Saturday 22 July 2017

Rocket man

Motivational guru, entrepreneur, raconteur -- Bill Cullen does it all. But what's this about becoming the first Irishman in space? Interview by Pól Ó Conghaile

Pól Ó Conghaile

Pól Ó Conghaile

While you were tucked up in bed the other morning, Bill Cullen was doing Pilates in his bathroom. While you hit the snooze button, his Bell 222 helicopter was flying over the paddocks of Kildare. While you were eating breakfast, he was lecturing 50 electricians on the secrets of success.

Did anyone have aspirations to make it big? Cullen's first question to seminar attendants was standard. No hands went up. Then the follow-up -- did anyone want to be a millionaire? All hands went up.

"Do you all think you're going to win the bleedin' lotto?" he said.

Cue the Cullen-isms.

"Where you are now is the result of all the decisions you've made in the past," he told his Europa Academy audience.

On the walls outside, words of wisdom from JFK and WB Yeats are printed alongside his own: "Your future doesn't just happen -- you create it."

Soon afterwards, I arrive for our interview. The previous day, Cullen had told me he would be available 'anytime from 7am'. He's been living like this for years, telling anyone who will listen to work hard and believe in themselves. The Sunday Tribune once dubbed him an 'evangelical businessman'. But are cynical Irish ears finally beginning to listen?

"I've been doing motivational speaking for 40 years," he says. "I could never get anyone to listen to me here. Now I can." He invokes his mother (he always does). 'Son, you'll never meet a man better than yourself.' And then offers a kindly, avuncular smile. "It's nothing got to do with background or where you came from, it's who you are."

He reclines in his chair, at the business end of a boardroom table. Outside, a truckload of Renaults stands beside a helipad. "The granny had the best one of all. She'd scrab you with her scrabby nail and say, 'You see that blood? That's the blood of Cúchulainn. Bravest warrior that ever walked this land. You're a king.'"

If it sounds full-on, that's because it is. Bill Cullen is a veritable force of nature. You may not like the guy (I leave both fascinated and perturbed), but it takes something to haul oneself from inner-city Dublin to endorsements by Jack Welch, friendships with Tiger Woods, garagefuls of Bentleys and Aston Martins... you name it. "Isn't it gas, the things I had to put up with?" he laughs, hamming it up. "They all made me stronger."

Cullen's next adventure is the final frontier. He was first to stump up $200,000 to Virgin Galactic for a berth on SpaceShip Two, and has undergone training in a flight simulator. Blasting off sometime in 2009, he and his fellow 'astronauts' will climb to over 360,000 feet, bagging four unforgettable minutes in the absolute silence of space.

"As a kid we had comics you probably haven't heard of, like Buck Rogers and Dan Dare," he enthuses. "I thought once you'd go over 30 or 35 you couldn't be a spaceman. But then this comes out of the blue. I heard it from a friend of mine -- 'Branson's going to go into space!' So I went over, the contracts were just arriving from the solicitors, and I signed the first one."

Of course, there's a whiff of sulphur to the whole "first Irishman in space" claim, as Tom Higgins (CEO of Irish Psychics Live) has also stumped up the cash. "I'm the man who paid the first $200,000 cheque to Virgin Galactic," Cullen insists, brooking no dissent. "Richard is not saying who's going when until the time comes, and the more controversy there is about it, the more he likes the publicity!"

A phone call to Higgins confirms that he too considers himself "Ireland's first astronaut" (though neither man has yet been into orbit). "As far as I'm concerned Bill hasn't a hope of being the first Irishman in space, because it's going to be me," he says. "The reason it's going to be me is that I asked first."

Cullen first met Richard Branson in 1995, he tells me, spreading photographs of the pair across the table (alongside Virgin Galactic designs and hopeful looking snapshots of him in an astronaut's jacket). On his office wall hangs a signed photo from Rex Walheim, an Apollo veteran Cullen terms his 'fellow' astronaut. "I think if I was Richard I'd be bringing his VIPs," he says pointedly.

Both men appear to agree, however, that Virgin Galactic will have the final say. "Now it's got to the point where we stand in airport queues not speaking to each other," Higgins sighs. "It's ridiculous."

It's catty too, but at least Cullen's charity credentials are secure. He set up the Irish Youth Foundation in 1995, and says he has raised over €50 million in its name. "That all goes to disadvantaged youth projects in Ireland. It's a lot of money. When people come to me and say we have to look after Concern, go to Africa, build houses, I say hold on lads. I start at home. Because I can take you up to Ballymun right now and show you 60 kids with no houses."

A recipient of the inaugural Princess Grace Humanitarian Award, Cullen traces his philanthropic instincts back to his mother, Mary Darcy. As told in his book, It's a Long Way from Penny Apples, Cullen's family of 16 shared a Georgian tenement with 109 people. They had no heat or running water, lost two infants to viral pneumonia, and he left school at 13. Penny Apples is the "antidote" to Angela's Ashes, as he says himself -- the quintessential story of happiness through hardship in the rare aul' times.

