We are not the baddies, we tidy up the problems caused by others
Record increase in company insolvencies declared in 2009
Published 07/01/2010 | 05:00
HE'S one of the best-known insolvency practitioners in the country, but even Pearse Farrell dissolves into laughter when asked if he grew up dreaming of becoming a liquidator.
"You must be joking," the FGS founder splutters, sentiments shared by fellow insolvency supremo Declan Taite who apparently "fell into" the area.
It mightn't have been the stuff of dreams for the FGS duo, but it's easy to see how the youth of today's Ireland could grow up fantasising about a career in Farrell and Taite's industry.
The formal insolvency industry has increased almost fivefold since 2007, with a record 1,406 companies declared insolvent last year.
That bumper level of activity is expected to be maintained, if not bettered, in 2010, while firms like FGS have also been dealing with a surge in "informal insolvency" and advisory work.
The likes of Taite and Farrell have also been gifted increasingly high profiles, as big-ticket cases like Liam Carroll's Zoe Group and Capital Bars catapult them into the national spotlight.
"It's counter cyclical alright," Farrell laughs, acknowledging his profession's rising fortunes as the rest of the economy crumbles.
He's quick to play down the more glamorous parts of the recession game though, as is Taite.
Working on a billion euro collapse isn't the liquidator equivalent of a home run, they insist. The fame and recognition that comes from being named on the telly and in the papers doesn't set their worlds on fire, they protest.
"There is a buzz, but it's from the success you bring to a project," claims Taite earnestly. "You could be appointed liquidator to the biggest corporate failure in Ireland, that means nothing to us in itself, it's about the value you bring as part of the process."
In a market like today's, that value has never been more in demand. But in some ways Ireland's modern business landscape is as inhospitable to insolvency practitioners as it is to many other professions.
In a standard liquidation, where a business becomes insolvent and is to be wound up in favour of its creditors, the liquidator's role is to sell the assets and realise what he can.
In a receivership, where a charge holder steps in to make good on their security, the liquidator's role is to translate that security into cash, usually by selling it.
In an examinership, where an insolvent company has court protection to restructure its debts and bring in new cash, the insolvency practitioner's role is to oversee that journey. All three processes traditionally involve cash, either by selling an asset to someone with cash, or convincing someone with cash to put it into an examinership case.
In today's market, cash has never been more elusive, prompting Taite to cite the "inability to sell assets in an illiquid market" as the worst thing about 2009.
With clients pushing for a return, liquidators don't have the luxury of sitting around and waiting for Nama to get the cash cycle flowing again. "You have to try and be innovative," says Taite. "Whether that means renting out commercial land to a circus, or continuing to trade an enterprise so you can increase its earning profile and sell it on, those are all issues we have to look at."
Farrell, too, espouses the need for insolvency experts to "come up with new ideas", but his take on 2009's biggest challenge is somewhat different. The worst part about the last year, he says, was "dealing with delusional people". "An awful lot of people who are insolvent become delusional, they can't see the reality, they're not prepared to face it," he says, with considerable frustration.
"Their delusion drives it (their business) into a much more hazardous position, and results in those businesses having to be taken out of their control and put into the hands of receivers and liquidators."
Some might think businesses falling into the hands of receivers and liquidators was exactly what Farrell and Taite would want, but the duo insist they always advise clients to opt for formal insolvency only "as a last resort".
About 40pc of the income in FGS's "restructuring and insolvency" division comes from informal insolvency resolution, helping struggling companies to restructure and strike deals with creditors to become viable again.
"The emphasis has to be on rescue," says Farrell. "There are €77bn of impaired loans going into Nama and there's billions more in impaired debt out there if all the companies who owe that were to go bust it would be disastrous for the country, so it's imperative we have the capacity to rescue as much as we can."
Some of this rescue work is already going on, through insolvency practitioners hammering out informal deals and through the court-led examinership process, but Farrell believes there's scope for more, if the Government is minded to change some regulations.
In practical terms, examinership is only an option for medium and large companies, such are the costs associated with a few trips to the High Court. Farrell believes there should be a similar but cheaper system for smaller companies, where deals struck with creditors become legally binding.
"As it is now, you can do deals but all it takes is one dissenting creditor and it all falls apart," he says. "It may well be that there's a viable enterprise with 10 employees that owes an awful lot of money and is never going to be in a position to pay off those funds. "If they can restructure with creditors, write off an element of the debt and pay off another element over a longer period of time, then there's 10 jobs that can be saved."
Farrell admits, however, that while his proposed scheme would have "some successes" it wouldn't be nearly enough to stem the tide of insolvencies that's coming in 2010.
Indeed, there's an air of inevitability about the whole thing, as Taite points out that businesses which just barely hung on through Christmas and the New Year will soon fold, while many firms bought at the "top of the cycle" simply won't be able to live up to their debt.
Throw in the continued depression in the construction sector, which Taite says is sure to produce more failures, and it's not hard to see why FGS got more insolvency enquiries in the last quarter of 2009 than a year earlier.
Add into that mix Nama, which Pearse and Farrell expect will spur banks into receivership mode when it comes to the impaired loans left on their books, and it's easy to see why Taite says he'd be "surprised if we don't have somewhere between 1,400 and 1,600 insolvencies this year".
The pair are obviously in for another prosperous 12 months, but it's not all the stuff of dreams. "With something like a receivership, someone else has caused the problem, we're only there to tidy it up," says Taite, "but certainly there's a perception there that we're the baddies."