Thursday 17 January 2019

Shy developer is trumping a master to build tallest tower

Kevin Murphy

FOR someone who's attracted the wrath of Donald Trump, Garrett Kelleher is practically unknown in Ireland.

The property developer likes to keep himself out of the newspapers, but when you plan to build the tallest office tower in America, it's hard not to attract attention. And as for the row with Trump . . . well, that's more a case of paying the price for daring to do what the outspoken American developer is already planning to do just down the road.

Kelleher, a Dubliner, and his Shelbourne Development company, will be turning the sod this summer on North America's tallest skyscraper, the Chicago Spire - to be developed at a cost of ?949m.

Not bad for someone who reputedly arrived in that city 20 years earlier with just $500 in his pocket . . . and is now worth the guts of ?70m.

The Chicago planning commission had given the site's previous owner the go-ahead to build a 124-storey, 2,000ft tower, making it the tallest building on the continent. It will top Trump's 92-storey hotel and condominium tower five blocks away.

In a 'mine is bigger than yours' row, Trump ridiculed Kelleher's plan as a "pipe dream" and "financial suicide", predicting there wouldn't be "any institution stupid enough to finance it".

He was wrong. Anglo Irish Bank is funding it and Kelleher will own 100 per cent of the equity. When it's finished, a lot more of us will be hearing a lot more about this shy developer.

At 46, the father of six has come a long way. He went to Trinity College to study maths but got a tennis scholarship to the US and took it up, leaving college before graduating. He liked it so much over in the States that he went back. In 1984 he went to Chicago, apparently with just $500, and began painting and renovating apartments. Then he moved into property investment, making enough to return here in 1996 and begin property development.

Since then, Kelleher has built Shelbourne Development into a group with ?2bn of interests (not including the US project). In France, he has a mix of rural housing and urban commercial interests; in Belgium, some solid office and apartment-block investments in downtown Brussels.

He was a big investor in the UK but sold his City office block there in 2006. He hit the headlines in 2004 when he outbid a number of heavy hitters to secure the landmark Lloyds building for ?355m, a deal that didn't go ahead because it was discovered that the building needed significant remedial work.

In Ireland, he has notched up some impressive Dublin developments including Belgard Square in Tallaght, the former Virgin Megastore on Aston Quay, the former Irish Press building on Burgh Quay, the Moore Street Plaza (where he clashed briefly with Treasury Holdings) and number 75 St Stephen's Green - the revamped Department of Justice building which he's now selling for ?180m, having bought it in 2004 for ?52m.

The pace continues. He's just bought the Cable and Wireless site on Airton Road, Tallaght; next month he'll open a multicultural shopping mall in Moore Street, Dublin. Yet, for all that activity, Kelleher likes to keep a low profile. When he reportedly spent ?145,000 on a Georgian peat bucket (estimated to make ?20,000) at a James Adams auction in March 2005, it was a telephone bid.

Those who know him describe him as a quiet person and a devout Catholic who likes to work and then go home to his family. To house his large family, he bought a seven-bed detached house on Herbert Park in Dublin 4, paying ?6.7m back in April 2000.

Garrett Kelleher retains a strong interest in tennis. A member of Fitzwilliam Lawn Tennis Club, he sponsored the return of the Irish Men's Open Championships there last year after a 16-year gap.

Kelleher may like the quiet life, but if his company continues to grow at this pace, it's going to get harder to stay out of the limelight.

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