Sunday 24 September 2017

From Boyzone to Ballymore and beyond

After helping Sean Mulryan's firm get through Nama, Paul Keogh is embarking on a new venture of his own

Paul Keogh
Paul Keogh
Ronald Quinlan

Ronald Quinlan

As chief operating officer at Sean Mulryan's Ballymore, Paul Keogh has spent much of the last 10 years doing what he describes as the "difficult, grunge stuff that had to be done".

With his reputation for 'getting on with it' if 'it' is seen as the right thing to do, the Dubliner played a key role in helping Ballymore to navigate the financial crisis and plot a successful course out of Nama, which it did last December with the full repayment of its €3.2bn gross debt.

"There were a lot of difficult decisions in that time," Keogh says of the challenges Ballymore faced in its early days in Nama. If there was a problem, the Dubliner was sent as Mulryan's 'consigliere' to Nama's HQ on Grand Canal Street to iron things out. "I'm probably not the friendliest face to be sent into Nama but I always thought 'tell it as it is and be fair'," says Keogh.

"We're doing our best. If our best isn't good enough that's the end of us, but we'd like to know'. Otherwise there's no point in doing three or four or five years of it [Nama] and then end up back at square one."

It wasn't that Sean Mulryan had an issue with Nama, Keogh explains.

"Sean took the view that Nama were set by legislation, so what's the point in having an attitude problem with them? But he very clearly stated at the start that he knew his business, so just ask the question and he'll give you the answer; but question his answer and then you're into another area," he says, noting that Mulryan's "robust view" saw Ballymore deliver on its commitments to Nama, and exit the agency in a stronger position.

Now that Ballymore is through the gap, Keogh could be forgiven for taking time out, or for simply carrying on at a more leisurely pace in his current role.

He's doing neither. Rather, he's decided to break with the pattern he has followed throughout his career of working in close quarters and at a high level for family businesses such as Mulryan's Ballymore, to set up a business of his own. While he will continue to work two days a week for Ballymore; as the head of Paul Keogh & Associates, he will be doing what he does best by providing the bespoke professional advice to family businesses he believes big accounting and legal firms are unable to.

To illustrate his point, Keogh recalls a businessman he met at a family business conference hosted by one of the major consulting firms recently."The guy said to me, 'My daughter joined our business straight from college and she's really good. My son was a waster. He went off and toured the world, and now at 32 he just arrived in one day [looking for a role]'." The return of the proverbial prodigal son presented the businessman with a dilemma, and one which was compounded by his wife's insistence that the son in question be looked after regardless of the consequences for the business.

Having established from the businessman himself that the son wasn't good enough to run the family business, Keogh told him bluntly that the recently-returned 32-year-old had to go.

"You have to have the lash marks on your back to be able to say to an owner, 'you don't have to do what I'm saying but your son has to go. And if you want I can make that happen, you can blame it on me, but take it or leave it, that's the only advice I'm giving you'," Keogh says.

"If you go to some of the big firms, they'll give you a 250-page report and they won't say that. They will say they did an aptitude test on your son and he has very good skills but needs a lot of training. Because I have a thick skin, the business owner can say 'it was that fecker Keogh who told me to get rid of you'," he adds.

Keogh's acute understanding of the dynamic that applies to family businesses and what makes successful people tick is something he has been developing since his days as a commerce student at UCD.

"My first job during college was working for Madigan's pubs. There were three brothers - Seamus, Michael and Paddy. That job brought me into my first exposure to Michael Smurfit. I worked from the Horse Show House as the barman at all the parties he had in his house in Mount Merrion," he recalls.

His time behind the bar at the Horse Show House also brought him into contact with the late Taoiseach Charles Haughey, a man whom he says the Madigans were "petrified of at that stage" owing to the Fianna Fail leader's exacting requirements for functions in and around the party's Ard Fheiseanna. But Keogh smiles as he tells of the politician's largesse in giving him a £10 tip - the equivalent of his week's wages as a barman at the time.

"I always found if you just did what he asked you to do, it was fine. I think you learn some of your skills in life from just being around people like that," he says.

It was during his time in UCD that Keogh first came to work for Guinness. While entry to the company's ranks was, at that point, largely confined to the family members of existing or past employees, Keogh got in the door of the Guinness Harp Corporation in New York one summer on the J1 student visa. A second summer working for the company in the US followed before Keogh graduated from UCD and took up a job in Guinness's newly-established marketing department.

"When I went in, I think they were trying to test me or be funny, but they gave me Kaliber as my first brand. You should have seen me going around to pubs saying 'I'd like to sell you a non-alcoholic beer'. It didn't go down too well but it was ultimately successful. That was my baptism of fire," he says.

From there Keogh was sent to the US, this time to meet with Anheuser-Busch, who were considering sponsoring the Irish Derby at the Curragh with a view to launching Budweiser on the Irish market.

