Business Irish

Saturday 16 November 2019

Connellan prepares to set sail after 16 years of making waves

CEO refuses to pre-empt outcome of planning row

Technically, Enda Connellan has already retired. He's simply guiding the state-owned Dublin Port Company along by way of a contract, most likely until June, when a successor takes up the helm.

After 16 years as chief executive of the semi-state body that manages the country's largest port -- it's responsible for two-thirds of all container traffic moving in and out of Ireland -- Mr Connellan has presided over an era where the economy boomed first on the back of exports and then property: both surges helped boost the Dublin Port Company's bottom line.

Profits rose nearly 25pc in 2008 to €27m, while turnover was flat at over €70m. In 2009, net profits were €14.5m. This year, the figure will be down, but probably not significantly despite the state of the wider economy.

The seemingly insatiable appetite for consumer goods and new cars during the last decade fuelled significant growth at the port, while the sale of the controversial Irish Glass Bottle site netted the company €109m from the mind-boggling €412m purchase price near the peak of the market, in 2006.

Yesterday, Mr Connellan gave his final presentation on the annual traffic performance at the port, which even in the current climate still dealt with as much tonnage last year as it did in 2005 or 2006.

The 62-year-old Clare native, and fervent Munster rugby supporter, is a genuine sea dog, having bought his first sailing dinghy at the age of 16 and gone on to captain ships traversing various parts of the world before joining the port firm 32 years ago.

Perhaps that's why during the boom, and even later, the thought of the massive 250-hectare port landbank being largely vacated and developed into a major new office and residential hub -- or "yuppieville", as Mr Connellan disparagingly labelled it during an Oireachtas Committee hearing last October -- rankled with the chief executive.

Such plans had been proposed by the now defunct Progressive Democrats in 2002 -- they wanted to privatise the port and decamp its activities to outside the capital.

"People completely lost the plot," says Mr Connellan regarding such plans and the focus on property plays. At one stage, there was an estimate in the middle of the last decade that the port's land could fetch as much as €2m an acre, although the glass bottle site sold for the equivalent of over €17m an acre.


"No senior politician or senior civil servant has discussed moving Dublin Port with me," he points out. "It was a valuation distraction," he adds, having previously described the property market as a "dangerous obsession".

He also shudders at the thoughts of what might have happened had outright privatisation of the port been pursued, or simply sold off.

"If the land had been sold off for property development, we wouldn't even be talking about Nama (the National Asset Management Agency)

now. We'd have nothing."

But when then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern appointed controversial businessman Joe Burke as chairman of Dublin Port in 2002, the writing seemed to be on the wall for the company, at least according to commentators.

Privatisation, perhaps worse, seemed inevitable. Not so, maintains Mr Connellan.

"I never felt that pressure from Joe," he explains. "Joe was chairman and a board director before that and he behaved as a chairman at board level."

Mr Burke was among the former Taoiseach's close friends who gave Mr Ahern money in 1994 as his marriage broke up.

He resigned from the port board almost this time last year after a High Court ruling the previous November restricted his role as a company director following the collapse of his building firm in 2007.

A year prior to that, he had become embroiled in unseemly events in Dublin after a complaint of sexual assault was made against him.

The port is now on an even keel again, however, with the recent appointment of Lucy McCaffrey to the post. She owns a management consultancy business.

Still, years after it was first mooted, the notion of Dublin Port's place in the city is still being pondered -- at least by those who don't work there.

The findings of a report published late last year, which had been commissioned by the Department of Transport on the facility's future, effectively said the best option for it was that it should remain in situ. A report prepared for Dublin City Council suggested the contrary -- that the port, at least in part, should be relocated to free up the area.

Bremore, on the Meath-Dublin border north of the capital, is where it's been suggested Dublin Port could move to. Plans have been afoot by Drogheda Port Company to develop a site there, while it selected a consortium that includes a subsidiary of property group Treasury Holdings and Hong Kong-based Hutchison Port Holdings to develop the facility. But that was then.

"I don't think it will go ahead," says Mr Connellan of Bremore's development, "but if they still think it's worth proceeding with, then I suppose it will."

The reality is, however, that the business case for Bremore has almost certainly evaporated -- at least in the medium-term, until sustained economic growth returns.

Meanwhile, a nearly decade-old plan to reclaim 20 hectares of land at the port has caused local controversy, but Mr Connellan maintains the development is essential if the facility is to be able to manage increasingly bigger vessels with deeper draughts.

The outcome of a lengthy hearing by An Bord Pleanala before Christmas should be made known by March or April. Locals fear the plans will result in additional flooding of their homes, while environmentalists say the impact of the reclamation would be detrimental to marine life, birds and other wildlife.

"We went through a very vigorous hearing with An Bord Pleanala. Anyone who's going to be affected by any development has a right to have a say in it.

"We need deeper water near land so we can efficiently move goods from ships to land," he says. "We have bigger ships needing bigger berths."

Mr Connellan says he won't pre-empt the findings of An Bord Pleanala, and adds that there is no back-up plan if the decision doesn't go Dublin Port's way. "You'll just end up doing things less economically. That's the only way that I see it."

Mr Connellan says that, during his tenure, Dublin Port has become more efficient and cost-effective, but it's plans for his retirement that are probably largely swimming around his mind at this stage.

"I'm going to go sailing," he says. "It may sound like a busman's holiday, but I started my career at sea and I intend to do a lot of sailing."

A round-the-world trip isn't on the agenda, he says, but an adventure across the Atlantic is.

Throwing off the bowlines will no doubt never have felt so good.

Irish Independent

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