Business Irish

Thursday 19 July 2018

Petrolhead and property tycoon: Mayoman Martin Birrane's life in the fast lane

The Mondello Park owner is busy getting its fortunes back on track, but his racing car firm Lola hit the skids in 2012

Mayo businessman Martin Birrane
Mayo businessman Martin Birrane

John Reynolds

'This is a lovely old building, definitely it's worth restoring to much of its former glory. The planners seem to agree that it's magnificent - perhaps the best building here in Southwark," says Mayo businessman Martin Birrane, former motor racing driver and owner of the Kildare racetrack Mondello Park.

We're meeting at the plush London offices of his €234m UK property-investment and management firm Peer Group. It's on the fourth floor of The Hop Exchange, a building he has owned since 1985. Nestled south of the Thames, between The Shard and Southwark Cathedral, it has enviable views across the rooftops to the dome of St Paul's.

Dating back to 1867, its large open floor originally facilitated the trading of hops for the brewing industry. Today, offices surround and overlook the old trading floor - now an atrium used for fashion shows, exhibitions, and corporate events.

Ballina native Birrane hopes to add up to four additional floors at a cost of at least €11m and has restaurant and up-and-coming hotel operators interested in being part of his plans.

"I wouldn't want this building to be redeveloped any other way. I know clearly what I want to do here and I hope the planners will agree with me. In my lifetime, I might even be able to achieve it," he explains determinedly.

Adorning his office walls are paintings and photos of various cars, while in one corner there is a collection of trophies from his motor racing career, model cars, family photos and a copy of the Irish blessing 'May the road rise to meet you.'

The trophies are from the Le Mans 24-hour race, in which he competed 10 times, achieving a podium finish in 1980 and then topping that in 1985 by winning the GT class in a rare BMW M1. Setting the Irish land speed record on an unopened stretch of the M50 in 1990 was another memorable achievement.

"It was to raise money for the ISPCC and my old college, St Muredach's. The measured kilometre was straight - but the lead-in had tight bends at both ends, making it impossible to reach the required speed on entry to it from either end.

"I was doing close to 200mph at the end of the first run in one direction and after doing it in the other the average was 176mph," he recalls.

If Birrane has petrol flowing through his veins, it doesn't seem to have done him any harm. He turns 80 next month but looks about 20 years younger.

Whatever about the road rising, the fortunes of Mondello Park, which he bought in 1986, are also beginning to rise again.

"The downturn was very tough. Business spiralled downwards and our turnover halved. Mondello is a discretionary spend, but competitors and fans, some of them new, are out in numbers once again."

Motorbike and various classes of car races, as well as truck, modified and classic-car shows, will be running there until late November. The hospitality side of the business is coming back too.

Car manufacturers launch their new models there for the media and the motor trade, who then bring their best customers along. Track days, training and various types of driving experiences, including one on an adjacent off-road course, also bring in cash. Birrane is also looking at setting up an engineering academy on some of the land there, to carry out R&D for SMEs, though this is at a very early stage.

As with The Hop Exchange, it's clear that he enjoys restoring and renewing things. He has spent millions on Mondello over the years. It was "dilapidated, unsafe and unsightly," when he bought it in 2000, but he added a new pit complex and hospitality suite, as well as a media centre and full medical facilities.

"It's now trading profitably, with a bright future," he adds.

His Cambridgeshire-based Lola Group, one of the world's largest and oldest manufacturers of racing cars, has had more mixed fortunes. Birrane bought it in 1997 after it ran into financial difficulties following an unsuccessful attempt to take part in Formula One.

Again, he ploughed millions into the business, diversifying into cutting-edge design work, not only on cars, but also top-secret drones and stealth radars for Royal Navy battleships - which he can't talk about - building it up to 300 employees.

At the height of its success, Lola-designed cars won its classes in Le Mans five times between 2000 and 2007. In 2005, it built 50 cars for the A1 Grand Prix series, dubbed "the world cup of motor racing."

It also built Le Mans cars for Aston Martin and landed a project to build the carbon fibre bodywork for a 200mph McLaren supercar, the SLR. One of several Le Mans cars it built for Swiss watchmaker Rebellion finished fourth in 2012 and lapped eight seconds faster than Japanese giant Nissan's did this year.

Like his predecessor, Birrane also had F1 ambitions, but they too struggled to get off the starting grid in 2010. With a wind tunnel, design, manufacturing and testing capabilities, and a large cohort of qualified staff, Lola should have had a headstart on other prospective entrants.

Birrane was prepared to back a team with his own money, but also approached two other potential backers when the introduction of a cost cap looked to be in jeopardy.

