Monday 11 November 2019

Serial entrepreneur Fearon's crystal-clear eye for an opportunity round every corner

In person

Varied career: Entrepreneur Declan Fearon is behind hot and cold pack provider Freezadome
Varied career: Entrepreneur Declan Fearon is behind hot and cold pack provider Freezadome
Varied career: Entrepreneur Declan Fearon is behind hot and cold pack provider Freezadome

Shawn Pogatchnik

Declan Fearon says he has never earned a normal pay cheque - and wouldn't live life any other way. Over the years, he has spearheaded a British bookie invasion of Ireland, founded an insurance firm and a rural TV scheme, and tried to charm the Irish diaspora with leprechaun figurines.

Today, he is CEO of two companies: Tipperary Crystal and Freezadome. The 67-year-old Dubliner sees deals around every corner and exhibits endless confidence.

"I'm a fella with five fishing rods in the water at once, with five different worms, and someone's about to bite on one of them," he tells the Irish Independent during a long, free-wheeling conversation that starts at an Ireland-Arab business event in the Merrion Hotel and wraps up at Roly's Bistro.

He was born in the Rotunda in 1952, son of a doctor from Cookstown, Co Tyrone, and a mother from Meath. His father was an entrepreneur on the side, launching enterprises in potato crisps and baby powder, alongside property moves.

"So where did I get it from? You don't have to look too far," Fearon says.

He dreamed of becoming a doctor like his father and had a place to enter the Royal College of Surgeons, but tragedy struck after he had finished as a Castleknock College boarder. His mother died of cancer aged 42, his father of leukemia months later at 47.

He built a home with his teenage sweetheart, Camilla. They wed at the age of 20. A daughter and three sons followed.

"Camilla's father was a famous bookie, Harry Barry. He was a legend. Harry said to me one day, 'do you want to give me a hand?' Before I knew it, I was giving him more than a hand," Fearon recalls.

Fearon soon found he loved deal making. After finishing a bachelor's degree in property valuation at DIT on Bolton Street, he was off to the races.

"I became secretary of the Bookmakers Association of Ireland. I wanted to do things slightly differently from my father-in-law, so I set up my own betting shops," he says. "The first shop opened in my own name was on the end of Leeson Street next door to Houricans and opposite Hartigans. It was a good place to start."

On the side, he had been working with an engineer to identify spots in the Midlands where TV reception was poor. They founded a company, Lardec (short for Larry and Declan), that erected masts on hilltops with cables into homes.

His partner - who would survey areas by helicopter and mark ideal spots for masts with a dropped bag of flour - "knew what he was doing, and I minded the finances".

The Declan Fearon chain of bookmakers kept growing all the while. "I just loved trading. I could have had five or six shops at one time. I'd be buying one shop, selling another. In the middle of that, I set up the insurance business."

Aged 27, he created GIS (Group Insurance Services) as an insurer for Gardaí, nurses and trade unions in a joint venture with Consolidated Brokers. "They had the licence and managed the business. I got the clients. I sold it to them and marched on."

By then, he had already worked with Fintan Gunne to set up the then Carrickmacross cattle dealer's first estate agent office in Ballsbridge, building his own network immensely in the process.

When the Government halved betting tax from 20pc to 10pc in 1986, Fearon saw his next opportunity.

"The minute that happened, the English firms took an interest in the Irish betting shops. I knew Ladbrokes were in town," says Fearon, who recalls phoning hotels all over Dublin seeking to pinpoint the Ladbrokes managing director. He bagged him at the Gresham.

"I left a message on his phone: if you need to come to Ireland to buy betting shops, you'd better talk to me, because I'm the secretary of the bookmakers association, I'm a surveyor, I know how to buy shops, and I also know something about the law that you don't know."

That something? The 1931 Betting Act meant a foreign firm couldn't set up shop in Ireland without a local licensee. Over dinner at Patrick Guilbaud's, Fearon persuaded the Ladbrokes brass that he should be their man in Dublin.

"I sold Ladbrokes a shop that night - for about 30 to 40 times more than I could have got from an Irish bookmaker," he says. How soon did he sell the other shops? "As quick as I could!"

"There was murder going on about this English group coming in. But once we got the licence - woof! - we started to buy everything. Us Irish guys couldn't compete," he recalls. "We had a limit of five grand for any one bet. Ladbrokes could offer an accumulator that paid out 250,000 (pounds) on a single bet. It changed the whole face of the bookmaking industry."

