Monday 24 July 2017

'We're not a competitor to other Dublin attractions - we're adding to the attractiveness of Dublin'

Former Coca-Cola chief executive Neville Isdell is clearly excited about his Epic new project. And why not, he's pumped a fortune into developing what he hopes is going to be a major new visitor attraction in Dublin

‘I left at 10 but still felt very Irish,’ says Neville Isdell of his experience as an expat
‘I left at 10 but still felt very Irish,’ says Neville Isdell of his experience as an expat

There is a temptation to over analyse the fact that the €12m Epic exhibition which opens this week in Dublin's CHQ is pitched as a celebration of the success of the Irish abroad. It's true Neville Isdell, the former head of Coca-Cola worldwide certainly fits into the category of an Irish success abroad himself.

He left Downpatrick aged just 10, when the family moved to Africa. In his final years as chief executive of the Atlanta-based giant, Isdell earned a reported $27m. But any notion that Epic is designed as a barely disguised monument to his own globe-spanning achievements doesn't survive two minutes in Isdell's company.

The tall, trim, former rugby player is self effacing and personable. His accent retains a trace of Co Armagh, as well as a bit of South Africa in the mid-Atlantic mix. Isdell is quick to praise, upbeat and cheerful. If Epic is inclined to focus on the more positive elements of Ireland's history of emigration, it might be that it reflects Isdell's own positivity - rather than his ego, but it's also where the US-based executive spotted the gap in the market.

The Epic exhibition will use state-of-the-art digital technology to tell the stories of hundreds of outstanding Irish people down the ages. It is designed to be a permanent fixture in Ireland's tourism offering, and is the final building block in Isdell's three-year project to turn CHQ - a massive 200-year-old former warehouse in Dublin's ISFC - into a successful business.

Those chances of financial success have always been helped by the fact that he bought the property at the pit of the crash. Isdell paid €10m in 2013 for the historic property that previous owners the Dublin Docklands Development Authority (DDDA) had lavished €50m refurbishing as a slick modern mall.

At the time, US-based Isdell was just other cash-rich American investor, looking to take advantage of the crash to buy bargain property. Prior to taking the top job at Coke in Atlanta in 2004 Isdell had sold and bottled Coke every where from Zambia and Australia to Russia during the collapse of communism. When it came to property investing, it was a case of, "the more boring the better", until he came across CHQ.

Despite its lavish revamp the CHQ property was clearly struggling. Its empty shop units made it a favourite with press photographers keen to illustrate the Irish crash, but Isdell was smitten. "I was ignorant enough not to have seen the failure of the shopping centre. I saw it through different eyes."

Using his own cash, and with no debt, the Coca-Cola boss was able to take a long view.

There was no great strategy to start with.

Gradually, and having drafted in his Kinsale-based half-brother Mervyn Greene to work alongside him, a master plan began to come together.

A tech company was interested in taking the entire property, but it didn't work out. Instead, the idea for CHQ as a mixed use development emerged.

Retail units that had all but emptied during the crash started to fill - with a focus on food outlets catering to the huge market of office workers in the surrounding IFSC. "The strategy had to be building traffic. People have to come in," Isdell explains.

An events business was developed to take advantage of the property during quieter periods. More importantly, CHQ is now home to Dogpatch, a branded suite of serviced office space aimed at tech startups.

The Dogpatch aesthetic is achingly hip, right down to the pool table. That hipster status may have taken a temporary knock when Fine Gael set up its campaign headquarters there during the last general election.

If Fine Gael is not quite a trendy startup, its stint fits with the idea. Startups that occupy the space are transient - each on its own path to growth or oblivion - but Dogpatch is a permanent fixture, providing high end facilities to the succession of developing businesses. Mervyn Greene, whose own career background is in technology, reckons Dogpatch is ripe for further expansion, and the brothers are confident that the tech-incubator has broadened CHQ's income base beyond retail.

The brothers reckon Dogpatch is a world beater and are building Epic with the same standards in mind.

Epic, which opens this week, is the real game changer though. It ticks every strategic box for Isdell. The visitor attraction will mean weekend footfall for he still often largely empty building.

No expense, or effort, has been spared in preparing the exhibition. Many of the highly skilled technical teams who worked on Belfast's successful Titanic Experience are working on it.

A committee of advisors includes former Labour Party leader Ruairi Quinn, Paul Carty of the Guinness Storehouse, the former director of the National Library Fiona Ross, Catriona Crowe, head of special projects at the National Archives of Ireland, and Niall O'Dowd, the publisher of the Irish American 'Irish Voice'.

"It has to be world class," Mervyn Greene explains.

Epic has been developed in the atmospheric vaults under CHQ, space that was unsuitable for offices or retail but ideal for an immersive, self contained, experience.

As that idea became more focused on adapting the vaults as a major exhibition space, Mervyn Greene reckoned science was the way to go - not least because the property itself is an engineering wonder.

He reckoned a more history-focused exhibition risked being seasonal, and would be too familiar to the home audience.

But Isdell's focus was on the story of Ireland though, Irish-America and wider diaspora. "I had experienced that myself as an expat. I left at 10 but still felt very Irish," he says. One potential spanner in the works were State plans for a national diaspora centre, which could potentially have crowded out the CHQ project.

The CHQ team got involved the process, albeit reluctantly. "If there was to be one (diaspora centre) - we didn't want it not to be us," explains Isdell,

In the end the State scheme never got off the ground, which the CHQ team think will work out better all around. "It has to be sustainable and the only way it will be is to run it on a commercial basis," he says. "With anything reliant on the political purse or on generosity, longevity is not guaranteed."

Making money is "fundamental from day one", he reckons.

Rather than a single diaspora centre, he would rather develop connections between a mix of sites across the country from the Famine Museum in Strokestown to the Queenstown Visitor Centre in Cobh and others.

"We can send tourists on to Cobh or to Limerick - it's far better than having five or six cities bidding against each other," Isdell says.

The same philosophy prevails when it comes to other Dublin visitor attractions.

Epic has established strong relationships with the Guinness Storehouse, Trinity Library's Book of Kells Exhibit and Glasnevin Cemetery.

"We're not a competitor to other Dublin attractions, we're adding to the attractiveness of Dublin," Isdell reckons. "It's not about your share of the pie, it's about baking a bigger pie."

If things go to plan, it's going to be a pretty big slice.

Epic is targeting 400,000 visitors a year initially. That could prove conservative. The Guinness Storehouse drew 1.4 million visitors last year.

Isdell is keeping retail units in CHQ concourse free ahead of the Epic launch, waiting to see who comes, and get a sense of the audience, before letting shops.

Unlike in the crash, those vacant units are an investment, he reckons,

"If we don't get the numbers we need it will cost me a lot of money, but we have the opportunity to be commercially successful."

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