Mairead Molloy is already installed at a table at Home House, the most elegant of the Mayfair private members clubs, by the time I arrive on a wet Thursday morning.
The rain has slightly flattened her blow-dry, but she still looks impeccable - all Riviera chic in her white cotton and flats. It's the perfect, understated aesthetic for a woman who is always on the move.
Here in this re-purposed Georgian mansion, with its magnificent 18th Century staircase and bar area designed by Zaha Hadid, we are at the heart of one of her stomping grounds. Molloy moves in rather exclusive social circles. She divides her time between London, where her business, Berkeley International is headquartered, and Cannes. And yet, she's a lady who declares, in her still-strong Wexford accent, that she loves nothing more than having a fried-egg sandwich at home and watching Coronation Street. "I love normality," she says. "I've got five sisters, I come from the south-east of Ireland. I don't live the life with the job I do. I like a loaf of bread and cup of Barry's tea."
This contradiction is at the heart of the special alchemy that has propelled Mairead to where she is now - heading up a global business, spread across three continents and said to be worth £2bn. It is a business built largely on the sheer strength of her character, her disarming approachability and sensitive interpersonal skills. Mairead helps people find love. Specifically, she helps affluent, professional, wealthy high-income people find love. The 1pc, you might say. Membership to Berkeley International, an elite dating network, starts at an eye-watering £10,000 and goes up to £50,000. As you can imagine, for that amount of money, people expect quite a lot. Meeting those expectations is a rather special kind of skill. But she's clearly very good at it, because she's doing a roaring trade.
The company was established 12 years ago and overall boasts about a 65pc success rate. It's growing all the time. "Hong Kong, LA, New York are on the map at the moment," she says. "We're already established in Paris, Milan, Geneva, Belgium, Netherlands, Scandinavia, Germany, Spain. . . The thinking behind it is to have a high-end private members' club, only for single people - people who want to get into a serious relationship. And to have it in such a way that we are integrated worldwide through our member database."
Despite the types of figures involved, the service is not, as you might expect, about cash-rich-time-poor tycoons looking for trophy wives. Far from it. For one thing, there are slightly more women who apply for membership than men. People willing to invest that heavily, financially speaking, in their personal lives do so because they are sincerely hoping to find an authentic, meaningful relationship, Mairead insists. And, in any case, she tends to operate a five-year rule, insisting that the dates she will arrange are not with anyone "five years older or younger" than any given client, for the simple reason that it better serves the goal of achieving true compatibility. It's not always easy when people arrive with a list of stipulations as long as their arm. But a big part of the job is convincing them to be more open-minded and flexible, to let go of what she calls "the shopping list" a little bit. Sometimes that means getting to know people better than they know themselves. "We have the power to tell them who they should and shouldn't meet," she says. Sometimes even captains of industry, high-level professionals and millionaires, it seems, have to be gently steered towards what's best for them. And attitudes to age, she reckons, are cultural rather than fixed. "There is a social stigma about age in England and Ireland. Men want women five years younger. But on the continent it doesn't happen. They'll go out with any age. If you like the person, age is a number for them. But age is a big deal in America, and age is a big-ish deal in England and Ireland."
When it works, finding someone a life-partner is about the most valuable service you can provide, she reckons. "We can all buy a car or buy a house or do everything you want to do. But if somebody fundamentally has everything but they just have no-one to have the fried egg sandwich with . . . Who wants to be lonely?" she says. "The bottom line is - this is the way I look at life - you only get one go on the roundabout. You could wake up tomorrow morning and conk out with some disease, so you may as well make the best of it."
Mairead grew up Wexford, one of six girls in what she says "was a typical lovely Irish family, chicken dinner on the Sunday and all that." It wasn't, she says, a particularly entrepreneurial family, nor were her parents overly pushy or ambitious for their daughters "We were allowed to do whatever we wanted to do ourselves, we weren't forced to do anything, my parents just said do whatever you want to do. Each one has their own thing."
Still, her own dynamic, buccaneering personality soon asserted itself. "You couldn't put me in a job and tell me what to do, because I'm too bossy," she says. "I like to be in control of what I'm doing. I couldn't sit in an office and work for someone - I'd be telling them what to do, the person who owns the company."
She set up her first business in Dublin, almost as soon as she'd graduated from DIT. It was a computer company which she established with a business partner - who happened to be her husband at the time. The marriage didn't last, but the company turned out to be more robust. "It's still going," she says, "but somebody else owns it now." After selling her share she started casting around for the next opportunity. Apparently almost on a whim, she bought a hotel in Cannes.
Did she have any connection to France? "None," she says. "I didn't even speak French. I just did it." In a few years, she'd grown the hotel to almost double its size, and perfected her French at the same time. "I used to have a great rapport with Gerry Ryan," she explains in what seems at first like a non-sequiter but turns out to be the a crucial piece in the puzzle of how she turned it around. "I rang him and I said, 'I'm after buying this hotel, you need to try to start filling it for me on your show'. We did three or four interviews." It was Ryan who played a crucial role in helping her turn things around. "We did loads of PR, we ended up getting into the Lonely Planet. So that was a fantastic success. I expanded it nearly doubly and then I sold it." She and Gerry remained friends to the end. "I loved him,"she says. "I was so sad when he died."
With the Cannes project licked, Mairead found herself for the first time without a focus for her clearly formidable energy. Rather out of left-field, she went off and spent seven years in academia, studying Psychology and eventually going on to get her Phd in Criminology.
