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Smurfit and the future of the K Club

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Michael Smurfit in his office high above central Monaco. Photo: Susan Williams

Michael Smurfit in his office high above central Monaco. Photo: Susan Williams

Michael Smurfit in his office high above central Monaco. Photo: Susan Williams

Ah, the K Club. A symbol of the Celtic Tiger, the place that became the centre of the golfing universe for three glorious days in 2006. But that was then and this is now.

The luxurious Kildare resort - owned by Michael Smurfit - needs a revamp and it's a billion-euro former bankrupt who's in charge of the building works.

Clare developer Bernard McNamara acquired a host of Ireland's most famous properties during the boom, counting the Shelbourne, the Conrad and what was formerly known as the Burlington in his empire.

He lived in a palace on Dublin's exclusive Ailesbury Road - but then everything went sour.

One of his most disastrous deals was for the Irish Glass Bottle site in Ringsend, which he bought with investors including Derek Quinlan.

Smurfit lost money in the process, but now he's got McNamara building the €20m extension to the K Club. Corporate Ireland has been traditionally poor at giving second chances to entrepreneurs and businesspeople who have failed.

As has been his habit over the 50-year business career, Smurfit is going against the grain. It's a positive move, as failure shouldn't mean the end of a career. Risk-takers needed to be encouraged to get back in the saddle, he says.

"I was a great admirer of his when he was in a very top position in Ireland," Smurfit told the Sunday Independent.

"I lost my money, but I'm a big boy... when the opportunity came to speak to him and he told me the way he was going to develop the site - this modular concept, which was entirely new to me - I was very taken with his knowledge and how fast he could do it.

"I'm very impressed with the way he works and his methodology, and on a personal basis I'm very fond of him."

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Future business and a personal relationship come first, it seems.

The modular approach from McNamara means the rooms are essentially built off-site and then slotted in at the K Club.

Once the rooms are put in, "all they have to do is put fixtures and fittings, the air conditioning units. They're going to be air-conditioned rooms for the North American market", Smurfit says.

Having initially thought the project would take 18 months to complete, McNamara's approach means it's likely to be finished by August or September of this year - that's a full eight months after building work began in earnest.

McNamara is also overseeing redevelopment at the Canada Life site on the corner of St Stephen's Green in Dublin. That site is owned by businessman Denis O'Brien.

Smurfit made his name at his father's company, now called Smurfit Kappa. He joined in 1955 and took over as chairman and chief executive in 1977, building it into a world leader.

He left in 2002, but is still a shareholder. Life is at a different pace. Smurfit is based in Monaco and calls me from the Caribbean.

In Dublin, shares in the packaging group are up 35pc in the last 12 months.

"I'm very impressed with the way the share price has gone in the last few years. As a shareholder it's very beneficial to me and my family," Smurfit says.

His son, Tony Smurfit, is the group's chief operations officer, but Smurfit won't say whether he'd like to see his son take over as chief executive and continue the family tradition.

"That's a decision for the board to make. I'm not going to get involved in discussions about that. The board will handle that - who's going to be the next chief executive - in due course".

Smurfit says that some years ago he indicated that Ireland would eventually look back on the crash and think "what was all that about?"

"Now I think that's coming to fruition," he says.

The K Club was the home of the European Open from 1995 to 2007. Smurfit said he'd be very interested in bringing major golf tournaments back to Straffan.

The Irish Open is a possibility. Dogged by uncertainty in recent years, the tournament recently bagged a new sponsor in the form of golf-mad Irishman Colm McLoughlin's Dubai Duty Free.

This year it has teamed up with Rory McIlroy's charity, the Rory Foundation.

"We will have discussions with McIlroy's organisation in future, and with the Dubai Duty Free people, who we know very well.

"It's quite an expensive thing to put a tournament on - you've to get your course plan specifics before a tournament takes place, you've to prepare the course in a special way.

"I'd be very careful not to upset the members, but I think they always enjoyed the odd tournament that we had in the past. The European Open we sponsored for 13 years.

"Next year is our 25th year since we opened, it's also 10 years since the Ryder Cup, and it happens to coincide with my 80th birthday, so all those things coming together might mean something, who knows?

"Medium-term, we might start looking at some sort of academy for golf - that's something we're thinking about at the moment."

Smurfit says North American traffic is accelerating very fast, helped by the dollar strengthening against the euro. The extension to the K Club, which will add a conference centre and 70 new hotel rooms, is designed to capitalise on that.

"The economy is rebounding extraordinarily well, I think unemployment will continue to decline," Smurfit says.

"I think they just have to watch that we don't get another bubble, and I think they're very conscious of that. I think they just need to stay the course that they're on at the moment.

"The Greece situation is majorly troubling. That's going to have repercussions for the entire eurozone if they're forced out of the euro."

The man running the K Club day-to-day is Michael Davern. He reckons construction will be finished in the third week of August, and that the extension will help the K Club turn a profit.

In particular they'll target the "incentive market" - companies giving employees trips abroad.

"If you have a resort like we have - two golf courses, a spa, the river flowing through the grounds - we have all the facilities you could imagine, but we only have 70 bedrooms," Davern told the Sunday Independent.

"I mean at 70 bedrooms on a resort like this, we would have one of the smallest number of rooms across a resort like this probably in the world.

"I don't know anyone who'd be smaller than that. They would normally be 140, 180, up to 300 bedrooms."

"This really allows us to capture on our unique position - being so close to Dublin Airport, so close to Dublin city, and being a Ryder Cup venue - the incentive market in North America market is a very important market and that's really come back now.

"That incentive market would have taken a turn for the worse in 2008, 2009 and 2010... now it's looking quite strong."

Earlier this month, Prince Albert of Monaco flew in to turn the sod on the new extension. The sound of private helicopters ferrying in some of the world's top golfers are likely to be heard in the sky over Kildare again.


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