"What Frank [McCourt] said was the only thing worse than a miserable childhood was a miserable Irish childhood, and I resented that. We had miserable conditions, but that doesn't mean we were going to do misery... As Molly Darcy [his grandmother] used to say to me, 'We're poor, son, but the neighbours is poor. And none of us knows we are poor...' It was bleedin' dreadful, but you didn't realise it at the time."

Again and again we return to this sentimental vision of childhood. And again and again it illuminates the man. When I ask Cullen about losing the Renault franchise, for example, his initial reaction is one of disappointment ("it's a kick in the hole"). But then he rationalises. And rhapsodises. Was Renault really so different to his grandmother, he wonders, getting up at 4am all those years ago to buy the fish off the trawlers?

"That's to cut out the middleman, son... which is what Renault has done, so I understand the principle! Renault was supplying me with cars to supply dealers to supply the public. They take me out, so they can go direct to the dealers. And will the day come when they take out the dealers? Probably. I accept all that. I had 21 years, made the most out of it, and now I'll move on."

I feel charmed and frustrated. Cullen is a fountain of anecdotes, never far from a fond recollection or a nugget of his mother's wisdom, but there is a haunting vulnerability to his sense of himself as raconteur and good egg. He has achieved a staggering amount, but there is a strange neediness to this big bear of a man. Perhaps it is the insecurity of a Summerhill boy in fantastically rich circles? A paradoxical loneliness? Or the fact that no amount of wealth will slow time?

"I got my pension last week," he states baldly. Then he stands to demonstrate his Pilates routine. "The reason I have more time than you, Pól, is that I get up at 4am," he says, assuming a body position straight from the Saturday Night Fever playbook. "You try and do this for 60 seconds. I can do this for thirty minutes. If you do this for five minutes a day, your calves, thighs, buttocks, belly, arms and chest are all getting exercise."

Cullen eats well, never drinks more than two glasses of alcohol a day (or six in a week), pumps an exercise bike, and walks with his partner Jackie (Lavin, the former model -- or 'My Jackie' as he calls her). "They say you need eight hours sleep, but I'm 66 and fit as a fiddle."

It tells. Cullen first got into the motor business as a dogsbody in 1956. Eight years later, he was Director and GM of a company with 180 employees. His Fairlane Motor Company became the biggest Ford dealership in Ireland and, in 1986, he bought the troubled Renault franchise from Waterford Crystal for £1. At its peak, the Glencullen group was turning over €350 million.

Today, he owns the five-star Muckross Park hotel (as well as houses in Kerry, Florida and a 43-room Palladian mansion in Kildare). He retains five Renault dealerships and is the driving force behind the Europa Academy in Swords. He's working on three new books too -- sequels to Penny Apples and Golden Apples, his motivational tome, and an historical novel on Michael Collins.

"I got the Michael Collins film made," he claims, out of the blue. A banker called him, apparently, flattering Cullen's interest in Collins and wondering if he would help fundraise the movie. "We're nine million short," he was told. "And we have until Friday."

"I said, give me two hours," Cullen beams. "I rang back and gave nine names, including me as a million in. That reflects the peoples' mobile numbers that I have. I don't use them very often. I don't give them to anyone. But the charity opens a lot of doors for you. I suppose it alters the perception of your reputation... what people think of you is one thing; what you are is another thing."

So how do people see him? "You tell me," he responds. "How do you see me? I don't know. How do people see me?"

Many are familiar with Cullen's caricature on Today FM's Gift Grub, I venture -- the prolix, self-obsessed (not to mention leggy) Dr. Bill. Does he endure or enjoy the satire?

"Both," he sighs. Smuttiness aside, "I'm quite delighted about it, because it's certainly helped me sell books. What are you going to do, try and stop it? You try and stop it and he'd do it more... I think overall it's funny, witty and popular, so you leave it at that."

Despite his wealth, Cullen says, he doesn't encounter begrudgery. He can, and does, return to the old haunts. "I can walk into those places," he says. "'Ah it's Liam, come on in!' My sister, who has 11 children, is living in Finglas. I go out there, everybody knows me as Bill."

Then the pitch changes. "Name any of the top people in Ireland. Michael Smurfit? I'm a founder member of the K Club, rings me all the time. JP McManus? Close friend, gives me a couple of hundred grand every year for the kids' charity. Dermot Desmond? He was up in my house in 1982, when he was broke. When he was broke! Hadn't a ha'penny!

"I can go anywhere. What do they say -- you can talk to princes and paupers. I spent a day up in President Mary's house the other day, in the Aras."

As the roll-call continues, I can't help but think -- Stop! You've made it! Why do you need to proclaim so endlessly? But I know the answer already. Bill Cullen has led "a magical life", and he wants everyone else to do the same. Anyone can do what he has, he says. You just need to believe in yourself... and then he's off again.

"I've been in the White House half a dozen times... Maybe that's the mantle I use, Pól. I have no airs or graces. I treat everyone the same. I can nip up to President Mary and say, how's it going? Just the same as I can go into the pub in Finglas and say howya lads, what's happening, what's the sceál? I don't change myself."

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