Quinn moves out of financial frying pan and into economic inferno

Sean Quinn is going to be miredin the economic mess for some time to come, writes Caroline O’Doherty

IN October, 2008, when Sean Quinn was forced to quit as chairman of his flagship insurance business after being caught using company money for unauthorised investments, he brushed off the record fines imposed – €200,000 personally and €3.25 million for his company – and declared: “We will move on.”

It was a typically bullish response from the billionaire whose brass neck had served him well in industries where traditionally only the bold are left standing.

Since then, he has continued to talk up his trading prospects while playing down the bedeviled business environment. But Sean Quinn’s only move has been from the financial frying pan into the economic inferno.

For whatever the future of Quinn Insurance following yesterday’s High Court decision to appoint administrators to the business, its founder’s hitherto undauntable demeanour is now seriously dented.

It’s a big personal blow for Mr Quinn, 62, whose humble beginnings on a small farm in Derrylin, Co Fermanagh, didn’t automatically pick him out as a man who would one day top the country’s rich list.

He left school at 14 and seemed destined to graft for little reward on the family farm but the sharp-minded youngster had other ideas. He had few romantic notions about farming and when he twigged that the land could yield a better return if he dug it up for gravel, he famously got a £100 loan, called in a digger, washed the dirt from the stone and had a ready-made building product.

He also had a market thanks to the contacts he made through his involvement with the GAA, of which his brother, Peter, would later serve as president.

Sean Quinn initially concentrated on quarrying and cement production, taking advantage of the mini construction boom in the 1970s.

Later, however, he expanded from raw materials to finished product, moving into property and buying up landmark pads such as the four-star Slieve Russell Hotel near his home in Co Cavan, Buswell’s Hotel in Dublin, and The Belfry in England. Quinn Hotels also includes other properties in Britain, Poland, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic.

But the hotels, the original Quinn Building Products and Quinn Insurance, are just three of the enterprises to which he has put his name. The group also boasts Quinn Property, which has shopping malls in Turkey and the Ukraine, warehousing parks in Russia and prestige office blocks in Russia and India.

Then there’s Quinn Chemicals, Quinn Glass, Quinn Plastics, Quinn Packaging, Quinn Environmental (waste processing), Quinn Energy (mainly wind energy), Quinn Healthcare (formerly Bupa), Quinn Life (pensions and investment) and Quinn Radiators.

If that all sounds a little dry, there is a fun side to the empire, as he also owns seven pubs.

Arguably, however, Sean Quinn got his greatest kicks out of the insurance industry.

Notoriously hard to break into, he went about it in 1996 with brashness, creating dedicated call centres and concentrating on phone and internet-based business, making his the second largest general insurer in Ireland.

In 2007, he took over the Irish branch of British health insurer, Bupa, which was pulling out, claiming the law gave unfair competitive advantage to the historically dominant VHI.

Quinn Insurance and Quinn Healthcare raised his public profile considerably, yet for a man who plastered his name all over his businesses, he is a man who values his privacy and, for the most part, has managed to maintain it.

He tends to shun high society dos, though he is considered highly sociable in his own circle of old friends with whom he enjoys a drink, a game of poker and banter about the GAA.

He is married to Patricia and they have five children, four daughters and one son, the older of whom are also involved in the family business which he has resolutely kept in private hands.

With yesterday’s court proceedings, however, the affairs of the group which employs more than 8,000 people in 13 countries and, according to a defiant Sean Quinn, is making profits of €20 million a month, will be increasingly difficult to keep behind closed doors.

In 2008, it emerged that he and his family had bought a major stake in Anglo Irish Bank – a financially disastrous move that wiped an estimated €1 billion off their €4bn fortune.

It later emerged he had used Quinn Insurance funds for the shares without informing the Financial Regulator – a serious breach of corporate regulations.

The fact that Mr Quinn felt he had so little fear from then regulator Patrick Neary is regarded as one of the nails in the coffin of Mr Neary’s career.

The belated action by the regulator in securing the unprecedented fines against Sean Quinn and his company was only the start of the scrutiny, however.

Yesterday’s proceedings to appoint administrators to Quinn Insurance show the regulator is questioning the financial soundness of the business and meanwhile, Mr Quinn is known to be the biggest customer of the crock that is Anglo Irish Bank, the failure of which is being paid for by the taxpayer.

Sean Quinn may have wanted to move on but it looks like he’s going to be mired in this mess for some time to come.

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