Wednesday 13 December 2017

The Comer brothers: €2bn plasterers who buy when the price is right

Kim Bielenberg tells the remarkable story of the Comer brothers, the self-made property moguls who rode out the crash

Hard graft: Luke (left) and Brian Comer
Hard graft: Luke (left) and Brian Comer
Starting out: Brian (left) and Luke Comer
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

Luke Comer and his brother Brian have a simple philosophy for buying property and it has helped them to build a €2bn empire across three continents.

Luke, the older of the two former plasterers from Glenamaddy, Co Galway, tells Weekend Review: "It's all about timing and pricing. If you buy low at the right time, no matter how thick or stupid you are, you will make money."

The Comers are the ultimate example of builders who rode out the crash by following their own golden rule of investment.

"You want to be running in with your cash and spending money when everyone else is running out," says Luke.

The American billionaire Warren Buffett spelt out the same approach to buying up assets in a different way. He advises investors to be fearful when others are greedy, and greedy when others are fearful.

The Comers left Ireland in the 1980s to seek their fortunes in Britain and saw that country overheating, before turning their attention to Berlin as Germany suffered a deep recession.

It was when Ireland was virtually bankrupt in 2010 during the inglorious Cowen years, with the IMF knocking on our door, that the pair of ex-plasterers quietly turned their attention to their home country again.

Read More: The Comers' Midas touch

"In some cases prices had suffered a 70-90pc drop," says Luke. "So, it wasn't a hard decision for us to buy in Ireland. We had good cash reserves."

Since 2010, the Comers have embarked on one of the biggest property spending sprees in Irish history, snapping up vast land banks, hotels, country mansions and ghost estates at knockdown prices from Dublin across to Galway.

They have just bought the 400-acre Courtown Demesne near Kilcock, Co Kildare - once the playground of film stars. Luke says he hopes to build 1,000 houses there. Another site near Dublin Airport has space for 3,000 homes and a science park. If his airport project gets off the ground, it will be Dublin's newest suburb.

The Comers' burgeoning Irish property empire includes the former UCD Veterinary College site in Dublin 4, originally bought for development in the Celtic Tiger era of irrational exuberance for €171m in 2005. The Comers bought it in 2013 for €22.5m.

Luke recalls how he was trying to fix the deal over the phone while he was on a Ryanair plane as the aircraft was about to take off. He was told by the air stewardess as he finalised the deal: "If you don't get off that phone you can get off the flight."

Another distressed asset bought by the Comers was the Kilternan Hotel and golf complex. The ill-fated site was redeveloped by the businessman Hugh O'Regan at a cost of €172m but the project stalled some years before his tragic death in 2012. The Comers bought it for €7m.

Luke Comer has come a long way since he started as an apprentice plasterer with the state training agency AnCO in 1971 on a wage of just £6 a week.

The brothers came from a farming family of eight children near Glenamaddy, and Luke recalls working in the fields thinning beet from the time he could walk.

"If we had time to play growing up it was usually in the headland of a field. While we were working, our mother used to come with bacon sandwiches and a bottle of tea wrapped in a woollen sock."

Once they had acquired the skill of plastering, Luke and his younger brother quickly found that it could be extremely lucrative and it was not long before they were earning £1,400 between them in a week.

They went about their job at a lightning pace, but the hours could be gruelling and they could find themselves staying up until 4am with hands bleeding from the toil, as they tried to get the work done.

When recession hit Ireland in the 1980s, the Comers moved their plastering business to England, and by this time they were building up a property portfolio of their own. They bought up property at cheap prices after a property crash hit Britain in the late 1980s.

A turning point came in their career in 1992 when Luke and Brian were on their way to work in a Mercedes car. It skidded on black ice and crashed into a tree; the car was split in two.

After the accident, Brian spent 17 days in a coma, and seven weeks in hospital. As he was paralysed down one side, it was feared that he would never walk again.

Brian recovered well. In terms of developing their property empire, the near fatal accident proved to be a blessing in disguise. The brothers, who move between England Germany, Monaco and Ireland, said that they started to rely more on brains than brawn. Brian had to give up working on building sites.

They bought up spectacular old derelict buildings and converted them into swish apartments. Their pride in London is Princess Park Manor, a vast Victorian structure that was formerly a psychiatric hospital known as Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum. The luxurious scheme attracted a host of celebrities. Ashley and Cheryl Cole lived there before their marriage.

The Comers kept a low profile until the middle of the last decade when there was speculation that they might take over Aston Villa football club, but they denied that they were interested.

Having built up a British property empire, the pair might have been tempted to look at investments in their home country during the era of the Celtic Tiger in 2005.

But their shrewd antennae sensed that Berlin, then in the doldrums as Germany had to pay the price for reunification, was a better bet.

"In England prices were getting crazy, and Ireland was worse," says Luke. "In Berlin you could buy property for €70 per square foot, when the equivalent price in Ireland at the time was €500."

In buying up buildings in Berlin, they followed another Comer principle - if something is for sale in a top city at significantly less than it cost to build, it is a deal. They bought a Berlin skyscraper, Die Pyramide, for €3.5m. Their German property empire quickly expanded to include office buildings, apartment schemes and 29 shopping centres. They had seized the opportunity before Berlin began to boom again and reaped their reward as property values soared. Other real estate interests extend to Uganda, Belgium and New York.

One of their first big forays back into Ireland after the crash came when they bought the half-built Sentinel Tower in Dublin's Sandyford, which was never completed by Cork developer John Fleming before he went bust in 2009, owing more than €1bn. The Comers bought the landmark tower, one of the icons of the crash, for less than a €1m.

Although their €2bn property empire has pushed them up the rich list, they have acquired few airs and graces along the way. They shun the glitzy lifestyle of yachts, private jets and helicopters. Luke still prefers to take the cheap Ryanair flight and refuses to pay more than €200 for a suit or €60 for a pair of shoes.

They give the appearance of making property investment look easy, but their decisions have shown shrewdness. That is not to say that they have not lost money on some ventures. They once admitted losing €10m in a matter of minutes on the stock market.

Luke looks forward to building his new MetroPark mini-suburb near Dublin Airport, and hopes it will be linked with the airport and the city centre by a new railway. He talks of tree-lined boulevards with homes, shops, pubs, and an American-themed Science Park.

Surprisingly perhaps, he supports the Central Bank's decision to restrict borrowing by homebuyers by introducing an 80pc lending cap on homes above a certain value.

"That is the best thing that ever happened, because it will stop the craziness (of the Celtic Tiger years) happening again."

As they watch their empire expand the brothers will continue to follow a maxim that they inherited from their father: "There's only one way to do anything and that is to go and do it."

Other survivors

The Comers were not the only property tycoons who rode out the crash. Other survivors include:

Ray & Des O'Rourke: The low-profile Mayo men are main shareholders in Laing O'Rourke - the largest privately owned construction company in Europe.

Ken Rohan: The multi-millionaire property baron escaped the worst of the downturn.

Stephen Vernon: The man behind Green Property survived the crash in reasonable shape and is investing again.

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