Seán Quinn gets hero’s welcome as locals begin rebuilding empire

The entrepreneur is back in business and has even got himself a job in his old group

John McCartin and Seán Quinn serve drinks to employees as Quinn returns to the headquarters of his former company on the Cavan-Fermanagh border. Photograph: Lorraine Teevan

John McCartin and Seán Quinn serve drinks to employees as Quinn returns to the headquarters of his former company on the Cavan-Fermanagh border. Photograph: Lorraine Teevan

 

“Seán’s back.” The phrase flashed through Derrylin and Ballyconnell when Seán Quinn, for the first time since he lost his empire in the spring of 2011, walked back into the headquarters of the old Quinn Group on the Cavan-Fermanagh border on Tuesday, December 23rd.

Three years ago, such an entrance would have seemed fanciful, but here he was carrying glasses of whiskey and bottles of beer for his former employees.

This was all made possible after a local consortium involving, among others three of his former senior managers and local businessman John McCartin, paid €100 million to the Aventas Group for a substantial portion of Quinn’s old empire. This was done with the support of the US bond holders who effectively own Quinn’s former manufacturing operations through Aventas, which took over when Quinn went bust. Down with the Aventas sign, back up with the old “Q” symbol.

It doesn’t mean Quinn is back in the boardroom but he is back in a position of influence. It’s like old times. Who knows what will happen next?

Quinn (67) has a “consultancy” role now but McCartin doesn’t dismiss the possibility that he could yet be sitting at the boardroom table – or even in his old chairman’s seat.

“There isn’t a person on the planet that I would rule out of future directorships or ownership of this business,” says McCartin, who turned 40 last Tuesday. That applies both to Seán Quinn and his family, he adds.

“I love to see muck on the road,” McCartin says, as we drive up the mountain in his 07 Mercedes-Benz past the various quarries from which Quinn first made his fortune. Muck and dirt mean the Christmas holiday is over and that the Quinn green-liveried lorries are back in business hauling limestone from Slieve Rushen to be pulverised, cooked and transformed into cement in the huge factory below.

From the mountain you can see some of what Quinn created – and what he lost by the gamble on Anglo Irish Bank, which he is now taking to court: extensive cement and glass operations, plastic and packaging, and tile-making factories below us; windfarms behind us on top of the mountain; the Slieve Russell Hotel just outside Ballyconnell. All of this across large tracts of land around Ballyconnell and Derrylin and all from the fervid entrepreneurial spirit of Seán Quinn.

“There was always something new coming with Seán,” says McCartin. “He just seemed to have sat and thought every day about how he would make things grow and about how he would make things better than they were the day before.”

Symmetry

He clearly admires the man, which isn’t surprising as there are symmetry and empathy here. He’s a son of former Fine Gael MEP Joe McCartin, who with his brother Tommy created piggeries, structural steel, clothing and animal feed factories in the 1960s. They brought hundreds of jobs to parts of Leitrim where there were never jobs before, just as from the 1970s Quinn brought thousands of jobs to parts of Fermanagh, Cavan and Leitrim where there were never jobs.

However both operations overextended and both went wallop, with the McCartins and the Quinns arguing that, had they been given more time, most or everything could have been rescued.

McCartin, who is also a Fine Gael councillor in Leitrim, runs a structural steel company in nearby Newtowngore in Co Leitrim, employing about 40 people. He pumps with energy, although this must be a stressful time.

He is also a guitarist with an honours MA in traditional music from the University of Limerick. While we are chatting, a phone call comes in from singer Eleanor Shanley inquiring if he could help out playing guitar at one of her gigs. He brings to mind the adage that if you want something done, ask a busy man.

When Quinn lost his business in April 2011, his manufacturing companies were taken over by a company which rebranded itself as the Aventas Group. Both the takeover and the ditching of the Quinn name caused huge resentment in the area. There were several attacks on the company’s property and vehicles, with staff threatened and the home of the group’s chief executive, Paul O’Brien, subjected to an arson attack.

Last month McCartin and three of the Quinn Group’s former senior managers – Liam McCaffrey, Dara O’Reilly and Kevin Lunney – took over at the group’s Gortmullen headquarters. McCartin is chairman of the holding company, the Quinn Business Retention Company, and a member of the board of Quinn Industrial Holdings which runs the company. McCaffrey is chief executive and O’Reilly is finance director while Lunney also holds a senior post.

Employment

The company employs about 700 people with the glass company still in the hands of Aventas employing about 600. It is estimated that the two operations provide work for about 3,000 people indirectly in the general area.

On December 23rd McCartin joined some of the workers on a cherrypicker to take down Aventas signs and to expose the old “Q” Quinn Group logo. There was a brief attempt by some people to burn one of the signs but that was stopped by McCartin.

