Tony Quinn, oil baron

 

Yoga entrepreneur and mind coach Tony Quinn has developed a new career as an oilman – through his directorship of International Natural Energy. But the company has suffered a boardroom rift and shareholder protests, and Quinn himself is the focus of much of the controversy, writes PAUL CULLEN

IT WAS – and this is the only thing that everyone involved now agrees on – like a dream. A tiny bunch of Irish entrepreneurs in a far-off country try their luck in the oil-exploration business. They follow a hunch and strike liquid gold at the first attempt. Dirty black crude belches from a pipe in Central America, promising untold riches for dozens of investors. Industry money pours in and the impoverished locals share in the bonanza.

But maybe it was really a dream, or too good to be true. Today the original promoters are in conflict. Three of the five original directors are gone from the company, and one has died. Writs are flying. Allegations of covert surveillance and intimidation thicken the air. Some locals in tiny Belize are unhappy with their share of the windfall. And despite the millions earned in revenues, no dividend has been paid out to shareholders, apart from a tranche of loans advanced last Christmas.

And yet for one man this is really a dream come true: the one-time yoga guru, health-food entrepreneur, hypnotist and, latterly, business coach Tony Quinn. Best known to the public as the mind trainer of the boxing champion Steve Collins, Quinn has no background in the oil business and wasn’t involved in International Natural Energy when its founders struck oil. Yet today he is a director and owns a considerable shareholding. In 2008, this was worth an estimated €16 million, though it may be less now.

The unlikely oil baron lives in the Bahamas and rarely visits Ireland. To his devoted followers, many of whom have shelled out €18,500 to attend one of his Educo Mind Power seminars, or €63,500 for a higher-level seminar, Quinn was the inspiration for the oil find. To his detractors, who include former adherents, Quinn has attained a position of commercial power and been rewarded with thousands of shares for no clear reason.

The story of International Natural Energy (INE) begins with a partnership between two Northern women, Susan Morrice and Sheila McCaffrey. The pair met on the White House lawn in the mid-1990s, at one of Bill Clinton’s drives to promote investment in Northern Ireland, and teamed up to prospect in the Border counties.

McCaffrey, from Co Fermanagh, had a background in call centres; Morrice, a sister of the former Northern Ireland Assembly member Jane Morrice, was a geologist. They joined forces with an English drilling contractor, Paul Marriott, but found nothing of consequence in Ireland.

Morrice, who has lived in the US for years, then suggested looking for oil in Belize, and McCaffrey and Marriott agreed to give it a try.

Oil exploration requires buckets of money and the intensive application of science. The trio believed, however, that they had a trump card, in the form of mind-focus techniques learned at Quinn’s seminars.

“After understanding this, discovering oil in Belize suddenly seemed much more attainable,” Morrice wrote recently. “Tony showed us how to concentrate even more on our dream so that it stood out even stronger in our minds. The resulting certainty gave us energy, drive and conviction and drew success to us like a magnet.”

The two women turned to others who had attended Quinn’s seminars and persuaded them to invest. More than 300 people and their families stumped up amounts between about €40,000 and €200,000. Most were Irish and 90 per cent were “Educo-ists” who had been through the Mind Power seminars.

The government in Belize granted the company an exploration licence covering 190,000 hectares, but Belize Natural Energy, the INE subsidiary that would conduct the search, had the money to drill only two holes. As Morrice recalled: “Somewhere in this vast acreage we would have to choose where to drill two 20in, 4,000ft-deep holes with the slimmest chance of discovering oil – truly, a needle in a haystack.”

For 50 years the giants of the industry had drilled wells in Belize in a fruitless search for crude. Belize Natural Energy started drilling in the jungle in June 2005 and less than a month later discovered high-grade oil.

As Morrice told The Irish Timeslast week, oil companies expect to drill 10-15 exploration wells before finding anything, but the Irish found light crude on their first attempt.

So was it pure luck? Morrice says that she had a “tremendous sense of the presence of oil” in Belize and that after going to one of Quinn’s seminars she learned to hold to her belief “despite what everybody else said”.

Today the field in which oil was found is pumping 4,000-5,000 barrels a day and has reserves of almost 12 million barrels – this in a country that, with just 300,000 inhabitants, is the size of Munster. Crude oil now accounts for a quarter of Belize’s exports, and Belize Natural Energy is the single biggest contributor to the country’s tax revenues.

Company infighting started almost as soon as the size of the oil field was confirmed. There was friction among staff as the results of further drilling disappointed. Boardroom rows erupted over whether share ownership should be restricted to people who had been to the Educo Mind Power seminars. Unrest spilled into the shareholder body, and some started campaigning for greater transparency and the release of dividends.

