Sunday 22 April 2018

The Coca-Cola man aims to tap into Ireland's history and potential

Interview: Neville Isdell, CHQ building entrepreneur

'I'm 72 years old. I'm retired in terms of my main career thing, which was Coke. But I really believe that you have got to stay engaged,' - says Neville Isdell
'I'm 72 years old. I'm retired in terms of my main career thing, which was Coke. But I really believe that you have got to stay engaged,' - says Neville Isdell
Gavin McLoughlin

Gavin McLoughlin

Why is the 72-year-old former chief executive of one of the world's most recognisable companies spending his time trying to turn around one of the great symbols of Ireland's economic crash?

Former Coca-Cola boss Neville Isdell owns the CHQ Building at the edge of Dublin's IFSC. He paid more than €10m for a commercial property - not a shopping centre, of which more anon - that was largely vacant when sold to him two years ago. Many saw it as a white elephant.

Now it's fuller, but not full. It's not making money yet either - but Isdell has a grand plan.

Built in 1820 as a wine and tobacco warehouse, in recent years it became a retail unit and now it's looking to also become a centre for tech companies.

"At the very beginning you don't have many believers, because it was labelled very clearly - 'CHQ is a failed shopping centre'."

"That's what everyone told me it was: 'Why do you want to build up a failed shopping centre. How are you going to turn it around.'

The high-level strategic statement I came from was, 'Well yes ok, but this is not a shopping centre, it's going to be a centre with shops'.

The centre will contain a tourist attraction called 'Epic Ireland', based on the story of the Irish diaspora and located in the CHQ building's vaults. Isdell has signed up Michael Counahan, who worked on the Titanic Centre in Belfast, as project director. Plans are proceeding on schedule - we can hear drilling downstairs as we sit in an office in the building - and Isdell hopes tourists will be streaming in the doors next May. It'll be a non-sanitised account of Irish history - looking at Ireland as a whole, not just the story of people from the Republic.

"It will allow us to go seven days a week, because today we're really five days, apart from Ely (a restaurant) outside.

"We're building traffic, and I make my money by the people who are renting being successful… but they rely on what we do here being successful making the building successful. Epic Ireland for me is a huge bet because I'm funding it… all up including some of the capital changes and what have you it's going to be in the range of €10-€12m so it's not a small cheque.

"I joke with people that I have a board that's easy to convince - it's me."

One of the building's major lynchpins is Dogpatch Labs - a working space for technology startups in a unit that once housed Meadows & Byrne. The idea was that bringing in Dogpatch would create "buzz, colour, and traffic", says Isdell's stepbrother Mervyn Greene, a director of the CHQ who's more hands on than the "semi-retired" Isdell in running the business. They're delighted with how it's gone in the six months since Dogpatch opened.

"It will become a go-to place… there will be five or six things going on there simultaneously, and there could be as many as 20 things going on in any particular day over the course of the day, presentations, meetings, workshops," Greene says.

Dogpatch's Hugo Mahony says they "want to give a home to the many NGO and start-up organisations, the likes of Coder Dojo who are actually based out of Dogpatch itself.

"Things like Fintech Ireland and Python Ireland, all these groups who organise meet-ups and hackathons and workshops, hopefully this will now become their home," he adds.

Dogpatch currently has 14,000 sq ft in the building and that's set to shortly become 21,000, with some of Dogpatch going to be located in the vaults.

"We are looking at expanding it because we're bursting at the seams. It's so successful we can't handle it," Isdell says.

"We opened on the first of February, got planning permission, they're working on it right now. The builders are in. Incredible, it's not quite the speed of the internet but not far from it.

Ulster Bank is helping with the financing of the project and is going to move its Innovation team into Dogpatch. Isdell namechecks Maeve McMahon, Ulster Bank's director of customer experience and products.

"She got it immediately. She bought into the CHQ and what we're trying to do... for us it's increased validation that we're changing things, that we've got a big player involved in our joint project with Dogpatch and that validation is fundamentally important. Also important of course, for all the people that are renting from us in Dogpatch, because they've got Ulster Bank standing there who can help them and work with them.

We want people to graduate. We want people who've been there to leave, but to leave because they've been successful, and then bring in others. It's a revolving door, the more they succeed the more they get people coming in through the door the other end."

"I want to see when our first float comes, they've got a few more stages to go before that happens when they leave here, but that's what success looks like as far as I'm concerned... it's immensely exciting.

Isdell's enthusiasm is palpable. A former editor of his university's newspaper - he tells me what my next question should be. Why is he doing it? Then he answers his own question.

"I'm 72 years old. I'm retired in terms of my main career thing, which was Coke. But I really believe that you've got to stay engaged, not just physically stay in shape, but intellectually stay in shape.

"And that's all about challenge. My wife said to me: 'You're not going to stop working are you?' and sighed. I said: 'Well I'm semi-retired now', and she said: 'I'm not sure about the semi!'"

"I am semi-retired but what I'm able to do is work with people like Mervyn where I don't do the day-to-day stuff but I'm still very involved and have hopefully some idea about strategy and vision and the like, and the ability to fund it, and be involved in exciting things. Epic is hugely exciting. Dogpatch is hugely exciting. The fact that we're turning the building around is exciting, but successfully serving a whole lot of meals probably doesn't give quite the psychic reward that Dogpatch does or Epic does. Those are the two big pieces, the others are all part of the puzzle, and very important.

"This building gets to you. It's got fabulous history. Making it vibrant and working again is great. I don't know what comes after that.

The footfall through the CHQ has more than doubled since this time last year, and in the first year of Isdell's ownership it went up about 50pc, Greene says.

He said they're seeing an upturn in the commercial property market, but many of the units in the centre still lie vacant.

"There's more interest in coming in. It's well documented that Ireland's growing and consumer spending has started since around 18 months ago to uptick a bit. We are seeing a bit of that happening. The thing that's also happening in this area is there's more space being let, there's more people around, and they have a bit more money.

"So from our own perspective we're doing reasonably well...we are getting enquiries. It is a jigsaw puzzle here, I don't want to be specific but there are restaurants or shops or other outlets that wouldn't fit where we're going. We're in serious talks with a number of people to take two of the available three serious restaurant spaces," Greene says.

He said they'll aim to stagger the arrival of the new tenants on site in order to allow them a chance to bed in.

Isdell says they could have filled the building by now if they wanted, but are keen to find the right tenant.

"There's enough traffic here... we've got a vision of where we wanted to building to be. Until you build your credibility you don't get the right sort of tenant, and you need the right sort of tenant to build your credibility. There's an iterative process."

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