assist in giving the town a lift,” he says.

Press Up also has plans to open more cinemas. “Stella Cinema [currently in Rathmines and Ranelagh] is a big growth area for us and we’ve got some exciting new locations planned for that as well with multiscreen, which is something we don’t do at the moment.

“When the opportunity came along for the Stella in Rathmines we reconditioned it [in 2017]. It was a very big project and we believed there was a market there to bring back a cinema experience for people.

“That’s worked far better for us than we would have thought, and now we’re looking at . . . bringing that experience to more people, especially on a suburban level.”

According to Ryan, Press Up will spend about €5 million on its new restaurants this year while each hotel costs about €15-€20 million to develop. It is a cash-hungry business and last year it hired stockbroker Goodbody to assess funding options, including a stock market listing.

“It was something we looked at. It’s one of the many opportunities we’ve addressed in terms of future debt sourcing and expansion in growth capital. Ultimately it wasn’t for us.

“There were various aspects to it. Remaining in control of our business is critical. We’re experts at what we do.

“We’re continuing to look at the best possible options for Press Up to continue growing,” he says, adding that there are “no current plans to dispose of any units”.

The hotel model is the “biggest growth part of our business”, with three new properties planned.

Press Up also has its eye on the London market – “somewhere central, with high footfall” – establishing a one-person office in Soho to assess opportunities.

“We’ve no ambition to take over the UK but a foothold there would be nice to bring an added wing to the group. It’s definitely on the cards and will probably come through before the year end.

“I’m not getting involved with crazy leases. We like to be a collage of brands that are really good in their field rather than a chain. It would be nice to dip our toe in the water there.”

By 2021, Ryan says revenues will “exceed well beyond” €100 million.

Background

Ryan and McKillen Jnr are “best pals”. They went to UCD at the same time, with Ryan taking French and Spanish and McKillen French and economics. Their first business foray was in 2007 with Captain America’s, before later establishing Press Up.

McKillen’s father, Paddy Snr, is a hugely successful property developer. Many believed it was his money that was initially backing Press Up.

“Absolutely not. Anybody who knows Paddy McKillen Snr will tell you that his boys go it on their own,” he says. “There’s one thing Paddy is not and that’s a bank. He’s a stalwart pillar of advice and he’d support you through any challenge of any kind but he’s no bank. Paddy [Snr] does not nor ever did play a part in the financial banking of Press Up.”

While Press Up has attracted much coverage, Ryan and McKillen Jnr have kept a low profile in the media.

Ryan’s has been boosted of late by his nomination as a finalist in the industry category of this year’s EY Entrepreneur of the Year (EOY) awards. Along with the other finalists and dozens of EOY alumni, he made the trip last month to Hong Kong, China and Macau for the awards’ annual CEO retreat.

The Irish entrepreneurs received presentations from senior local business leaders, made site visits to a number of companies in Shenzhen, and were even granted an audience with Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s political leader, who has subsequently faced angry protests this month for trying to introduce an extradition Bill with China.

Why was only Ryan nominated for the EOY award?

“It’s a testament to our partnership that Paddy felt I should go for it and represent the pair of us, and our companies, and our story. That’s a real partnership.

“It takes a lot of work to sustain a business partnership over a long period of time through boom and bust. We’ve faced a lot of tests and trials. Press Up is a team effort. Each and every person in that journey is playing a part in making the business happen.”

Company roles

How do they split responsibilities of running the group?

“Paddy is an incredible leader. He’s all about growth and location of units and concepts. He has a fabulous design eye, a very keen eye for revolutionary construction. Paddy is a fabulous marketeer with a great sense of what’s over aggressive and when to hold firm. And menu design.

“I’m highly operational and team led. I’m in the engine room . . . I manage the fit-out team on the ground to make sure they deliver the concepts. I look after purchasing, all in-house costs management and I also represent us on a variety of fronts in the industry.”

In his elevator pitch to the other entrepreneurs on the EOY trip, Ryan described himself as a “hustler”.

“Absolutely. I was born for it. Selling conkers in school, Christmas trees in college, born to do business. Love doing business. Still get that kick.”

According to Ryan, notwithstanding some cash flow issues, the recession presented great opportunities for Press Up at a time when many established businesses were struggling.

“By 2010-11, we were the only people bringing fresh concepts to Dublin and I mean the only people. We didn’t realise what a big journey we were embarking on but the more we did, the better we wanted to be.

“People sometimes say to us, ‘God, you own half of Dublin,’ but that’s not what we’re trying to achieve.

“We’ve always just focused on being really good at what we do in our business and long may that continue to be our motto. It’s critical that we continue to push standards and keep up with contemporary demand and make sure that, as we grow our business, we don’t take our eye off the ball.”

Making hay as long as the sun continues to shine on the Irish economy.

CV

Name: Matt Ryan Job: Co founder and owner of Press Up Entertainment Group

Age: 36

Lives: Lad Lane in Dublin 2 and Roundwood, Co Wicklow

Hobbies: He spends most weekends on his 110-acre farm in Wicklow

Family: Married to Emma with two young boys

Something we might expect: He works long hours but “being at home to put the two little fellas to bed at 730pm is a priority”

Something that might surprise: In spite of owning so many bars, restaurants and hotels, he doesn’t drink. “I don’t go for a drink, ever. I just don’t particularly have a mindset for having a drink”