Business World

Sunday 18 November 2018

The super-rich Boston revolutionary aiming to connect up rural Ireland

David McCourt may be a wealthy US businessman, but his world view is far from stereotypical. He spoke to Fearghal O'Connor

David C. McCourt. Photo: Steve Humphreys
David C. McCourt. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Fearghal O'Connor

Name

David McCourt

Age

60

Position

Chairman and CEO, Granahan McCourt Capital

Lives

New York and London

Education

Georgetown University

Family

Married to Deborah. 2 kids: Dave and Alexandra

Pastimes

Music, art, reading and exercise

Favourite book

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

Favourite movie

Love Actually

Favourite Holiday

Cuba

 

At dinner in the White House, Irish-American businessman David McCourt was surprised that President Ronald Reagan had light stubble on his chin.

Later, the young McCourt, a scrappy cable layer enjoying his first big breaks, would quietly slip a White House china cup down his trousers to prove to his friends back in Boston that he really had been there, right next to the President.

More than three decades on, it is clear that the staff in the Merrion Hotel know the public face of Irish company Enet well and are unconcerned about the fate of the hotel's china.

"My friend just sold his art gallery to Janet Jackson," he says, finishing up a meeting with a nonplussed Englishman, his strong Boston accent carrying across the room. Asked later, he explains that the gallery is aimed at promoting street artists: "I really like it because it's sort of a bottom up idea... I'm a big David and Goliath type of guy because I'm the runt of the litter."

Estimates of his net worth range anywhere between €500m and €1bn. That fortune will grow if, as expected, his company Enet gets the nod from the Irish Government to finally roll out the National Broadband Plan (NBP). His stories come from the privileged life he has created for himself, with references to presidents, titans of industry and beautiful film stars aplenty. But McCourt is always keen to take his reference from the Boston streets where he grew up.

So, back in the 1980s, when he noticed the President's stubble, he thought immediately of his own father's habit of showering and shaving at night rather than the morning.

"I guess it was a custom that came from times when most men did manual labour during the day and wanted to clean themselves up before going to bed with their wives," he writes in his new book, Total Rethink - part biography, part manifesto for what he calls "creative entrepreneurs".

A conversation with McCourt - like his new book - is peppered with such curious tangents. His ability to notice the small details - like President Reagan's stubble - is a key talent, he says.

"This carpet has a clover on it and I would have noticed that," he says, his eyes fixed firmly on the Merrion's ceiling. "They changed this carpet seven years ago. When they re-carpeted the stairwells last year I noticed. I notice little things that other people might pass by. To me it's all relevant."

McCourt insists he has no extraordinary talent: "I have ordinary talent with an extraordinary persistence." But persistence, he says, is a weakness too. "Sometimes I don't let go of something that I should," he says. "I can waste an incredible amount of time on something that I'm curious about but actually is not going to further my current goals."

Yet persistence has paid off with the NBP. Enet - of which his company Granahan McCourt Capital retains a 22pc share after SSE Airtricity and the Irish Strategic Infrastructure Fund (ISIF) bought in last year - is now the last remaining bidder for the NBP.

McCourt has previously made no secret of his frustration at what he perceives as negativity and politicking around the NBP. Neither too has he held back from criticising Eir, which pulled out of the process leaving Enet as the presumptive winner of the huge state contract. Eir continues to exert a crucial influence over the eventual cost of the NBP because it has the right to be paid for the use of its existing poles and ducts in many areas.

"The NBP is a very ambitious plan and I don't think people in Ireland are giving politicians enough credit for the balls they've had to undertake this. This is a big undertaking," says McCourt.

It will take an "unbelievable amount of creativity to fix it", he says. "My insatiable curiosity will hopefully bring some creative solutions to a very complex problem. If I have to string the cable myself, I will. If I have to get out with the Minister [Denis Naughten] and dig the holes myself I will."

McCourt himself has bought a home in rural Co Clare and has centred numerous other tech-related businesses here. He estimates he has invested more than €100m in Ireland and wants to invest more. "And I've never gone, you know, to IAD or DIA or whatever it's called that you go to get tax breaks. We never got any of that stuff. We just quietly wanted to do business here."

Coming to America

McCourt is a great believer in fate. He sees life as a series of chances that almost all went his way. He takes out an old, worn religious medal of his grandmother's that he has carried every day in his pocket for 28 years and rubs it gently.

"I'd have a nervous breakdown if I lost it. My grandmother was not even supposed to come to America, her best friend got deathly sick three days before the boat left and gave her the ticket. So, a 16-year-old girl got a ticket and she had three days to decide whether she was going to leave Ireland to go to America and she did, with everything she owned in one little chest - which I still have. So if her friend hadn't got sick, I wouldn't exist."

