Coughlan more than 'developer who fled'

Coughlan more than 'developer who fled'

Balanced recognition due to legacy of Howard Holdings’ Greg Coughlan, says his former co-director and colleague Brian Madden.

It is with great sadness that I mourn the passing of my friend and colleague Greg Coughlan, former CEO of Howard Holdings plc.

I have written this tribute for those who would like to know a little more about the man behind the headlines, and possibly understand his exile from his native land in his later years.

I first met Greg in October 1988 in London, when I started working with him and his partner Frank Gormley in their fledgling operation in Putney.

Frank and I had both been working with KPMG and were drawn to the enigmatic Greg Coughlan with his evident development skill set, experience and drive to establish a significant business operation in the UK.

In later years that business was to grow to 120+ staff in eight offices throughout Ireland, the UK, Poland, Portugal, Italy, Spain and South Africa and eventually gain recognition as Howard Holdings plc, a former fully listed London Stock Exchange Company, which we privatised in 2002.

In Cork alone, he has been responsible for development of the Clarion Hotel and City Quarter offices, the Boardwalk, the Webworks building, the former Anglo Irish Bank building on Anglesea Street, numerous residential schemes in Rochestown and Douglas and new multi storey car parks at Union Quay, Clarion Hotel, the City Hall, Grand Parade, and St Finbarr’s, as well as Douglas church’s car park.

And the pinnacle of Greg’s vision, The Atlantic Quarter Docklands Project, which was the largest ever planning consent granted by Cork County Council, heralding a new future for Cork back in 2008, 1.6 million sq ft of mixed-use development encompassing an Event Centre, hotel, offices, retail and apartments, working with the likes of the renowned UK Architect Norman Foster (Gherkin building, London) and our own Niall Scott of Scott Tallon Walker.

Greg master-planned the entire docklands, and the Council supported and adopted his vision.

If the foregoing wasn’t sufficient enough of a contribution from any one man, his considerable work in the UK and Europe with shopping centres, hotels, airports, office schemes, apartments etc all stand as a legacy to his incredible work ethic.

In 2010, the outgoing City Manager of Cork, Joe Gavin, singled out Greg Coughlan for his “enterprise and initiative” in bringing the City Quarter project in Lapp’s Quay to fruition.

The scheme transformed what was then a derelict and unattractive part of the city, and was instrumental in creating an area which is now symbolic of the very city itself.

It’s now hard to believe that Greg was only 38 years of age when we first met, he seemed so self-assured and accomplished, yet without the typical accompanying arrogance.

It was always about the vision for Greg, about changing mind-sets, and people’s expectation about the environment in which they live.

For Greg, that meant doing great things with great people, to deliver a quality end product, using great design teams.

He possessed a wise head on young shoulders, he was certainly ahead of his time, a very capable business man, a lateral thinker, a man of integrity with empathy for his society and community at large, a person I would grow to admire more and more throughout the years.

Coughlan more than 'developer who fled'

Greg possessed all of the usual characteristics of a natural leader, high emotional intelligence, a strong work ethic, observant, extrovert, and one who ‘enabled’ rather than ‘controlled’.

But what clearly stood out for me more than anything else, was that Greg was a leader amongst leaders, as distinct from a leader amongst men.

Greg courted industry leaders, from award-winning contractors, architects, consultants, lawyers, politicians, council officials, estate agents, journalists and financial institutions.

Not an easy task, to lead such accomplished leaders in their own right, but ask anyone who knew him in person, they were more than comfortable in investing in Greg’s leadership and vision to deliver extraordinary outcomes.

I watched in awe as Greg master-planned cities, in the UK and Ireland, and we travelled on many occasions to Poland, Germany and Lithuania, by special invitation, to meet with civic officials who desperately wanted the “Howard” influence on the development of their cities, as we continued to gain an international reputation.

By now Greg was no longer the 38-year-old ‘would-be’ developer, he was a sought-after influencer of master planning design and civic architecture.

He had a vision for Cork that was beyond our own understanding, and he pioneered his way forward by exposing Cork City Council officials to a worldwide design language, through visits to experience the progressive waterfront architecture and developments of Copenhagen and the international property forum at MIPIM in Cannes.

His industry peers such as Sean Mulryan, Owen O’Callaghan, Michael O’Flynn Paddy Kelly, Bernard McNamara, Theo Cullinane (BAM), and Sean Carrigy (PJ Hegartys) all respected Greg in what he was trying to achieve, and many routinely enquired after his health and sent best wishes in recent years.

