Once upon a time, Greg Coughlan was on top of the world with successful businesses and millions to his name. Then the recession hit, writes Dan Buckley
A little more than a decade ago, Greg Coughlan had it all: a hugely successful business built on the back of audacious property development, a vision to turn Cork’s docklands area into a thriving hub to rival Dublin’s Financial Services Centre or Belfast’s Titanic Quarter, a beautiful, minimalist modern mansion in Kinsale and big plans for the future.
With trading difficulties during the 1980s recession well behind him, and success in London fueling his ambitions for Cork, the Ballydehob-born developer was on the crest of a wave.
Co-founder of Howard Holdings, one of the country’s most successful development firms during the Celtic Tiger years, among his most ambitious projects was the Atlantic Quarter. This was a development of the docklands that would cost a cool €1bn. In March of 2009, city planners were about to give assent to the biggest planning application it had ever received.
Located on the old ford Distribution site on Centre Park Road, the development was to include a 5,500-seat events centre, a 27-storey apartment complex, 10 storeys taller than the Elysian in the city centre, and a hotel and conference centre. Described as “the single largest development project ever undertaken in Cork, and a catalyst for other docklands schemes to follow”, the project, which had the support of then City Manager, Joe Gavin, would feature three apartment towers and would also include 575 residential units and 50,000 sq m of office space. The design was by Scott Tallon Walker, who had done the €100m City Quarter scheme for Howard Holdings along with leading architectural practice Norman Foster and Partners and full planning was granted for 10 years.
Coughlan subsequently used the same team of architects and builders, PJ Hegarty & Sons, to build the couple’s dream home in Kinsale - a modern, minimalist mansion that cost in the region of €6m to build. Named Fastnet House and overlooking Kinsale harbour, it replaced a 1970s 2,500 sq ft house bought for about €750,000 and then demolished. Greg Coughlan and his wife, Anne, expanded the site and sank more than €1m into ground and site works before building their ultra-modern home.
Fastnet House was reckoned to be the most expensive home built in Kinsale and featured all the essentials for a multi-millionaire, including a swimming pool, gym, hot tub and an icy plunge pool. Their mode of transport ranged from a helicopter to a private jet.
Back in Cork docklands, matters were proceeding apace with the €1bn development. It was set to be the largest development ever planned for the city and the first major planning application since the adoption by Cork City Council of the South Docks Local Area Plan on February 11, 2008. The developers originally predicted that the complex would be completed by 2013.
Coughlan had form when it came to big developments. He first cut his teeth in the family joinery and building business alongside his father and uncle. He later ran a building company, Greg Coughlan Construction.
He ran into difficulties when involved in the development of the Moorings in Schull in the 1980s and subsequently moved to Britain where he was highly successful, forming Howard Holdings with fellow developer Frank Gormley.
After an initial focus on the London property market, Howard Holdings quickly expanded into Cork, Dublin, Liverpool, Newcastle, other parts of Europe, and South Africa.
Largely funded by Anglo Irish Bank, Howard Holdings reportedly had €4bn worth of projects in the pipeline by 2007, in Ireland, Portugal, Poland and the UK, including the building of the Olympic Sailing Village in Weymouth, London, for the 2012 Olympics.
Exhibiting both chutzpah and charm, Coughlan also developed numerous projects in Cork including the Webworks building, the City Hall car-park, and Cork’s City Quarter and boardwalk, which comprised the Clarion Hotel and offices.
“He contributed substantially to the development of Cork,” said local estate agent Maurice Cohalan. “He was 20 years ahead of everyone really,” he told The Echo.
Yet, within a year, the financial crash brought the whole edifice crashing down. The UK arm of Howard Holdings was wound up, with the banks, including Anglo, in hot pursuit of the directors of the group, Greg Coughlan, Brendan Murtagh and Brian Madden. Total judgment orders for more than €60m were entered against them.
Coughlan was the only one of three Howard Holdings officials who failed to supply a statement of assets to the High Court. A bench warrant was issued for his arrest and he was subsequently held in contempt of court for refusing to obey the High Court order.
Coughlan fled the country, spending the next nine years between homes in London and Portugal until his death. Because the arrest warrant related to a contempt of court issue in Ireland, it could not be enforced in any other jurisdiction.
In July 2012, the couple’s Kinsale home came on the market with a price tag of €3.75m. It subsequently sold for just over €3m, around half its construction cost — a sign of how far Greg Coughlan’s empire had fallen.