The chest is the centrepiece of his living room at his home in the States, as a constant reminder to his own children of chance moments that gave them a comfortable life.

"You know, most people fight what's naturally happening. They just fight it and fight it. I let it come to me. That allows me to be really calm in situations of huge stress. If I have a problem I go for a walk and I'll see something and I'll say there's the answer, it's right in front of me. But you have to have a confidence that it'll be okay. That's faith."

McCourt was the youngest of seven children and the family's prospects improved with the growing success of his father's contracting business.

"I was lucky I was youngest because my father couldn't have afforded sending the older kids to Georgetown University. I almost didn't go. I wanted to be a cop and got accepted, but at the last minute they pulled my job offer. They had left themselves short of a set-aside requirement for hiring minorities."

That night at a packed dinner table the young McCourt complained vociferously to his father, who, just home from 10 hours working outdoors, had no patience for complaining. "Hey," said the elder McCourt, "you're talking to the wrong guy. Go talk to your congressman." His congressmen was famous Irish-American politician Tip O'Neill. After he showed up unannounced at O'Neill's office, an aide noticed the local hockey team jacket McCourt was wearing. He told him to take his place studying sociology at Georgetown and he set him up with a job in O'Neill's office at the campus.

"So, if he hadn't struck up a conversation with me about hockey, I'd be walking out in the rain being shot at as a cop in Boston somewhere."

After graduation from sociology in Georgetown in 1979, McCourt had not given up his dreams of law enforcement and worked as a probation officer. He worked too in the family construction business, laying telecom cables around Boston - a tough business populated by tough characters.

"The owner of the system ran out of money and didn't pay me. So I'm out of money and I have to lay everybody off," he says. "I tell him to keep the money, that I'm taking my work back and I start digging up the cable, shutting down the system in Boston. Huge shit storm."

A mediation meeting is called. The client brings an ex-FBI agent and a big-shot lawyer named Popio. "He was trying to intimidate me in the meeting and my lawyer gets so mad that he stabs himself in his hand with a pencil," he says.

Everybody's screaming, there is blood and accusations flying, McCourt is threatened with jail but he keeps digging up the cable.

"That was on a Tuesday," says McCourt. "By Thursday, they had paid me."

But the episode had soured his view of construction. Afterwards he sat drinking in a bar with a business partner, bemoaning the slog required. "Once you get a construction job, you're probably wrong because if 10 guys gave a price, you have to be the lowest to get the job," he told his friend. "You're not smarter than nine guys every time. The right guy's probably the middle guy, so you're probably wrong from the get-go. Then you have to build it and you probably have the wrong price. Then you've to fight to get paid. If you do all of those things right, the next Monday you have a chance to do it all over again." He pledged to find a business with recurring revenue. "This construction business is too fucking hard," he said.

A chance visit to a friend at the headquarters of Bank of Boston soon presented an opportunity. It was an office environment he had never seen before: rows and rows of people staring into computer screens, quietly talking into phones to the bank's 100 or so branches around New England. He convinced the bank to let him connect up its buildings with a voice and data network to allow them communicate for free. "That was the first competitive phone company in America," he says.

Ultimately, Corporate Communications Network, as he called the new venture, won a host of similar contracts and he would later sell for $14.5bn to WorldCom. McCourt had made it big.

Caribbean adventures

Telecoms and construction projects, though fascinating and lucrative, were never enough for McCourt. Things were working out well by the mid-1980s, but he was still on the lookout for adventure. "I'm out working construction with my dad on the runway at Logan Airport in Boston and I'm reading in the paper that there's a half-built runway in Grenada that the Cubans had been building. When Reagan chased them out of Grenada, it needed to be finished. Hey, I know how to build an airport, I'll go down and get that contract."

He had no chance, it turned out but after a week on the island he had become friends with its interim Prime Minister, even stepping in to answer difficult questions at a press conference for him.

"People thought I was the spokesperson for the Prime Minister. I was just his friend. I'd only met him that week but the Prime Minister took a liking to me. We became friends and I got the licence to build a TV channel."

After working out an exchange programme to train young Grenadians in broadcasting at Missouri State University, McCourt sold the station to the government. But he had been bitten by the bug of producing TV.

Years later, with a huge warchest of cash from his cable success, McCourt would return to television to do a series of documentaries on children in crisis around the world, including one with Meg Ryan in Northern Ireland, Michael Douglas in Sierra Leone and Angelina Jolie in Tanzania.

