Sunday 25 September 2016

Deirdre Foley: the 'alpha female' dealmaker who snapped up the famous department store

Published 21/06/2015 | 02:30

Deirdre Foley
Deirdre Foley

Deirdre Foley, the woman behind the purchase of the Clerys building, spelled out a simple business philosophy in an interview with the influential British trade publication, Property Week.

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"Being Irish, I like bricks and mortar. We like building up and selling on," said the Sligo woman, who has survived the ravages of recession and the property crash to re-emerge as a major player on the Dublin real estate scene.

Unlike many of her rivals who played monopoly in Dublin and beyond - figures such as Sean Dunne, Johnny Ronan and Foley's former boss Derek Quinlan - the 43-year-old has succeeded in keeping a studiously low profile, but that will be much more difficult in the coming weeks.

After she pulled off the Clerys deal eight days ago, she maintained a stony silence about the plight of the 130 workers who lost their jobs. By Thursday, there was no word from the property baroness behind the deal, which saw Clerys sold for a reported €29m, and the department store closed. Natrium is 20pc owned by Foley. It is a joint venture with Cheyne, a London property investment business which has 80pc of the company.

Foley and her partners quickly disposed of the retail arm of the Clerys business, and it has gone into liquidation. Foley and her fellow investors will now hope to add to their fortune through their investment in the property.

While dozens of Irish property barons lost their shirts during the crash, Foley has fared better than most by concentrating on highly-prized British assets, some of which soared in value.

If anything, the woman who drives a Porsche Boxster has made a bigger impact in Britain than here. Two years ago, Property Week described her as one of the five top businesswomen in British property. They also dubbed her an 'alpha female'.

Away from business, she likes sailing and shooting, and once said she was taking up rollerblading. The woman from a farming family in Co Sligo has had a rapid rise in business since she graduated from NUI Galway with a first-class honours degree and trained with the accountancy firm KPMG.

In 1999, she went to work with a Derek Quinlan, the flamboyant financier who has had a rollercoaster career in investment. Quinlan reportedly described her as the "brightest financier" he had ever come across.

It was only a matter of time before Foley ran her own property business and she teamed up with David Arnold, already an established dealmaker on the Dublin scene, to set up D2.

Arnold, father of the actress Leigh, is renowned in property circles as a suave networker, while Foley concentrated on the details of their property projects.

D2 Private made its name in the Celtic Tiger era by attracting groups of high-rolling business people and celebrities to invest in big property projects.

Some of these investments came unstuck. Foley's company put together a €72m investment in the Woolgate Exchange Building, with well-known investors including former Anglo boss Sean Fitzpatrick, and Gay Byrne. The investors were reported to have lost an average of €750,000 each.

Some of her loans inevitably ended up in NAMA, but she emerged from the crash in better shape than most, because her investments tended to focus on London more than Dublin. Two deals on properties on St James Square and Savile Row made enormous profits.

Foley and Arnold went their separate ways in 2013. At one point, D2 Private's London portfolio was valued at more than €1bn. But in September 2013, it sold the last of its properties there when it dispensed with Marks & Spencer's London HQ for €240m.

It is a sign of her upturn in fortunes that Foley is now active in Dublin, looking for opportunities in collaboration with big international investors.

The Clerys purchase remains a gamble, because the store has been a heavy loss maker for years, and part of that is down to its location. If the new owners are to make a go of it, they will have to revive an area that remains in the doldrums.

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