Farm Ireland

Sunday 25 March 2018

Sean Quinn's downfall is one of Celtic Tiger's most tragic tales

John Shirley

The news of Sean Quinn and the Quinn Group is going from awful to worse. Of all the Celtic Tiger tragedies I find this to be one of the saddest. It is certainly one of the biggest.

As recently as 2008, Sean Quinn was listed by the Sunday Times as Ireland's richest man, worth €4.72bn. By 2011, Sean Quinn was filing for bankruptcy. In 2012, Sean Quinn Jnr finds himself behind bars.

Was there an alternative to the humiliation being visited on the Quinn family and onto the son of a small farmer who left school at 14 and built an empire from minimalist beginnings?

Singlehandedly, this force of nature transformed the Cavan and Fermanagh border area and at his height employed more than 6,000.

It is now emerging that the collapse of the Quinn Group is a disaster for the country and the taxpayer as well as for the immediate family and employees.

I contrast the reaction to the collapse of the Sean Quinn empire to what happened when Larry Goodman's company collapsed and faced liquidation way back in 1990.

Then the Dáil was recalled in August, new legislation on Examinership was rushed through and the Goodman company was put under Examiner protection.

There were many parallels between Goodman in 1990 and Quinn almost two decades later. Goodman, too, had speculated on the stock market and saw collapses in the share price of Unigate and Beresford. Extraneous factors led to delayed payment on beef exported to Iraq. The company had run out of cash.

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Crucially, during the working through of the examinership, Larry Goodman, the driving force for the company, was left at the helm. Banks were forced to make huge write-offs and agree to an arrangement whereby Goodman and other financial backers could redeem the company shares from future profits.

By 1995, this process was complete and eventually Goodman bought out the other shareholders.

The reality was that Goodman had a formidable track record on running a beef business. The banks knew this. Nationally, the company was too big to allow it to fail. Once the outside distractions were removed, the best chance of turning the company around lay with the retention of existing management. And so it proved. Another crucial factor in 1990 was that Charlie Haughey was Taoiseach.

I reckon that if Haughey, or even Bertie Ahern were still around, the Quinn Group would have got more favoured treatment.

A wise man once remarked to me: "If you lose money always seek to find it where you lost it."


The idea being that the investment idea was good, but that timing or other factors were wrong. Second time around you will also have learned from your early mistakes. Quinn had enjoyed spectacular success in business before taking his eye off the ball, investing in Anglo Irish Bank shares and speculating on foreign property.

In 2007, the group recorded a profit of €439m. Unlike other successful Irish business people, he didn't run out of the country to become a tax exile.

He was simply too grounded in the community to commit such a deed.

Like Goodman, Quinn had fiercely loyal staff that would go the extra mile for him and the company. But the gambling instinct that helped to build the empire was also its undoing when Quinn was reckless over the past few years. He was yellow-carded and paid a several-million-euro fine in 2008 for misuse of insurance capital.

After hitting the rocks, Quinn put forward a seven-year plan in which he proposed to repay the €2.8bn loan to the Anglo Irish Bank.

This was refused, despite the involvement of such credible outfits as BDO Simpson Xavier and Deutsche Bank in framing the proposals.

Instead of trying to keep the group going as a cohesive unit, the operation is now a mess of litigation. The discredited Anglo Irish Bank, which abetted the Quinn downfall, is now going for the jugular. Bankers, accountants and lawyers are drawing huge fees and the Irish taxpayer may be hit with a bill "north of €1bn" in insurance levies, etc.

Faced with the new revelations, public support for the Quinn predicament may be ebbing. Justice Peter Kelly of the Commercial Court described the efforts by Quinn and his family to put assets beyond the reach of Anglo Irish Bank as "mesmerisingly complex and the largest and most devious seen in the Commercial Court".

Yet I can understand the Quinn moves as the response of a family that has made a huge contribution to society and to Ireland, but is now facing ruin and now regards itself as unfairly treated.

I have never met Sean Quinn, but I wish him well and believe that he is more sinned against than sinner.

Indo Farming