Businessman turned £100 loan into a €4bn empire
Published 31/03/2010 | 05:00
Quinn gave €200m to his children last year -- to help tide them through the recession
SEAN Quinn once revealed that for relaxation he liked to enjoy a Tuesday night card game in the company of some old friends, with bets capped at just 50c.
But the gaping €450m black hole in Quinn Insurance that was revealed by the Financial Regulator yesterday -- on top of the billions in losses the former billionaire has accumulated through investments in the now nationalised Anglo Irish Bank -- point to gambles with infinitely higher stakes.
On the face of it, there are incongruities in the little that we do know about the man who was once believed to be worth more than €4bn.
While his few public comments have often focused on the modesty of his lifestyle, his business dealings are extensive and diverse.
The Quinn empire involves insurance firms, hotels, glass, cement and property companies, while the group has operations stretching from Cavan to Kiev, employing 8,000 people.
Two years ago, Fermanagh-born Mr Quinn told a local audience in Cavan at the Slieve Russell Hotel -- which is owned by the Quinn family-- that he lived a very modest life, despite his billions.
"I don't use a mobile phone," he said. "I'm not overly shy, but I prefer to sit back and enjoy what I'm doing, with my two dogs, the Wellington boots on, dodging about the mountain. It gives my brain much more time to do what it's best at doing."
Certainly, his start in business was low-key. Mr Quinn left school at 14, borrowed £100 and started extracting gravel from the 23-acre family farm in Co Fermanagh. He then sold the gravel on to local builders.
A dedicated GAA follower, the young Mr Quinn (a brother of the former GAA president Peter) used his contacts in that organisation to develop his businesses across the Border into the Republic, before starting to expand abroad.
After taking on the huge Cement Roadstone Holdings (CRH), Mr Quinn set his sights on other industries, using a formula of taking on monopolies by undercutting prices -- long before the Ryanair model emerged.
This attitude helped create his incredible wealth. He was once listed in Forbes magazine as the 164th wealthiest individual on the planet.
When he spent €145m on the Prague Hilton in 2004, the deal was regarded as the biggest single asset transaction in the history of the Czech Republic.
While Mr Quinn paints a very modest picture of his lifestyle -- which may reflect his start in life -- he is also a financier who secretly controlled a 25pc stake in Anglo Irish before the bank collapsed in 2008, leaving taxpayers exposed when it was nationalised.
His exposure to Anglo led to a teary appearance in an interview with RTE's Tommie Gorman in January, when he admitted: "We were too greedy."
However, in the same rare media appearance, the businessman was quick to point out that he had not been involved in any wrongdoing.
"We have been caught. We have been caught more than most. We were not involved in anything -- no impropriety at all," he told RTE.
Mr Quinn had paid a personal fine of €200,000 to the Financial Regulator, along with more than €3m for Quinn Insurance, after the watchdog had discovered inter-company loans to firms within the group. The loans had been used to part-finance the purchase of shares in Anglo Irish Bank.
This fall from grace led to Mr Quinn's humiliating resignation from his flagship Quinn Insurance.
Following the nationalisation of the bank last year and no sign of compensation for shareholders, the Quinns are nursing huge losses that go well beyond the fines imposed.
The family's holding company has written off a total of €888m over the past year and it is understood that Quinn Group owes Anglo nearly €3bn.
Mr Quinn is married to Patricia, a Galway native whom he met at a dance. They live in a Cavan mansion near the Slieve Russell. Four of his five children, aged between 19 and 34, work in the family businesses.
All five -- Ciara, Colette, Aoife, Brenda and Sean -- have shares in the businesses. And his exposure to Anglo didn't stop the 63-year-old Mr Quinn doling out €200m to his children at the end of last year -- to help tide them over the recession.
There is a final over-riding irony to the Quinn saga. As punters, many of us supported the growth of the Quinn empire as insurance customers, hotel-goers or home-builders.
But as taxpayers, we are now picking up the tab through the multi-billion-euro bailout of Anglo Irish -- the very monster that Mr Quinn helped fuel.