Sunday 18 November 2018

Ben there, Dunne that - now he's doing it all again

Nick Webb

EXCLUSIVE: 10 years since he went off the rails in a US hotel, Ben Dunne is back in business, writes Nick Webb

@@STYL b FOR someone who's been kidnapped by the IRA, had a well-documented problem with cocaine and made payments to politicians that have dominated the papers for years, Ben Dunne is remarkably cheerful. He'll do an interview, he says just so long as there's none of that stuff about call girls ... and we make sure that it's a big "effing spread".

Dunne is now in the gym business. Having opened the Westpoint Fitness Centre in Blanchardstown, he's now about to build a ?40m leisure centre development in Kimmage. But more of that later. The Ben Dunne story is as close to Dallas or Dynasty as you'll get in these waters.

It's a tale of massive riches, birds, drugs, terrorists and blowing it all. But it's also a tale of picking up the pieces and putting them back together. There are even loads of bronzed and toned bodies thrown in for good measure.

Born in Cork in March 1949, Ben worked his way up in the family business, ultimately running it after his father, Ben Dunne Senior, died. It was heady stuff, with Dunnes Stores hitting the elusive £1bn turnover mark. But plain sailing it wasn't. He had already been kidnapped and released by the IRA before the wheels came off in spectacular fashion, following a drug bust in Florida in 1992.

This was the beginning of the end of his time at Dunnes, as he was soon ousted in a bitter legal wrangle which led to revelations about payments to Charlie Haughey and Michael Lowry's house extension. He flirted with retail and property before buying and selling the now Dunloe Ewart. But since then, it's been all about getting people fit and lightening their wallets.

With the Moriarty tribunal forecast to cost up to ?40m, it's fair to assume that Dunne's actions have put more than a few barristers' kids through Alexandra College or St Michael's. Not to mention put a fleet of shiny jags and mercs outside the Law Library. He's not about to give them the two fingers.

"These are people who have a job to do. They are wise people. They ask questions and expect answers. That's been the way that I've dealt with the tribunals. If they want me, 99 per cent of the time I'm available at 24 hours notice."

Dunne doesn't want to go into the ins and outs, or the rights and wrongs of the whole "big fella" incident, when he famously bunged Haughey some dough. "It's a hypothetical question. There are lots of things I've done that I wouldn't repeat again, but I wouldn't go into any of it, because it's hypothetical. Of course you have to learn as you go along," he says.

Presumably he still gets people saying 'Thanks a million, big fella'? "If they only say: 'Thanks a million', I say: 'Hold on now, we've gone euro, so you'll have to up that a bit,'" he chortles.

It's nearly 10 years since he skirmished his way out of Dunnes Stores on the way to a reputed £100m settlement, but Dunne is still associated with the retail giant. "I find it ironic that I still receive a huge amount of letters in here about Dunnes Stores," he says shrugging his shoulders. "And there are a huge amount of people who want to know can they use their Dunnes card for treble points or whatever. I'm very much associated with Dunnes Stores. I don't know why. But I'm not going to change my name and I don't think they're going to change the name over the door."

Dunne and his siblings particularly big sister Margaret Heffernan fell out in fairly spectacular fashion. Dunne was reputed to have extinguished his cigarette in her glass of fizzy water during one particularly poisonous exchange. As far as detente goes, it's anyone's guess. But at the same time, he doesn't shop in Dunnes Stores "Though my wife does!"

It seems he's got the whole shopping bug out of his system. "If I had an offer in the morning to go back into retail, I wouldn't go near it."

Dunne is also something of a property magnate, having built up a decent-sized portfolio of offices and factories. It's not something that toots his whistle though. "It sits there and runs itself. It's boring. The rent comes in, but it's just boring," he says. "I've bought my stuff and I'm happy I have it, but I just don't like it. If somebody made me an offer for my property business, I'd sell it. No question about it." It's hard to put a value on his property in the open market, but he says that it yields between 6 to 7 per cent. Accounts for his company, Barkisland, show that its tangible assets were worth more than ?25m following a revaluation two years ago. Recently it emerged in tribunals that Dunne was the owner of Marlborough House in Dublin. Michael Lowry is alleged to have asked Sherry FitzGerald boss Mark FitzGerald to interfere in a rent review in Dunne's favour.

