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'I want to get on with my life' - O'Flynn fights for normality

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Michael O'Flynn by Jon Berkeley

Michael O'Flynn by Jon Berkeley

Michael O'Flynn by Jon Berkeley

Michael O'Flynn is annoyed. He leans away from our table at Dublin's Westin Hotel and peers down at me from behind half-moon glasses perched low on his nose. I have just asked whether he feels indebted, or guilty, towards taxpayers.

It is a fair question, I argue. Loans attached to his eponymous construction group were sold by Nama for a discount - it is thought taxpayers took a hit somewhere in the region of €700m. It is the most obvious question to ask any developer who has been through Nama and had their loans sold at a discount. But for O'Flynn, it provokes surprise and instant agitation.

"I take exception to people asking me to take responsibility for that," he says, unblinking, with a steely note in his voice. "I never borrowed from taxpayers or the State, I borrowed from private banks.

"The decision to sell those loans was a government decision… if they had been left with the banks the losses would have been smaller. You can't lay the blame at our door when it comes to decisions made when we weren't even in the room."

Few Irish developers have had the nerve, the courage, the audacity - whatever you want to call it - to express that view publicly. But then again, few developers have brought one of the world's biggest private equity funds to court over their loans and come out on top.

O'Flynn's legal battle with US financial behemoth Blackstone was one of the highlights of the year from a business journalist's perspective. It had everything you want in a juicy business story: Nama, big US money, superstar barristers, bad blood.

To recap: €2bn of loans connected to the Cork developer's construction group passed into Nama's control in 2010, originally borrowed from Irish banks. The loans were sold earlier this year for a discount to Blackstone, the world's largest private equity investor in property.

Blackstone quickly moved to wrestle control of the group from O'Flynn and its other directors, calling in loans and attempting to put several group companies into receivership. He fought this in the High Court, and was successful in gaining at least a temporary reprieve.

The next plot twist in the saga will be a decisive one. O'Flynn has offered Blackstone a repayment of around €400m towards the construction group's loans, financed by two backers whose names he won't share. The amount is almost twice what is due to be repaid at this stage.

A deal could bring an end to their current legal tussle and return the group to normality until 2018, when the next substantial repayment is due.

A deadline of the end of January has been set, and a stay on legal proceedings agreed in the meantime.

O'Flynn will say little on the matter, but a lot obviously rests on this deal.

He did not expect to enter 2015 in these circumstances.

Last year, he says, started out "full of hope - getting out of Nama, meeting potential bidders [for the loan book connected to O'Flynn Group], cooperating... What happened in July was disappointing and regretful.

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NEW PROJECT: Developer Michael O'Flynn has luxury in mind

NEW PROJECT: Developer Michael O'Flynn has luxury in mind

NEW PROJECT: Developer Michael O'Flynn has luxury in mind

"But despite what is hanging over us we have got to get on with life."

Despite the enormous elephant in the room - the very real threat that its ownership could fall before the courts once again in just a matter of weeks - his construction group is trying to get back to business.

It has just applied for planning permission for its first substantial new building project since exiting Nama - a plot of 163 homes in the south Dublin suburb of Cabinteely.

Unusually in a housing market that is obsessed with first-time buyers, many of them will be luxury builds targeted at wealthier buyers. Work has already begun on a smaller development, also housing, in Lucan.

He is a difficult interviewee, full of contrasts. He talks a mile a minute, but at the same time is very measured with his words, very keen not to be misconstrued. He is warm and genial, but clearly has a prickly side and is very hesitant to discuss his personal life. I dig anyway.

O'Flynn was born in Cork in 1957 to a farming family. "I always wanted to work for myself," he says. "I came from farming where we were instilled with a hard work ethic. You had no other choice really."

He met wife Joan in his early 20s and was married by 25, with a baby on the way soon after. He has four children - three girls and a boy - and has just welcomed his first grandchild.

His empire started out small, building houses, scratching together finance.

Boosted by baby boomers, in the days when the concept of a developer was still relatively unknown, business snowballed. He built swathes of houses across Cork and large industrial and retail developments such as the Ballincollig Shopping Centre.

The lure of foreign shores proved too tempting to bear and he expanded overseas, moving into the UK in 1985. There he built massive student housing developments under the brand Victoria Hall. In 2006 he extended into Germany, where he now owns commercial and retail units as well as more student accommodation.

But it is the Cork apartment block Elysian Tower for which he remains best known. Seventeen stories of glass and steel, it is Ireland's tallest building.

