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Niall is down but dressed for another success

Niall O’Farrell this week saw the business he founded in the mid-1980s, the formal suit hire firm Blacktie, fall into liquidation. The Dragons’ Den star will be hoping his investments on the show pay off soon, writes Kyran Fitzgerald

Life is tricky for most people in business these days and it is positively dangerous for entrepreneurs who take to the airwaves. The casualty list is growing: Jay Bourke of Cafe Bar Deli, Sara Newman, car retailer Bill Cullen, and now Niall O’Farrell of Dragons’ Den fame.

It was announced this week that O’Farrell’s Blacktie formal wear business was being put into liquidation, leaving around 50 jobs in the balance.

In the retail trade, during a recession, January is the cruellest of months, a period of reckoning following Christmas. The downturn has been particularly harsh on businesses that rely on frothy spending and a youthful customer base.

The real surprise is that Blacktie has managed to stagger into a fifth year of this most brutal of downturns. Perhaps O’Farrell really did earn his place on Dragons’ Den with what amounted to a brave rearguard action.

The hirewear firm will remain in the memory of a large number of people who came of age from the mid-1980s.

O’Farrell emerged into money making almost straight from school, like an eager chick bursting out of his shell.

The son of a south Dublin estate agent, he planned to join his father’s firm. The recession in the ’80s put pay to this.

Instead, he took a job in a menswear firm, Frewen & Aylward, starting out in the hosiery department selling socks.

He started out in business with £2,000 earned from jobs such as gardening. He operated his first Blacktie branch from a room in his father’s business with 20 dress suits for hire.

Blacktie blossomed in the ’90s on the back of the explosion in the popularity of US-style school debs events. The firm’s wedding business also rose rapidly with the economic tide.

At its peak, well over 100 people were employed at Blacktie premises around the country. O’Farrell also sold high-end shirts and cufflinks though his separate Henry Jermyn shop business, which remains in operation.

Appearing to surf the rising wave with ease, he began to assemble a considerable property portfolio. In 1998, he paid £3.6m for a site on Shrewsbury Rd, Dublin’s premier trophy home boulevard. He proceeded to build a 9,500ft sq home on the site, part of which he sold off to property developer Sean Dunne. Neighbours included former AIB chairman Dermot Gleeson and Derek Quinlan.

The O’Farrell property met all the Celtic Tiger requirements: Four storeys, built in Edwardian style, 50ft-long basement swimming pool, fully stocked bar, seven en suite bedrooms, cinema.

O’Farrell was photographed in his Blacktie gear astride a Rolls Royce in front of the home. Journalist Mary O’Sullivan was a visitor: "Niall O’Farrell’s magnificent home is much like the shirts that make up his business... made to measure, super smart."

By the time of her visit, it was 2009 and the home was up for sale — a snip at €14m. It was finally reported sold for a little over €5m at the end of last year.

O’Farrell confessed that he was in fire-fighting mode, having returned fulltime to run Blacktie, which shed four branches and more than 50 jobs as the recession took hold.

The end of the boom brought the demise of the charity gala dinner, a mainstay of the business.

Cash for weddings contracted. Youngsters discovered that you could buy a tux for the cost of three Blacktie rentals.

Ironically, the ship began to sink soon after O’Farrell achieved national prominence, in 2008, with the launch of the Irish version of Dragons’ Den.

O’Farrell is one of the quieter Dragons, willing to invest rather than simply breathe fire.

His Dragon investments include: Button & Co Goldsmiths; henparty.ie; and Mooz Shakes.

Along with fellow Dragon Bobby Kerr, boss of the Insomnia coffee chain, he invested €50,000 in a 40% stake in a organic Kerry-based venture, the Beal Cheese Company.

The firm evolved out of a dairy farm based at the mouth of the River Shannon and achieved full organic status in 2000.

It is run by Kate Carmody, who previously ran the farm with her late husband.

Kate says the business is on track despite the fact that she has been laid up for much of the past few months with a trapped nerve in her neck. The company started exporting to Germany in the summer but had to turn down other overseas offers due to her injury.

Kate has no regrets about taking the Dragon investors on board. "Niall and Bobby have been supportive while I’ve been sick," she says.

"The Dragons have given good advice. I haven’t always taken it. They are too far away to be hands on. Niall is very affable — like everyone, he’s been under pressure."

O’Farrell, meanwhile, will battle on. There are reports of UK interest in some of the outlets.

The cornered Dragon has other irons in the fire and could well rebound sooner rather than later.

Brody Sweeney of O’Briens Sandwiches has returned with a Thai offering. It is hard to keep such characters down.

Perhaps the Blacktie founder will soon give thanks for those Dragons’ Den investments.

The CV

- Born: 1964 Grew up in Mount Merrion, south Dublin.
- Education : Catholic University School College of Marketing, Dublin.
- Career: Shop assistant, Frewen & Aylward
- 1985 : Set up Black Tie
- 2008 : Joins Dragons’ Den TV team.
- 2012 : Closure of Cork branch of Black Tie.
- 2013 : Liquidator appointed to Black Tie Formal Wear.
- Leisure: Golf, sailing.