Owen O'Callaghan
Owen O'Callaghan

Greg was a gracious business partner, employer and colleague to all, and we all loved and supported him in all of his carefully thought-out strategies and plans to propel Howard onto the next level, only to be halted in its tracks by the world-wide financial crisis of 2007.

His relentless work and support for charities such as the Sparks Children’s Charity in the UK and the Irish Youth Foundation in London are not well documented, and his sponsorship of Calves Sailing Festival Week in his beloved Schull for many years, perhaps overlooked.

The Marquee concert venue near Páirc Uí Chaoimh, which has been enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of visitors throughout the years, was willingly provided free of charge to the city, to enhance Cork city’s profile as a destination.

Notwithstanding Greg’s work responsibilities, in the foremost he was a family man with staunch family man values.

The love he had for his wife Anne, his childhood sweetheart, was very evident to me on a daily basis as I worked alongside him, and the absolute pride he had in each and every one of his four children, Dominic, Caroline, Tony and Mark, and their respective accomplishments was also ever present.

I would like to express my condolences to all of Greg’s family, his wider family and friends, many of whom I know, and to acknowledge in particular his brother Joe who I worked alongside for many years; his late brothers Gerard and Derry and their families, his twin sister Rena and sister Anne.

Greg was unable to travel to Ballydehob for Gerard’s funeral service in 2018, but I was fortunate enough to hear Greg’s emotional recounting of their life together, which was conveyed by the priest to the congregation gathered, in a letter from Greg.

I would also like to extend a special expression of thanks on a personal level to Padraig and Nan Hickey, for their unstinting love, support and friendship for Greg throughout the good and the difficult years.

His sporting passion was rugby and his beloved Munster.

His uncle, the late Fr Matt Duggan, former acting Bishop of Christchurch in New Zealand, and former chaplain to the renowned Christchurch Crusaders, retired back to Ireland with Greg’s help and support some years ago, was a regular visitor to Thomond Park with Greg.

A funny story involving the infamous Fr Matt comes to mind.

Greg and I were sitting in our Union Quay car park building, recoiling from that day’s Budget Announcement by the government, which involved the immediate withdrawal of tax designation for the construction of multi-story car parks.

At the time we were mid-construction on the City Hall Car Park and St Finbarr’s Car park in Cork, and the project viabilities were hanging in the balance.

Fr Matt walked in and asked why were we so despondent, to which we responded “The Budget”.

Fr Matt enquired as to whether it was the 20c on the pack of cigarettes that was troubling us, and that he was happy with the €5 on the Old Age Pension.

Greg and I just looked at each other, and it put everything into perspective.

And now to the crux of the matter, in my humble opinion, and I understand that it may not be shared by all.

I don’t believe it is fair and just that Greg should simply be defined by a 2010 Contempt of Court Judgement, as the “Developer who fled”.

Greg was much more than that and society owes men like Greg Coughlan a deep gratitude.

To clarify matters, back in 2010, Greg was suffering from a heart condition which needed a medical intervention, and was advised by his heart surgeon that his weakened heart and valve, which ultimately was responsible for his death, would not stand up to the stress of the court action at the time.

His doctor confirmed this in writing to the High Court and sought time for Greg to return to full health.

Be it right or wrong, it was not accepted by the court, which resulted in a Contempt of Court Bench Warrant being issued against him.

Greg has never been able to return to Ireland because of his ongoing heart condition and has been exiled from the home and community which he sought to better and represent.

I can attest to the fact that he has lived a simple and humble life since then, and we in turn as a community have been the worse for his absence.

I hope to have imparted a little about the extraordinary man I knew and admired, and perhaps next time articles run about the “Developer who fled”, readers may have a more balanced view of what he really stood for.

As the sun settles on Mount Gabriel and the beautiful coastal towns of Ballydehob and Schull at the end of this week, let us welcome home a familiar son to his familiar surroundings.

Greg, I always knew you would make your way back home, I just hadn’t counted on it being like this.

May you rest in peace in the knowledge that your legacy and vision will be there for future generations, as a testament to your time in our era.

I wish his wife Anne, his siblings, his children, their partners, his grandchildren and all his friends and family, all the best in coming to terms with the enormous void in their lives, as a result of Greg’s passing.

I know he will always watch over them as they journey through life, because that is what Greg always unselfishly did.

Brian Madden is former Group FD Howard Holdings

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