Business Irish

Sunday 22 April 2018

Sean Quinn will never be in charge again, says O'Brien

Quinn Group CEO says the outcome of the family's case against IBRC will change nothing

Paul O'Brien's car was burnt out outside his home in late 2011
Paul O'Brien's car was burnt out outside his home in late 2011

Rodney Edwards

"I DON'T do photographs. I don't do many interviews either," quipped Paul O'Brien, less than 60 seconds after we first met. The Quinn Group chief executive admitted fearing that: "If I do a photograph for you, my picture will be on posters and things in no time."

He thawed out, however, as we sat in the plush Quinn Group boardroom in Derrylin last week, just days before group founder Sean Quinn was released from Mountjoy after serving nine weeks for contempt of court.

In Quinn Country, O'Brien – who has his own security personnel after his car was burnt out outside his Co Louth home in 2011 – is regarded by some as the Antichrist. By others, he is seen as a man doing his best to keep local jobs in the area.

The debate rages as to which version of reality is the correct one. Some see Sean Quinn as a man who, in his final years in charge, ran his companies "recklessly", resulting in huge debts.

Aside from his losses betting on Anglo shares, a hole of up to €1.6bn emerged in Quinn Insurance – and the bill for that led to higher insurance premiums for us all.

Others, including the Quinn family, seek to portray O'Brien as having destroyed huge business value in the way the company is now being run.

At the last two pro-Quinn rallies in Ballyconnell, Co Cavan, commentators said as much, hitting out at him and questioning why the Financial Regulator had been appointed to the Quinn Group in the first place.

Each and every claim is refuted by O'Brien, who took over as CEO of the company nearly three years ago.

"It will be proved in the long term that it was the right decision, because the reality is that the business was insolvent," he told me.

The Quinn family told me last week that they will sue O'Brien for what they claim is the "mismanagement" of their companies if they win their legal battle against the former Anglo Irish Bank later this year.

O'Brien wouldn't be drawn into responding to the family.

"Everyone is entitled to an opinion. I know what I have done and I am happy with what I have done. I know what my board have done and they are happy with what they have done."

He complained – a lot – about the criticism from Quinn supporters.

"There is a lot of rubbish being talked," he said, "I know there are a lot of people in our 2,800 staff who would have a lot of sympathy for Sean Quinn.

"Do I have sympathy? Absolutely. On a business level, there was a decision taken because the debt couldn't be paid. If I don't pay for the mortgage on my house, someone else will take it off me. It is that simple.

"Everybody is entitled to an opinion. But if people are putting out misguided facts – worse than that, factually incorrect facts which create unease – that's mischievous and dangerous and not right."

He even admitted to being forced to sack a certain few members of staff who refused to back the group's new team.

"Certain people who were asked to leave we believed were not on side with the new management. It is simple as that – no big deal."

In a difficult and challenging economic environment, O'Brien said he didn't want to get distracted by the criticism and was determined to come out the other side.

"It is going to be a tough 12 months; cement sales will be down. The radiator company in the UK market is down 20 per cent over the last two years. We are having a tough time like everybody else."

But things are looking a little better for Quinn Glass in Derrylin, following a €7m investment, while Quinn Packaging, he said, is a "real success story." There is also a proposal on the table to merge Quinn Manufacturing with Lagan Cement Group.

"It hasn't reached what people are calling 'the floor' yet. I think the recovery will be closer to the capital cities before it is in the regions. I want to see the business grow, that is what I am in charge of."

However, the Quinn family, the pro-Quinn residents and lobby groups still believe that Sean Quinn will return someday to his chair at Quinn HQ.

But that won't be easy on two counts. First, one of the first things O'Brien did when he took over Quinn's office was to get rid of the former billionaire's famous red leather chair, replacing it with a black swivel one (not to mention fitting out the technology-free office with a computer).

Second, the Quinn Group's new management don't believe he will be able to return, even if his family wins their big case against the IBRC and wipe the disputed debt of over €2bn that they claim was loaned "illegally" to prop up Anglo's share price.

"Even if they win the case, they don't get their companies back. It is only a claim for damages. The people who own our businesses are the institutional investors; banks, bonds, not IBRC. Whatever goes on with the family and IBRC is not for my comment," he said.

The group's new management has tried to get this point across locally, but not everybody accepts it.

In a December, a meeting of 'Concerned Irish Citizens', a pro-Quinn lobby group, was held in Ballyconnell to discuss "growing concerns" over the future of the Quinn jobs. Martin Maguire of Fermanagh Economic Development Organisation claimed that the firm could face serious financial problems by May 2013.

O'Brien dismisses this claim, saying: "He is obviously looking at a cash-flow forecast that I don't have, because we are not going to run out of money. We had a superb year for cash. It's all crap."

There's more to ask, but my 25 minutes are up.

"Right, I have work to do." He wished me well, shook my hand and showed me the door.

Rodney Edwards is a journalist with the 'Impartial Reporter'

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