It must have been immensely satisfying to build that kind of landmark in his own home town. Attendees at the opening night of the Elysian included rugby star Ronan O'Gara and the Foreign Affairs Minister of the day, Micheal Martin, an insight into just how well-connected O'Flynn is.

The tale of what happened with the advent of the financial crisis doesn't need to be told; it is the same as with every other developer. Still, O'Flynn's shrewdness was evident even in Nama. His personal wealth was largely protected because he didn't sign personal guarantees.

"We didn't do bad business, I never made personal guarantees in order to borrow recklessly. We were affected by a global downturn that was outside of our control."

He is widely regarded as one of the most cooperative developers to have gone through the Nama process, even thought to have been paid a salary by the government agency. The events that followed his exit from Nama, however, mean he is unsurprisingly critical of the organisation.

"I don't want to be hypocritical, because I wanted to get out of Nama," he says, meaning he wanted the agency to sell the loans attached to the O'Flynn Group as quickly as possible. "But there are certainly a large number of assets that should have been worked out with borrowers rather than sold, but there was no facilities for that. Relationships weren't managed in a way that was conducive to that."

At least his experience, he says, has helped to shine a light on the agency's flaws. "A lot of people have been able to negotiate with creditors because of what's happened with me" he says. "And I think they [Nama] are asking a lot more from bidders now about their plans."

He takes particular ire at Nama's new role of developer. The bad debt management agency is acting as co-developer on the various plots of lands it owns in Dublin's dockland region.

"I would be very concerned about Nama taking on the role of developer… Is it right to have the State acting as a property developer? Is there a state aid issue here? Does it raise anti-competition problems, since they will have a competitive advantage over the private world?

"It raises all kinds of issues that I don't think people understand yet.

"I don't think they have the remit. If Nama wants to become a developer, then let them go through the Dail, get the legislation to do it, go through the front door. Let there be an open debate."

He knows that his fight against Blackstone has a wider meaning for lots of people. For all of the anger channelled at developers in recent years, many people would still prefer an Irish developer to own and develop Irish assets over a faceless US private equity firm.

"I can't go anywhere without people talking to me about it," he says with a smile, recalling a party he attended that week where he got question after question about it.

Taking a company like Blackstone to court is no laughing matter - the expense of lawyers alone is staggering. What made him do it?

"I suppose I just had the fight in me. But I always see court as the last resort... I want to resolve this and get on with my life."

Does getting on with life mean a return to a certain type of lifestyle, to the helicopter days? He was well known for flying into race meetings where his horses competed.

"Look, anybody in my industry felt the pressure to change their lifestyle and we did indeed change. People have cut their cloth. But that doesn't mean we have stopped living."

He never really noticed anti-developer sentiment, he said, even at the height of the recession. "You do see it publicly, but it is changing," he believes. "The court issues this year helped the public to make up their own mind."

Sentiment towards developers is also benefiting from the declining state of the property market. Many wannabe first-time buyers watched the prospect of owning a home spiral out of reach as prices soared over the past 12 months. The market realised that if we want houses, we need developers.

But O'Flynn is bleak about the state of the Irish residential property market.

"All the estimates are that we will need 30,000 new homes a year to meet demand… I don't think there is any prospect of that kind of housing being delivered."

Everything from financing to infrastructure to mortgage lending is missing, he says. The regions in particular are going to lag behind, mostly because house prices are still too low to make building worthwhile.

"Only in a few parts of Cork do you earn more on new homes than it costs to build them. Prices need to recover more.

"You have to remember that it is more expensive today to build than it was before… there is a whole more expensive [taxation] regime for building now."

Once Cork's existing stock is whittled down - which will happen soon, he says - there will be a serious problem.

"I'd call it an emergency. We need housing and we need it quickly. Otherwise houses will only become available to the chosen few or to people who know people in terms of credit."

'Who has time to read books any more?'

How big is your family? "Wife Joan, three daughters, one son and a grandson."

Your last good meal?

"A steak in the Thady Inn in Cork. It was delicious."

Your hobbies?

"I love horse racing and have a stud farm where I breed racehorses. I also enjoy golf, rugby and GAA. I am very connected with our local club, Eire Og."

Where was your last holiday?

"We didn't go away this year but we had a break at Waterville in Kerry. It is my escape, it is the ideal place to holiday."

What is the last good book you read?

"I can't remember. Who has time to read books anymore? But I read the newspapers extensively."

What's the best advice you have ever received?

"Well, it's not the best advice I received, but the one that stands out is to always borrow only 70pc of a project and put in 30pc yourself. But those days are gone - we know now that it needs to be the other way around. Nobody understood the implications of debt."

 

Sunday Indo Business