Business Irish

Saturday 24 February 2018

High flyers fell prey to common trap but were in class of their own

THE story of Icarus has fascinated people throughout the ages. Every generation has its own incarnation of the boy who flew too close to the sun and came crashing back to Earth, but surely Johnny Ronan and Richard Barrett were the Celtic Tiger's version of Icarus? Nobody flew higher and nobody's crash has been louder or more visible.

Physically they are both very distinctive. With his swashbuckling long hair and rococo love life, Ronan could have stepped straight from a book of Greek legends. Barrett, with his expensive suits and urbane style, could have starred in a film as a smooth baddie or quirky goodie.

While Ronan's ostentatious and worldly interests made the front pages of the tabloids, Barrett acted as a cerebral counterpart; championing compulsory Mandarin in schools at last year's Global Irish Economic Forum in Dublin Castle. The two men were a sort of ying and yang that worked well together once they rekindled a school friendship following a chance meeting while trying to buy the same building.

Both went on to live an expansive, flamboyant and unconventional style that left even their peers gasping -- and it takes quite a lot to make a boomtime Irish developer gasp. Maybach cars, the Ward Union hunt and pink palaces in Dublin 4 were all signs that Ronan was determined to enjoy his wealth like some fairytale prince.

Treasury Holdings and all that it represents now appears to be history following yesterday's ruling (although Supreme Court appeals are coming down the tracks) but this should not obscure one of the most successful business partnerships in modern commercial history and some notable successes.

Over a 30-year period, the two men developed some of Ireland's best-known landmarks, including the National Convention Centre, the Westin Hotel and the Treasury Building which once housed the Fianna Fail Party's election headquarters and, ironically, the two men's chief nemesis; the National Asset Management Agency. Like collectors, they also had a penchant for London's trophy landmarks, snapping up Battersea Power Station and trying to buy the Millennium Dome.

While Ronan was reported to be uncomfortable with his Nama tenants and anxious to avoid meeting them in the lifts when he paid visits to his own office in the same building, it was KBC that finally brought Treasury Holdings down.

Despite Nama's best efforts, it is notable that all the big developers to have been toppled from their pedestals have fallen foul of foreign-based banks. One day, we may find out why we have allowed the Dutch and the Scots free rein while keeping our own banks muzzled but at the moment all we can say is that the evidence suggests Ronan and Barrett would still be running Treasury today if they had limited their borrowing to the Irish banks.

Of course, limiting borrowing was never a Treasury strong point. For all their charisma, knowledge of the property market and ambition to expand beyond Dublin and London to places like Shanghai, the two men fell foul of the same basic problems that tripped up countless other developers and individuals. They simply didn't see the crisis coming and reacted too slowly once it arrived.

They are far from unique. Many other developers have seen their career follow the same arc and many more will make the same mistakes in future. Still, it is probably a safe bet that it will be a long time before the Irish business world produces such an baroque and dazzling duo again.

Irish Independent

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