Wednesday 13 December 2017

Developer was the very embodiment of Irish property's boom and bust

Emmet Oliver Deputy Business Editor

No single Irish developer embodies the extraordinary nature of the Irish property bubble, but Ray Grehan comes very close.

Grehan, a former tiler, only entered the property market as an owner in 1988 and only became truly known nationally with his purchase in 2005 of the former UCD veterinary site for €171.5m.

It was this purchase -- coming months after Sean Dunne splashed out on a huge site at the nearby Burlington Hotel -- that shocked the market, with Grehan making headlines all over the world for buying Ireland's most expensive site. The developer's spend of €84m per acre may not be beaten for many years to come.

Grehan symbolised the possibilities of the Irish property boom. Somebody could start in the industry with little financial backing or experience of developing properties and within a few years could own a portfolio worth hundreds of millions of euro. Grehan was even nominated as Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year in 2006.

He embodied the essential promise of the property boom -- you could go from the building site to the boardroom through sheer hard work and drive. It also helped that Grehan's various projects were well designed and he got involved personally in selling units to the public.

However, six years later the UCD veterinary site is a car park and is reported to be only valued at €40m.

The developer bought the site, while accepting he was paying top money, on the basis that sites in Ballsbridge were as near to recession-proof as one could find.

Unfortunately for him the scale of the downturn later made this statement sound hollow. However, Grehan did put more than €60m of his own money into the deal to buy the UCD site, whereas many of his contemporaries borrowed up to 100pc of the purchase price. Grehan has been highly co-operative with NAMA and recently signed a memorandum of understanding, he told the Irish Independent yesterday.

His company Glenkerrin Homes specialised in commercial and residential property, with Grehan able to seal deals that other rivals like Derek Quinlan were also chasing. Like many other developers in Ireland, Grehan's empire consists of everything from apartments, to high-end hotels, to business parks to office blocks.

Grehan, who works closely with his brother Danny, was also a highly public figure during the boom and hit the headlines in 2008 when he offered buyers interest-free loans to entice them to purchase Glenkerrin properties.

He was also open and accessible and did not shroud his operations in secrecy the way many of his counterparts do. His liking for good architecture has also won Grehan some friends outside the property development industry and his City Pride complex in London's Canary Wharf is to be designed by renowned architect Norman Foster.

Like a lot of Grehan's schemes, this project is also heavy on ambition, envisaging as it does the tallest residential building in Europe.

Glenkerrin was unlike many Irish property development companies in that it did little business with Anglo Irish Bank, preferring instead to bank initially with Bank of Ireland and then AIB.

Grehan and his brother started their business with a small residential development in Maynooth, but after many years his company now owns chunks of Canary Wharf and a hotel in the Shoreditch area of central London.

The developer was yesterday deeply surprised by the actions of NAMA, which has appointed Grant Thornton as a receiver to the Irish assets. Grehan told the Irish Independent he was more than willing to sell assets and adhere to NAMA's targets.

However, he did admit NAMA had tried to impose a non-executive chairman on the company in recent months, but the move had not worked as far as Grehan was concerned.

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