McCaffrey was replaced as chief executive of Belize Natural Energy by a local businessman, and in 2007 she was removed altogether from the running of the company. Marriott resigned and another director, a French geologist named Jean Cornec, tried to sell up.

Trading in shares was suspended for a time as Morrice blamed personality issues for making her job more difficult. “Individual desires and personal egos were beginning to override the collective good of the company,” and “negative rumours” were undermining the share price, she told members.

Quinn was given 64,000 shares, amid arguments at board level about what, if anything, he should provide in return and about the legitimacy of his appointment as a director.

Morrice accepts Quinn wasn’t formally involved at the start but says the group would not have come together except for him. “The originators had all been to his seminar and understood what he meant about the workings of your mind. We wouldn’t have found oil if it were not for Tony. That’s why he was given a share of the company.” She adds: “Tony is ahead of his time. Look how he brought yoga to Ireland 10 years before it became the norm.”

Others are less positive about Quinn’s influence. George Hamilton, a small shareholder, believes Quinn was appointed in the hope that he could help find more oil. “The directors were in awe of him and believed that they had only been successful because of his Educo seminars,” he says. No new oil has been found in recent years, though Morrice says recent drillings could provide “good news”.

Mike Garde, director of Dialogue Ireland, an organisation that focuses on new religious movements, says it has dealt with more than 200 people with issues arising from their involvement with Quinn’s organisation. He says the cases involve allegations of “people’s loss of ability to think straight once their mind has been taken over”.

Morrice rejects any suggestion that she is in thrall to Quinn. “No, quite the opposite,” she responds. “People who attend his seminars are not likely to be influenced by others, because they understand the workings of their own minds.”

Quinn’s position on the board was secured after Cornec sold his shares on condition that he first recognised Quinn as a director. That deal is now the subject of US court proceedings, with Cornec claiming he is owed millions and International Natural Energy counter-claiming that it was entitled to stop payments because, allegedly, he broke an agreement not to “disparage” the company by making “negative remarks”.

Five years after oil was found the company has yet to pay a dividend. Dermot Bruton is a small shareholder who invested €20,000 in 2006. “I had a few bob at the time and was hearing about the oil company at the gym I go to,” he says. “Against my better nature I went on one of the seminars, so as to be able to buy the shares.”

He is now anxious to cash in his investment but can’t, having tried without success to sell his 90 shares for two and a half years. On several occasions the company has told him there are no names on the list of approved buyers. “I can’t sell up, I can’t get a return and I can’t get out.”

Hamilton is critical of the lack of information as well as the failure to pay a dividend. “There’s been no word of an agm this year, no accounts for last year and no up-to-date valuation of our shares.” He admits his €8,000 investment six years ago was a gamble and that he could have sold up a few years ago but didn’t when a second well was discovered. His shares were once valued at €120,000, he says, but are now worth “probably nothing”, because of the difficulty in selling them.

Morrice says the disgruntled shareholders are in a small minority. She points out that the company controls just 54 per cent of the oil field; the rest is owned by a US partner and the Belizean government. Money had to be borrowed to develop the field, and the banks involved won’t allow the payment of dividends at this stage, she says.

Last autumn Quinn’s appearance at the RDS, in Dublin, was marred by a picket manned by former followers and by members of Dialogue Ireland. As the internet hummed with the complaints of aggrieved shareholders, the company warned that those behind a campaign of “misinformation, negative publicity and personal harassment” would be pursued with the full weight of the law.

By now McCaffrey was suspended from her position as a director of International Natural Energy, and shareholders were warned about having contact with her. Her house in Belize was searched by police. Friends say she is currently examining her legal options.

Matters came to a head last September, when rebel shareholders tried to organise an extraordinary general meeting in Dublin. Lawyers for INE warned the group the meeting was illegal.

At an agm later in the month, photographs of those who attended the dissidents’ meeting were projected on a screen. Marriott and McCaffrey each circulated statements rejecting allegations made against them by the company.

The company announced a loan-release program for investors. Shareholders would be given loans against future profits rather than a dividend; the company said this was more tax efficient. But the loan was conditional on co-operation with the company’s “ongoing investigations into alleged misconduct by members”. Only shareholders held to be in good standing would qualify.

A number of shareholders have claimed to The Irish Times that they have been followed by a private investigator. Asked about this allegation, Morrice says it shows that a small group will do anything to undermine the company. “We will not stand for it. This is too important a company, not just for the members but for Belize.”

She acknowledges that photographs have been taken of people attending the meeting of dissident shareholders. “We got the photographs from members and put them up on the screen. I don’t know whether or not they were taken with their knowledge.” She said this was done because members wanted to know about the negativity that was preventing them selling their shares.

In a message to shareholders last October Tony Quinn urged them to “go after the millions and don’t bother with the pennies” and to end to the “noise” – or disagreements – within the company.

