HAVING banker Sean FitzPatrick write the foreword to a book profiling 12 Irish entrepreneurs — including ex-presidential hopeful Sean Gallagher, ex-bookmaker Ivan Yates, Aer Arann ex-high-flier Pádraig Ó Céidigh, and Richard Barrett, co-head of the now-folded Treasury Holdings — seemed a good idea at the time.
It was 2008, when money talked, banking had some cred, Lehman Brothers possibly believed in sub-prime stability, and Anglo Irish Bank’s FitzPatrick was Ireland’s money-lender supreme.
Five years later, the wonder is that any of this dozen disciples of the entrepreneurial spirit are still standing (and more than half are) in a country that’s awash with debt, and strewn with business failures, graft and grief.
Since the book of 12 self-penned profiles, ominously titled That’ll Never Work, was published by KPMG (who, irrepressibly, brought out an identically-titled book in Canada in 2012) the list of Irish business failures has grown: 1,700 last year. Some things would never work.
The biggest Irish business and property collapse was that of Treasury Holdings, in October last, with debts of billions. In 2006, Richard Barrett’s Treasury had paid €560m for the iconic Battersea Power Station site in London, and, in prose more suited to parody than propriety, Barrett wrote in the KPMG book “the site lay tantalisingly waiting for a saviour, legs akimbo, breasts appetisingly on openish display.” When describing the tortuous purchase negotiations with Battersea’s Chinese owners, he appended a list of the premier cru wines and champagnes he drank, and the cigars he puffed, over two dinners. Those two ‘meals on deals’ totalled 13 hours, and 18 courses: even allowing for the benefit of hindsight, that’s stomach-churning.
In April, 2008, Aer Arann was reporting €a €100m-a-year turnover, and flying 1.1m passengers a year, but, with prescience, Ó Ceidigh wrote that the airline wasn’t his life, that he’d move on. In 2010, an examiner was appointed, the company restructured, and Ó Ceidigh resigned as chairman in January of this year, saying he was rewriting his job description. But, then, this entrepreneur was previously a teacher, an accountant, a lawyer, a marathon runner and a serial tweeter. In the book, he wrote that “you can only join the dots of life by looking back ... it’s a mistake to think you can plan your life, the reality is that you can never know what’s around the corner.”
Thanks to a now-famous bogus tweet, Smarthomes’ founder, Sean Gallagher, could agree. His contribution to the book outlined his entrepreneurial drive, noting how he’d achieved the five ‘life plan’ goals he had set out at the age of 18. His sixth goal, to become President of Ireland, faded under questioning, on live TV, in a Frontline debate, in a contribution on a par with Padraig Flynn’s Late Late Show showdown — though Gallagher was runner-up to Michael D Higgins.
When the former politician, and radio presenter Ivan Yates wrote for That’ll Never Work, his Celtic Bookmakers was raking in €180m, aiming to grow to 80 shops and turnover of €230m per annum, thanks to anticipated UK expansion. Last August, Yates filed for bankruptcy in Swansea, a one-year business purgatory to avoid Ireland’s more hellish 12-year bankruptcy regime.
Not everything praised and planned by the book’s dozen profiles turned sour. Brian Ranelow’s H&K still manufactures and sells kitchen equipment around the world, most notably to McDonalds, and employs more than 1,000. Manor Farm Chickens’ eighth generation prospers under Vincent Carton, employing 700. ‘Green’ or eco/reusable bag maker, Chloe O’Connor, of Stronghold, is development manager of the Dublin Theatre Festival and has just bought a designer, hand-made Irish card company called loveletters.ie, hoping to develop its range, at home and abroad.
Publisher, TV and radio presenter and ex-Dragon Norah Casey is still going strong — other TV business mentors, like Bill Cullen, Jay Bourke, Sarah Newman and Niall O’Farrell, have had rollercoaster rides to low points in the past year. Poignantly, Casey finished her piece on a personal note, talking about her family and husband, Richard Hannaford, who died in 2011, a tragedy more keenly felt than any business failure.
When prefacing That’ll Never Work five years ago, its KPMG co-editors Michael Gaffney and Colin O’Brien wrote that they hoped it would encourage others to take risks, create jobs, survive mistakes, and surmount challenges.
“Entrepreneurs are, by their very nature, risk-takers and, inevitably, five years down the road, some of those featured have failed. But others have continued to prosper, grow, create wealth and employment,” O’Brien says.
“The reality of start-up businesses is that 90% fail within five years, so I’m delighted that more than half of our intrepid entrepreneurs are still standing, during what has been the most severe recession of the modern era. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some of those that failed in the businesses featured rise again, because entrepreneurs keep on trying.”
Worth coming back to in five years’ time, to mark a tenth anniversary, ‘President’ Sean Gallagher?