BUSINESSMAN Bill Cullen and his partner Jackie Lavin have been thrown a lifeline to save their luxury hotel business.
The future of their five-star Muckross Park Hotel in Killarney was in serious doubt after it was placed in receivership earlier this week.
But the former presenters of 'The Apprentice' on TV3 have been given a chance to save their business after a High Court judge ordered that an interim examiner is appointed in place of ACC Bank's receiver.
If the appointment is confirmed it will give interim examiner Kieran McCarthy, of Hughes Blake chartered accountants, the opportunity to find new investors for the hotel business which employs 105 people, and to fund a "scheme of arrangements" to pay creditors. Mr Justice Peter Charleton said he was satisfied that this "fine hotel" had a reasonable prospect of survival if investment was secured, and the court and creditors approved a survival scheme..
Mr Cullen and Ms Lavin had been told by an investor he was prepared to put around €4m into the hotel.
As the drama unfolded in the High Court it was business as usual at the plush hotel as guests arrived on one of the busiest weekends of the year.
It also meant that representatives of receiver RSM Farrell-Grant-Sparks, who had initially moved into the hotel to take control of the business, had to pack up and leave.
Ms Lavin told of her huge relief at the appointment of the interim examiner and described it as a "great victory".
"We're delighted with the result, it was a worthwhile risk that paid off," she said.
"It should never have happened in the first place.
"We had no warning at all and were shocked to be told a receiver was on their way to the hotel.
"The hotel is doing well, we're on the right track and we fought for our 20 years in business as well as our 105 staff.
"We're really happy with the result."
But the couple will be back in court next month when a hearing will be held to confirm the examiner's appointment. ACC Bank will also be given the opportunity to oppose the move and to press again for the appointment of a receiver.
Granting the couple's application, Mr Justice Charleton said the hotel had recently hired an experienced manager, implemented cost-saving measures and succeeded into diversifying into a number of areas including weddings. It had 56 weddings last year and another 65 booked this year and 25 so far for 2014.
The hotel is now a popular wedding venue and it makes around €20,000 per wedding.
The judge was also told the appointment of the interim examiner would lead to the hotel being able to resume taking in money as the receiver's appointment had prompted Allied Irish Bank to freeze its accounts and refuse credit card payments.
The couple, represented by Ross Gorman and instructed by Garry Daly and Co solicitors, went to the court after ACC – owed €4.6m by companies running the hotel and another €4.6m by Mr Cullen – appointed Declan Taite of RSM Farrell Grant Sparks as receiver.
ACC's debts are secured on the hotel company's assets, including the hotel and 24 apartments. Mr Cullen is also owed €9.9m from the hotel but accepts the money is "gone", Ms Lavin said in an affidavit.
Ms Lavin said he had put in an enormous amount of time and effort into the hotel business over the last number of years and believed the improvement in its turnover was largely due to the efforts of herself and the staff.
The appointment of the receiver had caused concerns among staff and about 40 couples had been in contact with the hotel expressing concern whether their weddings would go ahead, she said.
Many suppliers had also been in contact about payments.
She said she had been informed that the receiver was not providing much comfort to those parties and was extremely concerned about the impact of his appointment on the hotel's business, even in the short term.