Within a decade as managing director of Ladbrokes Ireland, he built the network to 50 shops with a €20m annual turnover.

In 1988 he sold his stake to Ladbrokes to pursue his next brain wave - to tap Irish-American sentimentality and found Blarney Stone Enterprises.

The premise: "If somebody could get the source of the Blarney Stone and commercialise it - just imagine."

"We found the quarry from where the Blarney Stone emanated. We got an eminent geologist in Schull, Dr John Jackson, to come with me and certify that this open quarry was without doubt the source of the stone," he says.

By the mid-1990s, based on hundreds of designs by cartoonist Terry Willers, the firm was making clay figurines of leprechauns - in China, not Cork - and selling them via a collector's club that stretched from Australia to Argentina. Each piece came accompanied by stories and sayings penned by his wife, Camilla.

At its 2005 peak, the production and sale of 'Declan's Finnians' employed around 100 people, with showrooms on Madison Avenue and at the Atlanta Airport.

That year proved fateful for Fearon, when a stockbroker came calling on behalf of the Ryan family, who owned Tipperary Crystal as well as the eponymous airline.

"We came to a deal and I bought 57pc of Tipperary Crystal," he says. "The only reason I bought 57pc is because I couldn't afford any more."

At the time, Tipperary was making its signature goods in Slovenia. Louise Kennedy was its key in-house design name.

In partnership with minority owner Declan Ryan, Fearon added ceramics lines by Rachel Allen and Graham Knuttel, and glassware by Patrick Guilbaud. Turnover rose and Tipperary tipped briefly back into the black.

Then Waterford Wedgwood went bust in 2009, shattering the crystal market.

"That had a disastrous effect on everything for us. They left a billion in stock of retail value and the liquidators dumped it all over at discount prices," he says. "We tried to keep our position in the market. It was impossible. In the end, we got absolutely bowled out.

"We looked at the business and said, 'what the hell are we gonna do, because we can't compete? We're losing substantial money. We have to sell or go bust'."

The answer meant handing the Irish trademark for Tipperary Crystal to Dublin distributor Allied Imports, which today uses the brand to sell jewellery, alongside more traditional lines.

"We stepped out of the ring but kept ultimate ownership of the company," Fearon explains. "We kept the lamps and chandeliers business, and trade as Tipperary Crystal internationally."

With help from Enterprise Ireland, Fearon and eldest son Mark today sell those handmade chandeliers, particularly to Middle Eastern customers. "Why there?"

"Because they live in palaces there! One guy we met recently bought six chandeliers. There isn't a house in Ireland that could take one of the chandeliers," says Fearon, who shows a smartphone display of recent sales of the hand-cut pieces costing up to €40,000.

Fearon sees the future running hot and cold - because that is the key to his new venture, Freezadome.

He is employing chemical engineers in China, Poland, the Czech Republic and the US to develop products able to heat and cool anything from drinks to bodies.

At trade shows from Dubai and Munich to Boston and Chicago, he is showing off his prototype wares.

He hands me a gel-filled pocket that fits between hands. After squeezing a trigger, liquid inside the "Freezahot" crystallises to generate surprisingly intense heat.

"It's the hottest hot pack in the world," he says. "That one lasts an hour. Then you can boil it back to a liquid state inside - and off you go again, hundreds of times."

Freezachills "go to minus 3C; they're the coldest cold packs".

He makes these near Shanghai, where his youngest son, David, and his chemical engineer daughter-in-law, Maggie, have been based for several years.

Fearon is in talks with potential Turkish and US partners to licence, make and distribute Freezadome's patented glasses and cup inserts - technology to chill drinks without ice.

At an age when most people are at or approaching retirement, Fearon's not ready to pack it in yet.

"What we're trying to achieve at Freezadome is a long way from leprechauns, a long way from betting shops, a long way from piped TV, and it's a long way from Tipperary too," he says. "This is the last one, I promise you. This is the last dance."

Of all his life's gambles, what does he consider his biggest win?

"Honestly, my wife. Who else would put up with me?" he says.

"Most people like to know where they'll be this time next year, everything settled. Not with me. We've had 12 houses and so many businesses. There's no certainty with me."

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