independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

Property market's Ronaldo has the world at his feet

He was trading shares at 14, and now 28-year-old Greg Kavanagh says he's poised to land a €100m property gamble

Greg Kavanagh. Photo: Gerry Mooney

THIS is the 28-year-old property tycoon who claims he is poised to make massive profits from his €100m gamble on the resurging housing market.

Greg Kavanagh is minted, single and well-paced to become the successor to the Celtic Tiger kings and queens who splurged their fortunes on failed developments.

But the enigmatic young man – who still lives at home with his mother and goes to Mass every week – says he is determined to learn from the mistakes of the past and insists money does not complete him.

In his first wide-ranging interview, the little-known developer tells the Sunday Independent he began trading stocks at the age of just 14, built his first houses at 19 and dropped out of college after six months to concentrate on his career.

Greg brashly says his business acumen is akin to the football skills of Ronaldo and Messi. He says the key to his success is the constant strength he derives from his mother's unflinching support along with a strong belief in God.

Greg and his older brother Hugh, 33, have been the talk of the industry since they claimed that their company, New Generation Homes, pumped more than €100m into residential land banks around Dublin.

With house prices rising at levels not seen since the mid-2000s, the brothers seized the opportunity to make an impact on the market when there was very little competition.

Remarkably, Greg claims this has been done without any bank debt, but rather through private equity firms and big-name US investors.

The brothers' journey from helping out on their uncle's farm to taking out full-page advertisements in the property sections of national newspapers is an inspiring tale to emerge from the ashes of the property collapse.

But it has been, until now, a story that Greg has been reluctant to tell.

In fact, it was only after he got wind of some – admittedly not very subtle – inquiries I made about him in his native Arklow that he arranged to speak with me.

After cancelling three meetings at the last minute – once because he had to rush to hospital to meet his brother's newborn baby daughter – we finally met in the Merrion Hotel in Dublin.

Dressed casually in jeans and a navy Tommy Hilfiger pullover, the property developer appears nervous and apprehensive.

"I'm worried about how I'm going to come across," he says.

Greg is confident in his business credentials, but appears reluctant to be the subject of public attention and is obviously wary of people delving too deep into his past.

He does not want to be seen to be courting the media, as he believes people who "brag and boast" do so to "gloss over something".

"People seem to think because you have money, you change. It does change people for daft reasons – but why should it change me?

"You're not complete without it and you'll never be complete with it."

Despite claiming to have a property portfolio that would be the envy of most boom-time developers, he still spends most of his time living in his family home with his mother and two sisters.

"Hardship did no man harm and everyone has a choice to succeed or bury their head in the sand," he says.

Early in the conversation, he leans in and asks me do I want to know the "key to success?'"

"Of course I do," I reply.

He hesitates for a minute, contemplating the exact phrasing of the message he wants to get across.

He then carefully tells me: "Behind every strong man is an even stronger woman and behind me was my mam, who instilled unbelievable confidence in my ability, and that, coupled with a strong sense of belief in God, has delivered my successes and the successes of those around me."

Family and religion are two significant elements of Greg's life.

He regularly attends Mass, but when I ask if the family goes to church together, he laughs and says: "It's not like we're in f***** Glenroe or the Waltons".

He claims he possesses a natural ability to understand economic trends, which came to the fore when he was still in secondary school and began taking an interest in the stock exchange.

At an age when most teenagers are concerned with music and football, Greg says he was listening to RTE Radio One and reading the business sections of broadsheet newspapers.

Soon he had an account with a stockbroker and he was buying and selling shares like a 14-year-old Gordon Gecko.

His knowledge of the stock market eventually became widely known in the Arklow Christian Brothers School, where Greg says some staff benefited from his advice.

Even though his early development would suggest he was destined for the Havard School of Business, Greg insists classroom learning was not for him.

"I didn't care for school," he says. "I knew it wasn't for me. Soccer players play soccer, pianists are good on the piano – business is me.

"You have people who are good at certain things, it's no coincidence that Ronaldo and Messi win World Player of the Year and are at the top of their field. Certain people are good at certain things and I'm good at business."

By the time he left secondary school in 2005 and enrolled in a business degree in Waterford IT, he had already started building his first house and was also working part-time on construction sites.

Something had to give and as his talent for reading market trends was beginning to reap rewards, Greg decided that college was holding him back.

Both Greg and Hugh worked on sites from an early age, but it was his older brother who developed the construction expertise.

After Greg left college and as the country indulged itself in property speculation, the brothers began building a modest portfolio of residential houses.

Greg says they were careful not to lump all their money into property and kept their funds moving through shares and other investments.

"We were building houses for other people. We had other investments and projects on the go and we cashed in the chips and we got into the land development space in early 2011."

Unlike his predecessors, he says he has not relied on political connections to get projects off the ground.

"We have had no interaction with them (politicians), we just want to stick to ourselves and do our own thing," he adds.

However, he believes Nama is the "best-run organisation in the country".

Greg eventually has to rush off to another meeting, but before he does he assures me that this is only the beginning of his story.

"There's another massive, massive good news story coming soon – trust me," he says as he departs.

For now, we'll have to wait and see.

Sunday Independent

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