James Prior obituary: Cork-born entrepreneur, property investor and Chelsea fan

Businessman is described as having humility, generosity and great loyalty as both a mentor and friend

James Prior built up a huge range of friends drawn not just from business but from the worlds of media, sport and music

James Prior built up a huge range of friends drawn not just from business but from the worlds of media, sport and music

 

Born: March 29th, 1939 Died: October 3rd, 2018

In a remarkable sign of the impact he made on his adopted city of London, today at Chelsea FC’s home game in the Stamford Bridge stadium there will be a special tribute in the match programme for Cork-born entrepreneur, property investor and 50-year Chelsea season-ticket holder James Prior, who has died aged 79.

One of the most successful Irish business people of the past 50 years in the UK, through his foundation and leadership of Prior PLC, and his involvement,with fellow-Irishman Vince Power’s Mean Fiddler entertainment group, Prior was regularly featured from the 1980s onwards in the British and Irish financial media. Spending his time between homes in Mayfair and Fairyfield House, his beautiful home overlooking the bay at Kinsale, in the process Prior built up a huge range of friends drawn not just from business but from the worlds also of media, sport and music, the latter including Sinead O’Connor, who sang at his 75th birthday party in 2014.

A native of Cork city, Prior was educated by the Christian Brothers at the North Monastery School, and on leaving demonstrated a natural aptitude for business while working for the Royal Liver Friendly Society. This saw him earn promotion to the firm’s London office aged just 20 in 1960.

Nonetheless, long-time friend and admirer Tom McGurk, the noted broadcaster and journalist, told The Irish Times this week that “when James arrived at Paddington Station [on first coming to London] he had very few advantages, having just a suitcase and the clothes he stood up in.”

Property business

In 1974, he took the adventurous decision to go out on his own in the property business, with Prior Investments Ltd, seeing an opportunity in the then depressed British economy of the early 1970s. Eventually, he was able to bring the firm public in 1984 as Prior PLC.

A Sunday Telegraph article from 1987 at a time when Prior was trying to join the Unlisted Securities Market to raise further funds for his company, estimated its worth then at “between £12 and £15million” profits having jumped from just £100,000 in 1984 to £3 million three years later. The writer described him as “one of the bravest men in London”, for trying to launch in the aftermath of the financial crash of that year.

The listing failed, and there followed some years of crisis for the firm, as by then it had been involved in the “reverse takeover” of the household goods retail chain Knobs and Knockers, which within two years had crashed into liquidation. Profits at Prior sank to just £600,000.

Ever resilient, however, Prior managed to do a deal with his bankers involving the writing off of £3.6million of debt, leaving the company in a solvent position, although he had to reduce his own shareholding from 61 per cent to 35 per cent.

His next business venture was to prove much more successful, when he invested £1million in the Mean Fiddler entertainment group which managed the Reading and Glastonbury Festivals and which owned several big music venues in London. When its founder, Waterford-born Vince Power, was seeking more capital for the firm in 1999, Prior, who already owned the Rainbow, another major London venue, helped him negotiate deals with bankers. Raising over £6million, the group was sold in 2003 to the Live Nation group for £39million.

Mentor and friend

Prior is described, in a strikingly similar use of language by both McGurk and Power, and also by another long-time friend, Irish businessman John McKeon, as having humility, generosity and great loyalty as both a mentor and friend, McGurk remarking that “he was hugely popular because he helped so many young [business] people” with advice, adding that he “represented to the UK the best of the Irish.” One of these so mentored was the now China-based Irish entrepreneur Liam Casey, who said this week that Prior “was a great mentor to people of any age group”.

An important manifestation of both his generosity, and also of his deeply held and practised Catholic faith, was Prior’s financial endowment of the Fr Michael Prior Memorial Trust, which provides bursaries for young Palestinian scholars to undertake postgraduate study in the West. The trust is named in honour of James Prior’s brother, a Vincentian priest who was a renowned scholar of the history of the Holy Land, and who was at one time the Vatican’s diplomatic representative in Palestine.

James Prior was one of five children of James Prior Snr, a Garda, and his wife Eileen (nee Hourihan). His brothers Michael, Peter and John predeceased him, and he is survived by his sister, Nuala Mulcaire, and by his sons, James and Michael, from his second marriage (dissolved), to Anna Bornholt. A previous marriage, to Paola Ditelli, also ended in divorce.

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