Dunne's own office is altogether less remarkable. There are paintings of a streetscape with a Dunnes Stores shop front and a large Victorian oil painting hanging over the desk. A Martin Turner cartoon and a mounted brass pistol sit on a sidetable beside an upright back piano. The windowed door looks out onto the main entrance into the gym. His son and business partner Mark has an office just a few doors down the corridor.

We head out on a tour of the gym. Lycra-clad women are crunching their buns of steel, padding up and down treadmills and burning up carbs on exercise bikes. Four members greet him as they pass. He knows all their names. We burst into the men's changing room. There's no one there to be surprised. It's only 11 in the morning. Up to the eaves to look at the air conditioning unit. It's a very nice big silver and blue thing that hums.

The green light is flashing for Dunne's second big project with approval granted for a huge leisure centre at the old Carlisle Grounds on Kimmage Road. Work is set to begin in the first week of April.

Apart from the gym, Dunne is planning to add in a spa and consulting rooms for a variety of doctors. The site cost about ?5m and he figures that the gym will set him back a further ?14m. If the rest of the development is approved, it could add a further ?20m. All in all, it's the bones of ?40m and it's coming straight out of his pocket.

He has also lobbed in a planning application for another centre in Bertie Ahern's backyard on a five-acre site just off Griffith Avenue. "I think we'll have five or six of these around Dublin. I'm looking at a site in the Malahide area and I'd like a site on the southside Cornelscourt, that sort of area." The large regional cities are next, he says, putting on on his tortoiseshell pince-nez glasses. They're Chanel. He's also wearing a big brute of a gold Rolex.

While Dunne may well be loaded, he's not silly enough to keep bankrolling all these planned developments. "Somewhere in the not-so-distant future, we will have to get into bed with a bank," he says. There's also a possibility of using his property empire as leverage in some sort of a deal. However, Dunne is unlikely to hook up with a trade partner. "I've had a good experience with partnership and families," he snorts sarcastically. "But I get on very well with Mark."

Dunne believes that size is everything. "If I owned Dunnes Stores today, I'd prefer to have 16 Cornelscourts rather than all the other stores. So I'd rather have five or six big gyms, rather than 20 smaller ones." Westpoint is a 40,000 square foot operation and Dunne expects that the Kimmage development will be about 50 per cent bigger.

He is still a born salesman. Westpoint costs ?449 a year and he does his damnedest to sell a membership to our photographer, Gerry. "Come back and see me and I'll do you a very good deal," he promises. Better value beats them all? Heard that one somewhere before.

When it opened in June 1997, the Westpoint Centre in Blanchardstown was little short of being an absolute disaster. "It was a complete white elephant," he agrees. But at least he had the swimming pool to himself. "And the jacuzzi," he laughs. "I firmly believed that the product was right. I just had enough nerve and the financial clout to stick it out. But believe me, it did not do well for the first two years. I was very, very ... very worried. I don't like failure and it was as close as I ever got to failure."

But perseverance and tweaking the layout of the centre paid dividends and now Dunne says that the prof its are "more than acceptable" from a turnover of about ?5m. The most recent accounts available for the Westpoint Fitness & Health Centre show an increase of little more than £700 in the value of the company's profit and loss account, which rose to just over £87,000.

"This would be as good as the best Dunnes Stores in my day," he says, shuffling his papers around. Dunne's desk is in disarray. There are enough sheets of paper to crowd a landfill. And there's a silver golf-club penholder that keeps spearing him in the elbow whenever he moves his arms around.

His new business has also attracted interest from abroad. "We have refused lots of offers, especially since getting planning for Kimmage," he says proudly. "If we get planning for Griffith Avenue, then people are genuinely interested. There's numerous ones but I'm not going to say which ones."

But then he immediately does. "At one stage Virgin made an approach." It wasn't through Richard Branson though. "He sent one of his sidekicks," says Dunne. The deal didn't progress because Virgin were just offering shares no cash. But a sale isn't on the agenda. It seems that his gamble is beginning to pay off.

It makes a change. Legend has it that, in his previous existence, Dunne was a ferocious gambler at golf. There'd often be a few grand wagered on winning a hole. "There were big bets in golf, no question about it. Would I do it again? I just don't gamble as heavily as that these days. Anyway, my game isn't what it used to be. If you gamble on things like that, you'll lose."

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