Wednesday 28 June 2017

Press rewind to view the heyday of a video empire

With Xtra-vision in liquidation, Liam Collins remembers the company's colourful founder Richard Murphy (and his legion of leggy blonde helpers)

ENTREPRENEUR: Xtra-vision founder Richard Murphy was considered the most exciting man in business in the 1980s
ENTREPRENEUR: Xtra-vision founder Richard Murphy was considered the most exciting man in business in the 1980s
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

It isn't the videos I remember about Xtra-vision, it's the leggy blondes in short skirts driving black SUVs that seemed to swarm around suburbia in the late 1980s, when ex-courier Richard Murphy was the most exciting man in Irish business.

He was about as far from the grey men in suits who ran corporate Ireland as it was possible to get, yet for a brief moment it looked like he could conquer the world.

The girls - it's as if they were cloned, all blonde hair and black outfits - were sex on wheels. Some of the old VCRs weren't bad either, but not quite as exciting as the 'babes' or the jeeps with the bright red and yellow logo.

The VCR (a big black plastic thing) and terms such as 'babe' have since been consigned to the rubbish bin of bad taste and now, despite several bouts of corporate mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, Xtravision is gone as well.

Last Wednesday it finally lay down and died, and, tragically, 580 jobs in stores around Ireland went with it.

But like all deaths it left us remembering the distant past.

It all started with such promise - and it was a bloody great story.

Murphy, who grew up in the working-class Dublin suburb of Kimmage, was sent to posh schools (St Andrew's and later the High School) until he was expelled at the age of 15 for skipping classes. "I used to be surrounded by lots of wealthy guys and huge cars," he later said. At the age of 17, while working as a motorbike courier he had an accident that left him with a bad leg and £25,000 in compensation. He added £6,000 in savings and, in 1980, shortly after turning 20, he opened his first Xtra-vision store in Ranelagh with Ronald Murphy as the company's other director.

Richard Murphy had an innate flair for publicity - some good, some bad. His Xtra-vision girls and the brash red and yellow company logo got him noticed. But he also got into scrapes with the law and was done more than once for drink driving. After his gold Mercedes was stopped on Northumberland Road the judge in the case suggested he had a drink problem, something he denied.

A colourful Dublin banker, Craig McKinney, now living in Marbella, bankrolled the venture through Woodchester Bank. Then the money men came on board: accountant Hubie Butler, patrician company director Alex Spain, Eugene Green of Development Capital Corporation.

Xtra-vision was launched on an unsuspecting Irish stock market in April 1989. The stock price opened at 48p, soon went to 83p and peaked at 107p.

"Everybody thought I was sleeping on piles of cash…the truth is I never wanted to be a whizzkid," Murphy later said, ruefully.

With an address in Burlington Gardens in the centre of D4, he was seen at the time as one of Dublin's young party animals, a fixture at the Pink Elephant and other trendy nightclubs, generous with his money and time and surrounded by beautiful girls and wannabe tycoons.

At its peak Xtra-vision had 317 shops, 146 in the Republic and the rest scattered around Northern Ireland, England and the US. Murphy himself, with 28 million shares, was valued at around £25m. At a dinner in London to celebrate Xtra-vision as the best-performing stock on the Unlisted Securities Market, Murphy splashed out £77,000 in the charity auction to buy a Scimitar sports car.

But all the advisers and consultants had failed to examine one vital component of the business - the shelf life of a rental video. They gave it a 30-month life span in their first set of accounts, but with constant wear and tear, the depreciation value was way shorter than that. With that reality, the stock price fell like a stone and Murphy's fortune evaporated.

On January 28, 1991, the Cambridge Group, led by Colm Menton and Liam Booth, took over and Murphy resigned from the company he had created.

"All these brilliant lawyers and accountants telling me how wonderful I was and that we were going to become world leader, and I believed them," he said.

After Cambridge collapsed, Xtra-vision was run by Paul O'Grady Walsh and owned by Blockbuster Entertainment, a subsidiary of Viacom, an American entertainment company.

After trading successfully for a number of years it went into examinership in 2011 having incurred debts of over €3.5m the previous year.

It emerged and struggled on until it was taken over by venture capital company Hilco Capital, which also rescued the ailing HMV chain of record and video stores. Along the way none of its owners re-branded the company, concluding quickly that Xtra-vision was one of the most recognised brands in Ireland and doing anything to Murphy's legacy would damage the business.

Last week, the axe fell with a vengeance and the remaining 83 stores were closed after the owners went into the High Court on Wednesday and placed the business in the hands of a provisional liquidator.

After leaving Xtra-vision, Murphy moved to a trophy home in Kilteragh Pines in leafy Foxrock, opened children's fun factories, tanning booths and dabbled in property. But old habits die hard and in 1993, backed by property developers Paddy Kelly, John Walsh, John McCabe and Jarleth Sweeney, he went back into the business, eventually opening 54 Chartbusters stores around Ireland.

That company is now in receivership and Murphy, the father of three children, lives in relative obscurity in Carrickmines in south Dublin. "I was offered £30m to sell out to Blockbusters but refused it. At least three times a day I kick myself for saying no," Murphy would later tell an interviewer.

Maybe so, but he still made his mark, even if the distinctive Xtra-vision sign now seems about to be consigned to history after all these years.

Sunday Independent

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