Sunday 4 December 2016

'What the banks are doing is simply corporate manslaughter'

Bernie Fagan has spent years battling the banks; first for her business and now for the family home

Claire Mc Cormack

Published 29/05/2016 | 02:30

Struggle: Bernie Fagan, pictured in Mullingar, says that stress has taken its toll as a result of the battle to save her business and home after the economy imploded Photo: Frank McGrath
Struggle: Bernie Fagan, pictured in Mullingar, says that stress has taken its toll as a result of the battle to save her business and home after the economy imploded Photo: Frank McGrath

Bernie Fagan spent 15 years developing a small, family-run bed and breakfast into a highly successful destination spa.

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The mother-of-three, from Horseleap, Co Westmeath, ran the business from her kitchen table - where she did all the cooking for guests.

"It was growing at such a fast rate that we thought maybe we should expand. There was a waiting list of eight to 10 weeks to come and stay. We had a successful product, we could see a future," Bernie told the Sunday Independent.

And so, the Fagans approached their financial advisers with an idea to develop a new building next to the family home - located on 90 acres of lush countryside. "We sought advice, got approved for a grant from Failte Ireland, and we got funding from ACC Bank; everyone was very happy to take on our project," she said.

Bernie and husband Declan worked hard to manage the costs of the building, they attended every site visit and made sure to tightly manage the company loan worth €5.7m.

In January 2006, Temple Lodge Country Retreat and Spa opened for business with 18 new bedrooms, 10 treatment rooms, yoga studio, restaurant and a hydrotherapy pool.

More than 40 people, mostly from the local rural community, were employed at the retreat.

"There was a transition period of moving from a B&B into a bigger business. We wanted to maintain the standards that we'd set since 1987, we wanted loyal clientele to keep returning," said Bernie. Visitors from Holland, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and America added an international dimension to Temple Spa.

Business was good. ACC Bank sent crates of wine to the Fagans every Christmas. The bank even gave the family tickets to a Westmeath match in Croke Park - Bernie's first time in the national stadium. But that largesse came to a sudden stop when the crash hit.

"None of us ever saw the recession coming. I reckon the banks knew in 2007 but they went on their merry way," she said. Sitting in The Hub, a non-profit support group for those struggling with their mortgages, in Mullingar, Bernie paints a vivid picture of how abruptly the economy imploded.

"They gave us no indication of trouble. Bertie Ahern was saying people moaning about the economy should commit suicide. I trusted him," she said.

In 2008, turnover and bookings dropped sharply. "By April my company wasn't able to pay its money back to the bank; we halved operating costs that year, halved again in 2009 and reduced again in 2010. We liaised with our financial adviser, changed our strategy and hoped to get back on track."

Stress took its toll.

"The first time I realised I couldn't pay back, my immediate concern was for the staff. How am I going to look after my team?" she recalled.

"Our three daughters were growing up and our eldest was doing her Leaving Cert; they were 18, 16 and 10 at the time. My company got into trouble but I had to make sure my children were educated and free."

Ironically, two of her daughters would go on to work in finance and accountancy, while her youngest is studying law.

"We didn't have a fancy lifestyle - I'm from a farming background, we grew up working, we had no other properties, no holiday home, all our money went into the business. We did our best to refinance but they wouldn't accept our offer and they put in a receiver. It was devastating. My business was my fourth child, I nurtured it, built it up from nothing. Putting in a receiver was akin to rape of that child," Bernie said, in tears.

Despite the turmoil, the family continued to pay their home loan which was fully compliant with no default or arrears. Bernie even set up new businesses - a cooking class, a motivational boot camp and dress-making classes - in an attempt to turn things around, but she claims the receiver demanded the income.

"I felt hammered again. We ended up going to social welfare for the first time in our lives; we felt harassed," she said.

In 2012, the Fagans were brought before a judge in the bankruptcy court. "It was very scary, we pleaded with them not to bankrupt us because there was nothing else, but there was no protection," Bernie said.

In 2013, ACC Bank sought a court order to fast-track the eviction of the Fagans from their four-bedroom farmhouse - their youngest daughter was in the middle of her Leaving Cert at the time.

The bank's security was first legal charge over Temple House - the family home - and the land. After an agonising three-month wait, the High Court ruled that ACC Bank was not entitled to take possession of the home - but it didn't stop there, and litigation continues.

Bernie says the eight-year battle to stay in their house has destroyed her quality of life.

"I started a new job but the stress became too much last July when they got a possession order. We looked for a judicial review. I'm on sick leave from work. I'm on sleeping tablets and Valium, I'm terrified to leave my house," she said.

"I will defend my home to the last, but my biggest fear is for my mental health. There is no integrity to what is happening out there, I'm still here but there are a lot of people out there who are taking their lives and that is the only reason I'm speaking out.

"For me, I'm not able to operate as a normal member of society, I'm not able to go out and enjoy shopping with my girls. That sort of devastation is across the country. The banks are in control, not the Government, and there is no accountability whatsoever for what is happening in our society. It is corporate manslaughter," Bernie added.

Sunday Independent

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