"Angelina wouldn't take any money and said she was going to come back and help the refugees. Fair play to her, she came back. Every single thing she said she'd do she did. She's the real deal."

Other creative projects followed including an Emmy-winning children's show and a children's book, quietly written under the pseudonym Nelson Goose. "I turned it into a screenplay but I don't remember where it is. The act of finishing was the victory. It's probably in a box with my Emmy somewhere. I probably should dig that out and make that movie. I should do that. But, you know, it's the act of trying to accomplish something that makes life worthwhile, right. It makes it fun."

Reagonomics

President Reagan had been impressed by what McCourt had achieved in Grenada, awarding him a medal at dinner in the White House. Apart from his shaving habits, McCourt had gained insight into Reagan's political agenda of stopping radicalisation in Central America by pumping in cash to certain ventures, for example his TV station.

"There was a lot of radicalisation going on in the Caribbean, in Jamaica and Grenada, there was a lot of socialism and Cuba was putting huge amounts of money into the Caribbean."

Reagan told McCourt the best way to fight those issues was to make sure people were employed. But, he now agrees, the CIA's habit of toppling uncooperative governments meant American involvement in the region was not full of glory.

"Look, to the CIA, everything looks like it needs a clandestine solution. To the military everything looks like it needs to be blown up. To the diplomats everything looks like it needs to be a long debate with hours talking about the shape of the table. Every carpenter has their own hammer and to them everything looks like their particular type of nail. At least in Latin America, by comparison with the Middle East, we got in and out pretty quickly and the countries we were in were pretty stable when we left. In the Middle East we never left anything better than we touched it."

McCourt is also deeply concerned about the impact of the growing gap between rich and poor, not least in the US.

"People have got to do something about it. I don't know where the revolution will be. Will it be in America? Will it be in Europe? Arab Spring, Brexit, people being run over on the sidewalk by cars, mass shootings in America, Donald Trump. We're going to look back at all these pieces and we're going to say 'Gee, didn't we see this coming? Didn't we see how pissed off everybody was?'."

Trump's presidency, he says, is a direct consequence of this. New York-based McCourt knows the Trump family personally, particularly Ivanka.

"She's always been lovely and engaging and smart and charming. That being said, based on Trump's behaviour and the things he's said, if the three of us were having a beer and he got up and left, you know, the normal reaction from you or I would be 'Wow, what an asshole'. He's rude, he doesn't seem like he cares. He doesn't seem like he has a heart. He doesn't seem like he has a soul."

McCourt believes he can play his part by helping to find the right candidate to tackle big issues that America faces: healthcare, the cost of education and the availability of automatic weapons, for example. He was particularly inspired by the student rallies following the Florida mass shooting and, for a wealthy American businessman, his politics are enigmatic. His new book is subtitled 'Why entrepreneurs should act like revolutionaries'. Its inside covers are decorated with a painting that was a gift from Fidel Castro to Maurice Bishop, a former leftist prime minister of Grenada.

"Bishop was killed in a coup d'état: kidnapped, shot, chopped up, lit on fire and his ashes thrown in the ocean, all within an hour," he says.

Those events sparked the US invasion of the island in 1983, which saw the Marxist government fall apart and ultimately led to elections and a victory for pro-American conservative Herbert Blaize who gifted Castro's painting to McCourt in thanks for his work on the then new television service.

When McCourt told his publisher in recent months that he wanted to decorate his new book with the painting - with its slogan 'Art is a political instrument' - she was horrified.

"Everybody will think you're trying to start a fucking revolution," she said. "I don't give a shit if any businesspeople buy the book," he answered. "I want the book to be for the guy or girl who wants to make a difference in the world but doesn't really care that much about money."

He is, however, ambiguous about the legacy of Castro, a man who despised wealthy Americans like McCourt. "Do I admire the fact that he was able to keep it together for so long with relatively little bloodshed after the beginning? Yes. Do I admire his early aspirations? Yes. Do I admire the fact that he stole private property and nationalised businesses without fair compensation? That's stealing. You can't admire that. You can't admire stealing and murder. But can you admire people who think outside the box? Yeah. Can you admire people who are more revolutionary in their thinking? Yeah."

And so, the painting made the cut. McCourt's publisher though, was almost at her limit.

"Look, I'm exhausted," she said. "I've published a hundred business books and no one has ever spent so much time on the cover, the weight of the paper, the size of the barcode... if I had to do this with every author, I'd be broke."

But for McCourt it's the tiny details that make a project worthwhile. Just how that approach plays out with the National Broadband Plan, a project with as many twists and turns as McCourt himself, very much remains to be seen.

Total Rethink by David McCourt is now available through all major bookstores

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