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Lord of the manor ::: Newsmaker Joe Moran, Manor Park supremo

This week's purchase of the 49pc of housebuilder Manor Park Homes which he didn't already own shows that, at 72 years of age, Joe Moran has lost none of his appetite for the deal. Almost 40 years after the former creamery manager first came to Dublin he remains one of the great "characters" of Irish business.

Ever since Jim Flavin put DCC's 49pc stake in Manor Park Homes up for sale in February the question everyone has been asking is, who would get the better of the deal, Flavin or Moran, who owned the other 51pc of the company?

This week we got our answer. Not alone did Flavin get his timing all wrong, choosing to exit Manor Park Homes just after the construction boom had peaked, he was also up against one of the wiliest negotiators in Irish business. Early predictions that DCC would get close to €350m for its stake proved to be completely wide of the mark.

Of course, DCC's hand was seriously weakened by the fact that, with a 51pc shareholding, Moran was always in a dominant position. His hand was further strengthened by the fact that the downturn in the housing market deterred most other bidders. Moran exploited this advantage ruthlessly, eventually paying €181m, just over half the price DCC had originally been hoping for.

The deal capped a miserable year for Flavin, who is fighting to hang on to his job following last July's decision by the Supreme Court that he had possessed insider information when he sold DCC's shareholding in fruit distributor Fyffes in February 2000.

Successfully outwitting Flavin, one of the sharpest operators in Irish business, demonstrates yet again that Moran is nobody's fool. Behind the well-practiced "sure I'm just a simple Kerryman" schtick lies a first-class business brain that has kept him at the forefront of Ireland's entrepreneurial elite for over a generation.

Moran was born in the east Kerry village of Brosna, the son of the local creamery manager and his national school teacher wife. He was educated at Rockwell College in Co Tipperary before going on to study dairy science at UCC. After graduating as a "cowpuncher" he followed in his father's steps and became a creamery manager.

In the Ireland of the late 1950s and early 1960s the creamery manager occupied an exalted position in rural society. Not quite up there with the local parish priest, but as one of the handful of people in the community with a university education, definitely on a par with the doctor and teacher.

Unfortunately, this lofty social position wasn't matched by a similarly elevated salary. In those days virtually every village had its own local co-op. While this meant that there were plenty of jobs as creamery managers for dairy science graduates, the rewards were meagre. Moran's father always operated a sideline business to boost his income.

Even worse, with the Irish dairy industry belatedly consolidating into larger production units through a series of mergers and acquisitions, from the early 1960s onwards, the writing was on the wall for the small local dairy co-ops. Sensing which way the wind was blowing, Moran decided to abandon the joys of creamery management and work for himself instead.

He moved to Dublin and joined his father, who had by now "retired", running a small fireplace manufacturing business, Moran's. According to Moran, when he first arrived in Dublin he knew only two places, Croke Park and his sister Mairead's flat. Even if this story is true, Moran didn't waste any time in getting to know his adopted city. So successful was Moran's that it was sold for £3.5m (€4.4m) in 1978, a huge sum in those days.

Following the success of Moran's, Joe Moran went into the building supplies business. His company, Buckley's, quickly carved out a profitable niche in the market before being bought by Heiton, now part of Grafton. In the late 1970s he also purchased up-market Dublin jeweller, West's.

However, it was two other businesses with which he first became involved with in the late 1970s that were to have a lasting impact on his future career and reputation.

He teamed up with Jim Flavin, who had founded DCC three years previously, to found Manor Park Homes. Over the next 28 years it would grow to become one of the largest housebuilders in the state. In 2003 Manor Park and Moran made the front pages when the company agreed to pay €45m to the late Taoiseach Charles Haughey for his Abbeville mansion and surrounding estate at Kinsealy.

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Manor Park is now attempting to persuade the 600 members of Clontarf Golf Club to accept a €100m offer for the 77-acre acre course on Dublin's northside. As part of the deal Manor Park is offering to build the club a new course and clubhouse at Kinsealy. Complicating the deal is the fact that the club only owns 12 acres of the course at Clontarf outright, with the remainder being leased from Dublin City Council on a long-term sporting lease.

In March 2006 Moran appeared before the Mahon Tribunal to testify that he had paid disgraced lobbyist Frank Dunlop £25,000 (€31,750) in fees to lobby for the rezoning of land he owned at Lissenhall in north Co Dublin during 1992.

The other major business Moran became involved with during the late 1970s was Irish Wire. Founded in 1935 to produce nails and screws behind the De Valera-era tariff barriers, the company found the transition to free trade after Ireland joined the EU in 1973 extremely difficult.

Moran first invested in the company in 1978 and was the key figure, either as a director, chief executive or chairman, in its affairs for the following 28 years.

By 1987 it was clear that Irish Wire's Limerick-based nail manufacturing operation could no longer be salvaged. Instead the company was reincarnated as a shell company, using its stock exchange-traded shares as a currency with which to buy other companies. To help in the reconstruction of Irish Wire, now renamed IWP, Moran recruited Dennis Jones, then finance director of Hazlewood Foods.

With his taste for gold rings on every finger and bracelets on both wrists, Jones was one of the most flamboyant figures ever to sit on the board of an Irish quoted company. He was also a compulsive spender who ran up huge debts, mainly for unpaid jewellry. He was eventually forced to resign from the boards of Hazlewood and IWP when one of the UK tabloids published a series of pictures of him in the company of scantily-clad, nubile young ladies who were definitely not his nieces.

Despite, or perhaps because of these failings, Jones was a brilliant deal-maker. In the space of a few years he and Moran transformed IWP from a moribund former nail-maker into a diversified industrial holding company.

Moran enjoyed a good run at IWP. Earlier in the decade his 14pc stake in the company was worth over €16m. However, the wheels started coming off IWP in late 2002 when problems emerged at its Dutch operations. With its high debt levels the company was unable to turn the situation around and the share price went into a tailspin, from a high €1.70 in July 2002 the share price had collapsed to just 3.5 cent when the vulture funds who had bought most of IWP's debts took control of the company in 2006.

He has enjoyed better luck with IFG, the other shell company with which he became involved in the late 1980s. He has served as chairman of IFG since 1987. Now a financial services company, Moran's 5.2m shares are worth €7.7m.

However, Manor Park has long since represented the vast bulk of his wealth. On the basis of this week's deal, his 51pc stake is worth at least €188m. Given that Moran was in such a strong position the shareholding is almost certainly worth much more than that. Not bad going for the Kerry cowpuncher.


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