The billionaire who fell in love with Ireland

Jim Thompson, the tycoon founder of Crown Worldwide, went searching for his Irish roots in Waterford and ended up with a Georgian mansion and a massive restoration project

Madeleine Lyons visits the 500 acre Woodhouse estate in Stradbally, Waterford to meet its new owner, American billionaire Jim Thompson. Video: Daniel O'Connor

 

When 74-year-old Hong Kong-based tycoon Jim Thompson arrived at the Woodhouse Estate in Stradbally, Co Waterford just over two years ago he had no intention of buying a property in Ireland. Two days later he struck a deal to buy the Georgian mansion on more than 340 acres for €6.5 million from business partners Aidan Farrell and Charles O’Reilly-Hyland who had more commercial ambitions for the parkland estate.

Growing up in New Jersey, Thompson’s childhood revolved around Irish folk songs and traditions. He had always been curious about his roots but knew little about the country that three of his grandparents had emigrated from in the 1800s. He grew up to establish the Crown Worldwide Group in 1965, developing it into the world’s largest privately held international relocations company, where he still serves as chairman and chief executive.

With more time on his hands, Thompson began indulging in his favourite pastime of genealogy, and in 1996 he visited Ireland, he says, with the naïve hope of finding a plaque or sign stating “Thompsons lived here”.

He found no such clues, but he does recall driving through Stradbally and spotting a beautiful Georgian mansion, prompting him to stop the car and gaze in awe.

Fast-forward to 2012, when a genealogist confirmed Thompson’s belief that his grandparents came from Co Waterford. Among the excitement of an unfolding tale, the genealogist forwarded Thompson a brochure for a property that was on sale in the area, which he immediately recognised as the same Woodhouse Estate he had seen years before.

 

Road trip

That August Thompson and his son took a coastal road trip in Ireland, ending up at Woodhouse Estate. Thompson recalls being blown away as soon as he set foot on the land. “There’s just something magical. When you get on the property you know it’s special,” he says. Thompson stayed for the weekend, and by day two was shaking hands on a €6.5 million deal – about a million less than the asking price.

 

“What made it easier was that I live in Hong Kong, where prices are so unrealistic, so for what you’d pay for a 2,000-3,000sq ft flat there you can get an estate bigger than Hyde Park here,” he says.

The near 500 acres on which Woodhouse Estate now sits is unique. At one end are unspoiled cliffs stretching high above a cove beach (Thompson purchased this parcel of land after the sale to complete the estate); at the other the River Tay rushes through meadows, fields and the dense woodland after which the property is named. Alongside the old mansion is a beautiful walled garden and five cottages, also part of the estate.

Soon after the purchase Thompson and his wife Sally realised there was serious work ahead. The mansion itself hadn’t been occupied as a home for over 30 years, contributing to its deterioration. Renovations began in January 2013, and the project, which has had an army of skilled tradesmen working almost full-time on site, is due for completion in November at a cost of an estimated further €4 million.

 

Complex project

The scale of the renovation under the watchful eye of architect Anthony Bowles and restoration expert Mattie Tynan cannot be overstated because as well as the main house, the complex project includes a full refurbishment of the five estate cottages, new access routes, fencing, forest walks and restoring the walled garden.

The roof has been replaced, and a complex underfloor heating system installed. Thompson struck a deal with ESB to install his own high-speed fibre optic cable (he’s a technophile, and all the internal electrics in the house have been integrated, allowing Thompson to control lighting, security cameras etc from his home in Hong Kong).

The only change to the original layout of the house is the kitchen, which had been located on the dark side of the house, but which Sally insisted on moving to the sun-facing side, replacing a plastic conservatory with a big airy kitchen.

 

Modern touches

Various modern touches are sprucing up the other 25 rooms across the property, especially those towards the back section of the house (originally the servants’ quarters), to include a wine-tasting room, a gym and an entertainment room upstairs with a pop-up widescreen cinema screen.

The unused attic space has been transformed into a children’s playroom for Thompson’s six grandchildren, who he hopes will spend lots of time here. There are plans for a pony or two also, to join the 20 Aberdeen Angus cattle that arrived this month, and the herd of deer that came with the house.

Despite the facelift, Thompson will leave most of the house close to its original configuration. He has hired a local historian, who discovered records showing that as early as 1600 there was a stone house on the site. “When we started taking back plaster, we saw archways that have been there forever. We’ll leave them exposed – it’s part of the story,” he says.

Jim and Sally visit frequently for month-long stays, staying in one of the cottages while they oversee renovations. “When I’m over there, I’m in jeans and I’m so relaxed being around nature,” says Thompson. “The Irish people we’ve met are just wonderful, so friendly and so much fun to be around – no pretences, just nice folks.” He has become something of a regular in the local pub, and greatly enjoys the traditional music scene.

 

Philanthropic deeds

The Thompsons, who are widely known for their philanthropic deeds in Asia, are eager to be involved in all aspects of village life. “We want them to feel we’re part of the village,” explains Thompson, as he details plans to run village fairs, and host drinks as soon as renovations are complete, and to erect a big Christmas tree in the village later in the year.

Clearly excited at the thought of their first big family Christmas in Ireland, and eager to throw himself into country living, it would be no surprise if the Thompsons’ stays in Waterford became more permanent. “Put it this way,” he grins. “We’ve just had a lift put in. That was Sal’s idea – and she’s 10 years younger than me.”