An €80 million deal with a potential investor broke down because of “the NOISE!”, he claimed. “Frankly we on the board cannot waste too much time dealing with the noise. It really is decision time for all of you.”

Morrice puts the discord down to the desire of a minority to “get money fast”. This group is “undermining” the company, thereby thwarting the efforts of small shareholders to trade their shares.

In a statement she said: “BNE and the country of Belize are going from strength to strength because our endeavors have yielded real and tangible benefits to the people and Government of Belize, as well as the members of the Company and our financial backers. Our strategy is supported by the vast majority of our investors . . . There is a small minority who do not agree with our approach for their own personal reasons and agenda.”

She also told The Irish Timesthe share valuation, which started at $15 and at one time soared to $400, had “plummeted” because of the resulting negative publicity.

Morrice also describes the loan-release programme as a creative and tax-efficient solution that is supported by 95 per cent of shareholders and that resulted in a payout this year of more than €7 million.

International Natural Energy is privately owned and incorporated in Nevis, a tiny Caribbean tax haven, making it difficult to obtain financial information. Morrice told members last January that members had realised profits of €15 million from an initial €4 million investment through sales of their shares.

Back in Belize there have been rumblings from opposition politicians, who claim the country should be getting a bigger share of the bonanza. Belize Natural Energy says the government’s cut is comparable with other “frontier oil” scenarios where costs and risks are high.

For now the stalemate continues. Morrice says the company takes the disputes very seriously. “This company is the backbone of Belize. We must have loyalty. These people trying to undermine it are a small group acting at the expense of the small shareholder.”

The company hasn’t communicated with shareholders since January. Its oil-prospecting concession runs out at the end of the year, although discussions with the Belizean government about a renewal are ongoing.

Tony Quinn is due back in Ireland next month, prompting speculation that an agm may be held shortly. The only certainty is that the oil keeps coming.

Larger than life: Tony Quinn's controversial career

Tony Quinn has been a familiar and controversial figure in Irish life for almost four decades, even though he has lived for years as a tax exile in the Bahamas.

His website claims he is “often credited” with bringing yoga to Ireland in 1971; by 1974, when he was interviewed by Niall Stokes in The Irish Times, his empire extended to 20 schools around the country. The schools were branded as teaching Tony Quinn’s yoga because “we didn’t want to be associated with any other type of yoga – Hindu or Tibetan or whatever”. Asked by Stokes how he learned yoga, Quinn replied: “I didn’t learn. I believe in reincarnation and I can remember past lives, and I believe I can remember the lessons from past lives.”

Bodybuilding was another passion, and Quinn claims to have won a string of titles, such as Mr Ireland and Mr Health Strength. In 1976 he opened his first health-food shop, on Eccles Street in Dublin, which survives today. Further shops followed around the country, as did a mail-order business.

By the 1980s he was a household name, thanks to the nationwide distribution of his Blueprint for Living newspaper, with its trademark emphasis on good news and positivity together with the promotion of vitamins and supplements. Quinn then studied hypnosis and neurolinguistic programming and was seen on The Late Late Show hypnotising patients who then underwent procedures without anaesthetic.

But his greatest moment came when Steve Collins took him on as a mind coach as the boxer challenged for the WBO middleweight fight against the holder, Chris Eubank. Collins took the title. Eubank later claimed he was “spooked” by the belief that Collins was hypnotised before he went into the ring. Collins and Quinn later parted company, and Collins revealed that he had paid his mentor more than €400,000 for his services.

Clients flocked to learn Quinn’s techniques in the years after the Collins fights, and he began holding large seminars promoting his Educo system of “mind technology”. In 1992 1,200 people paid almost €200 each to learn how to achieve their potential at a weekend seminar at the National Concert Hall. He moved his business to Jersey, and his home to the Bahamas, as the seminars became more elaborate. Two-week training sessions in Monaco, Egypt and other far-flung places cost €18,500 during the years of the Celtic Tiger, and the fee for higher-level seminars was more than €60,000.

Although he has always enjoyed adulation among supporters, Quinn has attracted much criticism over the past 40 years. Among the issues that have come under scrutiny are his claims to have healing powers, the fanatical devotion he enjoys from his closest confidants, the financial hardship endured by some of those who borrowed heavily to attend his seminars, and his qualifications.

Last year supporters of Dialogue Ireland, an organisation that gathers information on new religious movements, protested outside one of his seminars in Dublin. The group said it was concerned about personal and financial problems experienced by participants on previous seminars.

The recession appears to have blunted demand for Quinn’s seminars, which have dropped in price. Some of his acolytes have seen their business ventures take a turn for the worse, but the 62-year-old guru still counts himself a member of the super-rich, thanks to his incarnation as an oilman in Central America.

Attempts to contact Quinn over the past 10 days were unsuccessful.