"They researched it thoroughly and it bombed. Students told them they could drink pitchers of it without getting drunk. I remember going to a meeting in St Louis with John Saunders who was doing their PR. We told them: 'It's looking very bad. They don't like the colour of it. It looks too weak and watery and they think there's no alcohol in it'." Despite those conclusions, Keogh was tasked by Anheuser-Busch with making Budweiser the number one selling lager in Ireland within five years. Asked how he and his team did it, he says: "Being honest, we didn't know what to do. The first launch was the Clydesdale horses wishing you a happy Christmas. Then we started talking about Budweiser being 'beechwood aged'. We then targeted students as we knew if they kept bad-mouthing it, we were dead."

To get the students onside, Keogh and his colleagues came up with a novel plan, which they deployed at the Trinity Ball.

"We pulled up a container of cans of Budweiser and told the drivers to leave the back door open and go off and have their dinner. The word got out that there was a 40-foot container of Budweiser with nobody minding it. Free beer. The guys who caused havoc in Trinity couldn't wake up the next day and say 'that beer is water' or has no alcohol in it. The only thing they did was exaggerate they had 40 cans instead of 20. It took off after that."

Keogh's next career move to Polygram Records came about by accident, or more precisely, through an incident at the Budweiser-sponsored Irish Derby.

A bomb scare delayed the race by over an hour leaving the US sports network, ESPN, which was televising the event live in America with little choice other than to transmit Budweiser adverts on a continuous loop. When the race finally got underway, the favourite wouldn't move from the starting line, Keogh recalls, causing its owner "to go ballistic".

The owner just happened to be the president of Polygram Records, Maurice Oberstein, and he came gunning for Keogh, blaming him for his misfortune. "He told me 'You're either a genius for concocting this bomb scare because you got an hour's free advertising or you're a complete idiot'. He was livid. I was trying to calm him down, so I said 'What are you doing in Ireland?'. He told me he was here to recruit a managing director for his record company. Then out of the blue, he says 'I can't make up my mind whether you're a genius or an idiot, would you take the job?' I said 'No, Jesus I have a job for life, I'm in Guinness. Womb to tomb, nobody leaves Guinness'."

But Keogh did leave to take up the role of Polygram managing director despite the reservations of his father, whom he recalls thought his son "must be on something".

"I did 10 years in the record business. And after that I could see my tombstone, 'the guy that signed Boyzone'. I thought 'time to move on', Keogh says.

Asked how the Boyzone deal came about, he says: "Louis [Walsh] came in to me one day with John Reynolds saying 'I have a brilliant idea, the Irish version of Take That'. I told him 'I've heard worse from you Louis' and he said 'EMI are going to sign them, Sony are going to sign them…', even though I knew nobody had any interest. But John Reynolds asked for a 'few bob' to do a demo tape and I said 'sure have we got to lose?' I panicked a little when I saw them on the Late Late Show. I think there were seven or eight of them in it."

A phone call to Louis Walsh changed that arithmetic.

"I rang Louis and said: 'Here's the rule: four in a band please. I don't want to be paying for two taxis'. He thought I was joking but he had to scale it down. Louis learned a lot from that. You talk about the property business being risky? We put a quarter of a million into Boyzone with five in the group at that stage and we couldn't even work out which one was the singer," he says.

It was a good investment in the end. "I saw Ronan [Keating] saying on his 40th birthday interview that they've done 27 million records in their career. So Polygram got more than their quarter of a million back on that investment. But it wasn't necessarily the coolest thing to do, to sign a boy band," Keogh says. Polygram's other Irish bands during Keogh's tenure included the Cranberries, Van Morrison, and U2, whom he describes as nearly "being bigger than the record company" itself.

Keogh readily concedes that, unlike other music company bosses, he knew little about music. "I ran a business. If I needed to know about a record I'd ring Ian Dempsey. I remember going out with Achy Breaky Heart from Billy Ray Cyrus to Larry Gogan at RTE. Nobody wanted to play it; Billy Ray had a mullet haircut and the whole lot. Larry asked me 'Is it any good?' and I said 'No, it's shite probably'. Larry said 'Ah sure I'll play it next' and it broke here. It was a number one record."

Keogh then went "straight into selling diggers" for JCB, firstly for the company's founder, the late Joseph Cyril Bamford, an entrepreneur he likens to Sean Mulryan "in that he led from the front"; and then for his son, Sir Anthony. An initial stint in Staffordshire in the UK was followed by a long posting in Savannah, Georgia in the US where Keogh spent much of his time literally 'up in the air'.

"I did Canada, the United States, Central and South America in a marketing capacity. There was a lot of travel, it was tough. You'd have to go from Peru to Alaska. My son who is now 10 was born there. We had a young family at the time and the travel took its toll," he says.

Keogh's attitude then and now to working for family businesses is a positive one however.

"You go with the flow and your job is to lighten their load. Guys like Sean Mulryan occupy a lonely position. You're head of a company and you need someone not to tell you you're great, but someone who will argue with you. Joseph Bamford used to say the worst thing to happen to a company owner is that they end up with 'nodding dogs'; you know the ones you find on the back seats of cars."

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