Eating an elephant, one bite at a time
From cycling in the Alps with Sean Kelly, to wrapping up multimillion deals, Johnny has led a gilded life, writes Niamh Horan
Published 05/04/2015 | 02:30
Johnny Ronan rounded a hairpin turn on his carbon racing bike and looked up in awe at Alpe d'Huez, one of the monument mountain stages of the Tour De France and one of the toughest climbs in road cycling.
At 10,930 ft, the climb to the top of the mountain seemed impossible.
But Ronan had an ace in the pack. Beside him was Sean Kelly, one of toughest, most resolute hardmen of the professional peloton and a friend of 25 years.
He saw the look on Ronan's face.
"Johnny, you tackle it like you'd ate an elephant," he said in his distinctive Waterford accent. "One bite at a time."
Ten hours later and the developer looked back over his shoulder toward the daunting mountain he had managed to conquer. He couldn't quite believe it.
Kelly's sage advice to tackle problems one small step at a time was a mantra Ronan would carry with him for the next five years as he fought to exit the State bad bank Nama.
Last week, a brief press release confirmed that Ronan's dream was finally realised. Like Alpe d'Huez and the elephant, Ronan took it one chunk at a time.
It took 13 firms of lawyers and 18 other teams of advisors, bankers and financial consultants.
The man who was key to the deal was financial advisor Guy Leech.
Ronan and Richard Barrett first met him at a dinner in the Physic Garden in Chelsea in 1996.
Over the intervening years Leech had drummed up some €4.5bn worth of investment capital for the partners.
Years later, Leech was at a dinner at London's Hakkasan Restaurant as Ronan took out a pen in front of architect Rafael Vinoly and sketched on the back of a napkin his vision for the iconic Battersea Power Station. Vinoly still has the napkin. The site was supposed to be the golden ticket to protect Treasury against the impending downturn, bring money in for the Irish taxpayer and make Barrett and Ronan billionaires.
But Nama came calling to Treasury Holdings and the State bad bank ultimately sold off the property for €600m, sending Treasury under.
But how to exit Nama? It was up to Leech and Ronan to get pen and paper out again, this time to draw up a list of banks that would support the developer.
Leech, suave and persuasive, was the best person to meet the lenders, Ronan figured. The Englishman travelled to boardrooms across the US and Europe to state their case.
Last September, a deal was almost through with two major lenders when an article appeared in a national newspaper.
It made reference to political corruption and false accusations against Mr Ronan of fraudulently stripping assets from his previous business, Treasury Holdings.
Within days, Leech received a phone call. The deal was off. An apology was printed in the newspaper but it was too late. The damage had been done.
It was back to the drawing board and eventually US group Colony Capital and international bank M&G agreed to refinance Ronan.
In the last few weeks almost 100 people on both sides worked 18-hour days to see it through. It took two weeks alone to sign the mountain of paper work.
At 2.25pm on Wednesday, the deal was done.
When the call came through to say that he was a free man, Ronan was with his mother and they shared a hug.
When a friend asked what it was like to finally be out of Nama he replied with a shrug: "It's like getting me mickey out of a bear trap."
Another mountain climbed.