Nonetheless, some gloss was taken off the occasion by the arrival of PSNI officers in five unmarked police cars over alleged “criminal activity”. That angered local people, who felt it was somehow pettily motivated by the return of Quinn. “It was bizarre to say the least,” says McCartin.

McCartin’s involvement stemmed from local people asking him about a year ago to try to get as much as possible of the old Quinn Group back into local ownership. With McCaffrey, O’Reilly, Lunney and others on board, it all led – by a circuitous route – to the €100 million buyout of the former local Quinn concerns, apart from the glass company.

McCartin realises that many people may think the €100 million was quietly funded by Quinn. “Yeah, there are people who are saying, ‘Sure you are only an oul’ puppet’. I am sure it is said all over the country. It does not really annoy me because it is immaterial. Ask the bondholders where the money came from. All you have to do is follow the money because the money will tell you the truth.”

Quinn’s remuneration and work schedule are not yet worked out. “We are not going to put him on a clock,” McCartin says. But he will bring Irish and international customer contacts and the goodwill of the staff and the local community. He may also bring new ideas. Co-operation

Moreover, when the company needs to buy more rock, it can expect the co-operation of Quinn’s old neighbours and friends who own land on the mountain.

Local people acknowledge Quinn made the most disastrous of gambles when he wagered €2.8 billion on Anglo Irish Bank but, as McCartin also says, they feel he was “hoodwinked” by some of the bankers and speculators he fell in with in Dublin.

But was he not brought down because he was greedy?

“That’s true and so am I; I don’t know anybody who thinks they have too much,” says McCartin. And then he qualifies: “From what I know of Seán Quinn he leads an extraordinarily modest lifestyle. He does not seem to mourn the fact that he does not drive new cars or fly in helicopters any more; it does not seem to mean anything to him at all.

“But he is very excited about the prospect of getting back on the side of the mountain; he is very excited about the prospect of looking at how those businesses work and seeing what is the best thing to do with them again. I would say he has huge ambition rather than personal greed.”

As the Quinn family case against Anglo Irish will be taking place in the spring he won’t do press interviews, not that he was ever forthcoming to the media.

McCartin understands there are many people who feel Quinn brought all the trouble on himself and in so doing was part of the group who wrecked the country. “But,” says McCartin, “I believe the nation in its entirety does not understand the path that led to the appointment of the share receiver at Quinns and if they did, they’d be far less sure about who was right and who was wrong.”

McCartin is absolutely convinced that rather than putting Quinn into receivership, he should have been allowed to try to get the group back on a sounder footing. “If he owed the money to me I would have left him where he was because that was the best prospect of getting the money back. The bondholders will get some money back but the State will get nothing.”

And that’s what you’ll hear in Derrylin and Ballyconnell, where Quinn remains a local hero; you won’t hear any allegations about “cowboy” business tactics, as you might hear elsewhere.

“He is as good as God to us around this country,” says Ballyconnell butcher Gerard Crowe. “We’ve seen this town with the Troubles and nothing in it; there’d be tumbleweed in the town only for Sean Quinn.”

Pádraig Donohoe, who employs 175 people in three supermarkets in Ballyconnell, Ballinamore and Belturbet, hopes the new group will also get their hands on the glass factory, which would mean virtually all of the local manufacturing end of Quinn back with the old management. “Seán Quinn back has lifted the gloom here,” he says.

Empire

Frank and Kathleen McKiernan, who have run the gift shop in Ballyconnell for 50 years, agree. “We’ve known him well from when he was a gasún; without him you’d have nothing here,” says Frank.

A few miles across the Border in Derrylin the retired principal of St Aidan’s secondary school, Val Cassidy, observes how many of his former students ended up working for Quinn, from ground-floor jobs to senior management, including Kevin Lunney. Like many others he hopes Quinn will have his empire back.

“I would safely say that the minute he walked in through those doors at Christmas, the confidence in the whole area, in the whole company, lifted,” Cassidy says. “I’ve been out and about in the area talking to people, and their first words are, ‘Seán’s back.’”

McCartin believes the company can return profits of up to €25 million per annum, citing how in its heyday the overall Quinn company was making annual profits of €500 million.

The hope is that in three to five years’ time the local management will be able to buy the company from the US bondholders, who have the majority holding on the seven-person board of directors, and then refinance the company at local level.

McCartin, who may run for the Dáil in the next election, indicates that at that stage there could be another local buyout of the company. The wheel could turn full circle.

Seán Quinn would be 70 or 72 then. Could he really come back all the way?

“Who knows where any of us will be in five years’ time?” McCartin says. “But the reality is that in five or six years’ time, if this business is up for refinancing and if another local consortium is in a position to do it and wants to do it, and we are tired of it at that stage, then anything is possible.”

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.