Saturday 22 October 2016

The inscrutable silence that surrounds Clerys

The iconic store has had its ups and downs but a year after its closure, asks Liam Collins, can it rise again and in what guise?

Published 12/06/2016 | 02:30

D2 Private: Deirdre Foley
D2 Private: Deirdre Foley

Exactly one year later and time has stood still for Clerys department store, the only thing moving are the hands on the iconic clock that is still keeping what Dublin folk call "the right time".

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On the windows facing O'Connell Street lovers have traced messages of affection in the dust, but otherwise the store, which closed at 5.30pm on June 12, 2015, is shuttered and dark, as if it had been enveloped in cling film and abandoned.

Passers-by hardly glance at what was once the most glamorous department store in the city; it is, as Con Houlihan said in another context, "forgotten but not gone".

Occasionally stories arise in the newspapers about Natrium Ltd, the company formed on May 27 last year by a partnership of D2 Private and London based asset management company Cheyne Capital to acquire the historic building and its plans for the future, but nothing has yet come of them.

The public face of the company, Sligo born accountant Deirdre Foley, remains inscrutable and silent on the future and indeed the past of the building that was Dublin's first purpose built department store.

A couple of days before it closed, strolling through the men's department I came across a light blue linen jacket, originally priced at €350, which I bought for €75. The only reason I ever shopped in Clerys was because there was hardly ever any other customers, apart from the cafes, and that's the way I like it.

So I was surprised by the outpouring of false dismay from people who hadn't darkened its doors in years when it finally closed at 5pm that Friday, although it must have been a brutal blow to the workers and concession holders who lost their jobs and their livelihoods in an instant. Basically Natrium Ltd bought the O'Connell Street property from the American firm Gordon Brothers for €29m. Simultaneously it sold the operating retail and furnishing business to an insolvency practitioner for €1, and he immediately successfully petitioned the courts to put it into liquidation because of unsustainable losses.

It was a business transaction mounted with military-like precision. As staff assembled around the regal marble staircase that sweeps elegantly to the upper floors to be told the news, security men were already moving through the building, securing the exits and changing locks of the extensive property that runs from O'Connell Street back to Sackville Place and North Earl Street.

Lorraine Sweeney, who had a catering concession in the store for 20 years and spent €110,000 on a refit of one of the restaurants in return for a five year contract renewal, has sought legal recourse over the deal. "We believe they, the buyer and the seller, worked in tandem in order to deprive concessionaires of €1.5m due the day after the sale and overnight liquidation of the business," she says. "This resulted also in the staff being deprived of their rights and the taxpayer having to pick up the tab." Sweeney, a former chairwoman of the Small Firms Association said yesterday that workers and concession holders had to "sing for their supper" and her legal action is ongoing.

The directors report for the year ended 2011, before Clerys was sold to Gordon Brothers was typical of the apocalyptic tone of the annual accounts for several years.

"The past year has been one of the most traumatic in the history of the state," said the report signed by the then chairman David Ryan and chief executive PJ Timmons. "The continued deterioration of the finances of the exchequer and banking sector, coupled with significant increases in austerity measures, personal taxation and unemployment, has caused a massive and sustained reduction in consumer spending."

It was a perfect storm for the owners whose fortunes thrived during the heyday of Clerys, but were now faced with unsustainable losses, no dividends and an economy in a tailspin.

The share register of Clery & Co (1941) plc contains the details of the 85 shareholders in the company with addresses scattered from Santa Monica in California to Kensington, London, from most of the suburbs of Dublin to Limerick, Tipperary and Kerry. The one thing that united them was that they were almost all related by blood or marriage to the famous Kerry retailer Denis Guiney.

Although originally incorporated in 1889 he bought the firm out of liquidation in November, 1940 for €222,000 and reopened the store weeks later, clearing stock worth £54,000 in the first week. When he died in 1967 he was succeeded by his wife Mary Guiney who took an active role in the management until shortly before her death at the age of 106.

So it came to pass that Clerys has now come to be associated foremost in the public mind by the formidable 44-year-old Deirdre Foley. From a farming background in Sligo she graduated from NUI Galway and joined GE Capital 1992 before moving to Quinlan Private. She established D2 Private with the developer David Arnold in 2005. The partnership was dissolved in 2013 and she is now the sole owner.

D2 Private, which has a half share in Clery's through Natrium, has an extensive property portfolio and Ms Foley has bought and sold property worth €3bn during her career. She is described as "one of Ireland's most successful financiers" and enjoys sailing, shooting and cycling, when the opportunities arise. Ms Foley, who declined to be interviewed, is involved in charitable causes in London and "adopts an intensive, active, hands-on management style", according to her company's website.

It is not a style that has endeared her to former workers and concession holders in Clerys, the city council or indeed the wider political establishment.

When Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin successfully got a Private Members Bill through the Dail (defeating the government) in late May extending workers rights, he specifically alluded to the Clerys closure saying "it cannot happen again". It took Clerys six years to rise from the rubble of 1916 - the question now remains as to how long it will take and in what guise will those ornate brass and glass doors reopen?

Sunday Independent

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