F1 chiefs Max Mosley and Bernie Ecclestone were full of encouragement for the Lola team - but it wasn't to be.

"The decision not to select us to compete was unexpected," Birrane said afterwards. "We later did a bit of benchmarking against the 2010 cars and I'm convinced we'd have been the best of the new teams, particularly as we had facilities others - even some existing teams - lacked."

More serious difficulties later put the brakes on Lola's wider business. The 2008 economic crash meant car makers, sponsors and fans had less money to spend on motor-racing, but Birrane hoped he could keep going until work picked up again.

However, following a decision by the UK tax authority not to pay out £1.4m in R&D tax credits, coupled with a pause in other contract work in the defence sector, and despite Birrane loaning the company millions, it couldn't survive. An ill-timed decision to install a new IT system to run its manufacturing operations came at the worst possible time too, effectively sealing its fate.

Its two main subsidiaries went into administration in May 2012 and some elements of the company were bought by Canadian automotive engineering firm Multimatic and partners Haas Racing, who then managed to save some of the business. A number of former Lola staff are now working with them on the design of the GT, a modern supercar version of the GT40, for Ford.

In a way it's a case of back to the future: in the late 1960s the carmaker had collaborated with Lola's original owner Eric Broadley, who oversaw the GT40's design - a painting of which adorns Birrane's office walls.

"Lola was my most painful experience in business, because I was so enthusiastic about it and wedded to it," he says wistfully. "I was playing for a big stake, which in the end wasn't worth pursuing. £4m a year seemed a little too much cash to be investing. You can do that when you know there's going to be a return, but not when that's far more uncertain. The economic downturn lasted two years longer than I expected."

Looking at what happened, and given his investment in Mondello Park over the years, have these perhaps been labours of love?

"You could describe them as rescues. One worked well and one not quite so well," he says. "I'd invested about £40m in the Lola engineering centre, wind tunnel, tooling and equipment. There was a lot of time and effort involved to take it forward from its dreadful state in 1997 following its administration. By 2000, it was making money and could have grown substantially. I fought for our projects. Some were almost loss leaders in order to prove our capabilities."

If he's had a bumpy ride with Mondello and Lola, he's steered the Peer Group far more successfully. When he took control of it in 1983, its properties were worth £2m. By 1996 it had a portfolio worth €100m and at the end of 2010, that had more than doubled to €230m.

While the company suffered during the economic crash in 2008, London and south-east England did not endure a property slump as severe as Ireland has. Peer's portfolio was valued at €234m last year, having appreciated by €28m over the previous one.

"We've tended to invest and hold, but we have sold a few properties, including commercial ones, to developers for conversion to residential and we may sell several others," he explains.

The path to this success started after he left school at 17 to travel the world. Stints in hotel management in Geneva, then as a butler in an embassy in Turkey, led to bit parts in pantomimes, films and TV ads in London, where for a while he moved in the same showbiz circles as Michael Caine.

Emigration to Canada saw him find success as an estate agent and then in property development, before he returned to London to continue in the business with his late brother John.

With homes in Spain, Gibraltar, Chelsea and Ballsbridge, how does the tailor's son and former Sunday Tribune director spend his free time these days?

"In a way I lost my hobby after my 43 years competing in motor racing. I spend my time either on business or with the family now," he says.

What have been the most enjoyable aspects of his work and racing career?

"The challenges posed by the various businesses and the racing. The adrenalin rush for sure, the planning, teamwork, management and deal-making...and the determination required.

"With Lola, I was first smitten in 1968, watching eight of its V8-powered T70 cars race at Brands Hatch. Success as a team owner and driver, sharing the 1980 Le Mans podium with my co-drivers Pete Clarke and Nick Mason [of Pink Floyd] was pretty good too."

He might not be living life quite so much in the fast lane these days, but clearly he's still some way from crossing the finish line.

'I'd probably be back in show business'

If I wasn't doing what I do, I'd... "probably be back in show business, either producing or directing live shows, or maybe movies."

The book currently on my bedside table is... "No Angel: The Life of Bernie Ecclestone".

The last film I saw was... "Les Miserables".

The best piece of business advice I was ever given was... "Well...there weren't any business angels around when I started my first business in Toronto in 1961!"

My favourite holiday was... "Five memorable weeks with the family in the US and Canada in 1975."

My greatest indulgence is... "presently Mondello Park." [Birrane also has a large collection of classic cars including a Ferrari 348, a Jaguar XK150, and old Lola Le Mans, Nascar and F1 cars - plus the BMW M1 in which he won Le Mans.]

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