Wednesday 22 November 2017

How to pick up the pieces after everything falls apart

I'd love to blame the economy but it was my fault, says Ronan Ryan

Restaurateur Ronan Ryan is not the sort of person to give up. Photo: Mark Condren
Restaurateur Ronan Ryan is not the sort of person to give up. Photo: Mark Condren
Bill Cullen and Jackie Lavin. Photo: Michael Chester
Andrea Smith

Andrea Smith

What do you do when the business you have put your heart and soul into for years falls apart, and you are ultimately forced to walk away from it? Having come through the financial and emotional maelstrom of dealing with devastated staff, creditors and financial institutions snapping at your heels, and angry suppliers berating you in the media, many of us would sensibly decide to get the hell out of Dodge.

We'd go and work in the local fruit and veg shop, where the most difficult challenge of the day would possibly involve a bruised banana, but many of our most talented and colourful entrepreneurs don't have the same attitude. They may have had a disaster or two along the way, but they're willing to put themselves on the line again, albeit with a wiser head and a slightly more battered heart. As Samuel Beckett put it, "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better."

Take genial restaurateur Ronan Ryan, who was co-proprietor of three restaurants with chef Temple Garner back in 2007 – Town Bar and Grill on Kildare Street, South Bar & Restaurant in Sandyford, and Bridge Bar & Grill in Dublin's Docklands. Within a few short months the economy fell apart, and they ended up ultimately losing it all.

"One restaurant pulled the others over the cliff," admits Ronan. "Town was making money hand-over-fist and Bridge was breaking even – but we were in over our heads with South. Fitting it out ran six months behind schedule, which meant that the rent-free period was over before it opened."

The banks lent Ronan and Temple €1m to fit it out, and while they repaid €968,000 everything else suffered. They had to pull in about €60,000 per week to make it work, and were only doing about €50,000.

"This meant that Town was putting about ten grand into what was essentially a big black hole, because looking back, I don't think it would ever have worked, even in the good times," says Ronan. "I'd love to blame the economy, Anglo or everyone else, but I can only blame myself. Nobody put a gun to my head to open it. The two biggest developers in the country wanted me to do it and I was flattered."

South closed in 2008, Bridge folded in 2009, and Ronan had to fend off criticism, including the memorable on-air kicking he received on Joe Duffy's Liveline from creditors. It stung, as there is a considerable difference between those who can pay, but don't, and those who can't pay and don't, he explains, ruefully.

"The hard part is trying to prove that you didn't look at 100 grand in an account and go, 'I'll put 50 grand into my pocket and everyone else can feck off,'" says Ryan, who has two children, Harrison, 2, and seven-month old Elsie with his partner, TV presenter Pamela Flood, and a son Zach, 12, from a previous relationship.

The darling of the social set, Town went into examinership in 2009. Ronan continued to manage it on behalf of Treasury Holdings, but failed in his bid to buy it back. While he was devastated at the time, he now thinks that moving on was probably the best option all around.

"There were 20 people trying to buy Town because it was making money, but I lost the right to be that person," he says. "I had trouble dealing with that at the time, but it makes complete sense to me now. You kind of have to let the whole thing go out in the wash, in my opinion. It feels way better now to have handed back the keys and taken the pain at the time."

While many people would baulk at risking that kind of heartache again, Ronan says that the only thing you can do is to pick yourself up and start all over again. Six months ago, he and Dave Kelleher – "the money man" – opened Pizze e Porchetta, making sure to keep their overheads as low as possible. The buzzing, popular eatery is actually on the site of the old Bridge in the Malting Tower on Grand Canal Quay, and they're delighted that it has already surpassed its projections.

"We rented this building in 2006 and were paying €3,500 per week," reveals Ronan. "Then Denis O'Brien bought it and we now pay €750 per week. We're full from breakfast to dinner, and the average bill here is €50 for two people. They come in, share a pizza and get two glasses of wine."

Ronan feels that some people are afraid to stop and do one thing well as they want to have a chain as soon as possible. "That was me in 2006," he admits. "I couldn't wait to get more places open, and looked at it, subconsciously, as a safety net. My advice to people in that situation is that if you're losing your ass in one place, just fix that one and don't bother opening a second or third one."

If he wanted an example of someone turning failure into success, Ronan need look no further than fellow chef, Dylan McGrath. Having closed his Michelin-starred restaurant, Mint, in 2009, McGrath has two successes on his hands with Rustic Stone, which he opened in 2011, and Fade Street Social, which began in 2012.

And then there's education tycoon and Riverdeep founder, Barry O'Callaghan, who could have licked his wounds when his €1.5bn global publishing empire, HMH, collapsed and was restructured. Instead, he went on to become chief executive of Beanstalk Innovation, which sells consultancy services and digital education content to schools, and is building what he calls a "highly profitable" business across China, India and Vietnam.

According to, 1,365 businesses failed in 2013, 1,684 in 2012 and 1,638 in 2011. Among these casualties were Bill Cullen and Jackie Lavin, who lost a High Court bid to continue running their beautiful five-star Muckross Park Hotel in Killarney in April 2013, while a receiver was appointed in October 2012 to Glencullen Holdings Ltd, which operated Bill's Renault dealerships in Airside and Liffey Valley in Dublin.

"Our companies were viable, which is the injustice," says Jackie. "We had never defaulted on any of our loans, and feel we were taken because our properties were worth 100 per cent of the loan, even at the lowest possible ebb for the property business. They're still empty, a year and a half later, so nobody won. The banks didn't get their interest, which we would have been paying, all the jobs are gone and we're out of business, and I would just question the logic of all of that?"

Despite this disappointment, former TV3 Apprentice boss Bill has been appointed an official dealer for the SsangYong franchise, and has recently opened a new showroom on the Naas Road, called Bill Cullen Premier Motors. While they are still fighting the banks over the previous businesses, how did he and Jackie gather the strength to enter the competitive car market again?

"You have to compartmentalise, stop thinking negatively, gather up every positive bone and mental thought, and think about what you can do," says Jackie. "You may have to look to family and friends to offer financial support, as we did. Some people feel ashamed and don't have the heart to start again, or maybe they want to do something different, but in our case, we felt that our strengths lay with marketing and selling cars.

"That's really what gets you out of it," she adds. "It moves you from the very negative train of thought to a positive one, which is really where we all want to be. As entrepreneurs, all you want to do is get back to work at whatever you do best."

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