In the meantime, now living in London she "stumbled upon my now-current business-partner, and just came up with this idea and that was it. It was by pure accident. I fell into it. It wasn't something I was ever thinking I was going to do. But it's evolved from something that might have a romantic notion - people might have a romantic notion about it - to a business"
Her background in psychology lends her credibility as an expert in human relationships, but she's the first to admit it has its limitations. "No matter what psychology you've done and how much of a psychologist you are, you can never really tell what's going on inside, can you?" she says. "So when people are talking to you you just use your instincts to try and decide who they are.
"I don't think it's an innate thing. I just think it's that you have to have a rapport with somebody, and understand human nature. And you only really get an appreciation for human nature when you start to really do what I do, or do what a doctor does or do what a psychologist does. You can just kind of tell. But the secret is to be able to get the best out of somebody - make them feel that they're your friend. And then they'll tell you what it is that you need to know in order to find somebody for them."
Now in her early forties, she's had a bit of life experience herself, which helps. She's been through divorce. And has had, as one would expect, other relationships that haven't worked out. She says that while those experiences haven't altered her, in terms of personality or expectations, they have helped her "become more self-aware. You figure yourself out a bit better." She's aware that someone who is "outgoing and spontaneous and vivacious and a go-getter and an entrepreneur," requires an understanding partner.
"I don't think an entrepreneur has the same mindset as somebody who works nine-to-five at a desk. You have to be different in order to be creative, and with that kind of mindset you can't ever put yourself with somebody who will be in your face, in your life as a kind of a stick-to-your-side-everyday person. It has to be an independent relationship where you are free to be who you are."
She's now married again, and very happily, by the sounds of things. Her husband Luca is French, and they met in her home town, Cannes. With him, she seems to have found the right fit. "Luca just lets me be who I am," she says. "But he's there. He never judges me." He has nothing to do with the agency, and in fact they were introduced on the street by a mutual friend. "He's a chef and he was coming out of his restaurant and I was coming out of the hairdresser and he was talking to somebody we knew in common," she explains. He loves Ireland - and has apparently even mastered Irish dancing. And she, for her part, seems enchanted and intrigued by the way the French conduct relationships. "They're absolutely not like the English or Irish when it comes to asking people out and going out on dates", she says of the romantic Latin temperament. "They're so dramatic. And then, you can fall in and out of love in a minute - it's like a thing that just happened, like a cloud." On the plus side, "You always know where you stand." And then there's "the way they talk about sex, 'On va faire l'amour, c'est pas possible, la la la.' My parents would die if they heard some of the things they say," she says with a laugh.
She divides each month roughly in half between Cannes and London, often flying off across the world to meet clients in other cities. "I need it," she says of living in constant motion. "I'm in London two weeks a month, sometimes a week a month, I'm in Brussels, New York, Dubai, I'm all over the place."
She thinks that modern life is making us more and more lonely. Hence why people are willing to pay to bring the personal touch back into they way they organise their private lives. "I think that social media has made us lonely," she says. "It started off by texting - people confirming and cancelling and turning up late - by text. So we lost our ability to communicate with each other. I hate it. Hate it!
"Now, it's even worse because we have become faceless friends. It's all virtual friends. People have their dinner over Skype and there's no need to leave your front door. Everyone is getting fatter, everyone's getting diabetes and it's a vicious circle because no-one will get up off their arse and go for a run, have a meal with a friend, keep a meeting, telephone to confirm and write a letter to your mother."
It sounds quite strict, but is a view that answers a groundswell feeling of atomisation and isolation in modern life.
She's determined to keep a bit of old-fashioned courtesy alive. Berkeley is the anti-Tinder. There are no profiles or photographs online. Dates are arranged the traditional way, over the telephone. Clients are guided through the process from start to finish, given advice on everything from how to dress to how to navigate the early stages of a new relationship, she explains. But what about the minefield of sex? Does she provide guidelines on how long to wait, for example, before jumping into bed? She looks mildly appalled at the question, and shakes her head. "Once the numbers are exchanged and each party has agreed, they can do what they want". But, there is one word of caution. She believes that sexual partnerships should be strictly on a one-by-one basis. "I always say if you start an intimate relationship with someone, go on hold. If you meet too many people, you won't know how you feel about anyone."
Despite the fact that, surprisingly, 10pc of her business comes from Irish clients looking for love both at home and abroad, she doesn't have a permanent office in Dublin. There is, she says, a greater need for sensitivity and discretion when dealing with the Irish market than exists elsewhere. "I'm patriotic to the core," she says. "I would defend Ireland to the core. I only drink Barry's tea and I import the bread and all that - you've no idea." However, "the thing about Irish people is, we're afraid that everybody will know who we are. Everybody knows somebody. So people get nervous. I'd love a Dublin office. I have a satellite office in Dublin - I fly over to see people. But most people who come over, they want a Dublin-London membership. That's kind of the general demand for Dublin."
In any case, she says, there's an awful lot of Irish people moving to London at the moment, and movement is so easy between the two, her base there works well for Irish clients. On the plus side, she says that her Irish members are among the most popular in the network. It's our sense of humour, she says, and refusal to take things too seriously, which make us so desirable to date - even, apparently, among millionaires. Which all comes as rather a pleasant surprise and should be heartening news for Irish singles.
"New York men want Irish women," she says. "The Dublin-New York liaison is really strong." In fact, she'd go so far as to say that "everybody wants an Irish girl. English men want an Irish girl. I don't know about the French." It's been interesting, she says, observing cultural differences to finding love. Americans, she says, know what they want and won't compromise. "The Nordics and the Germans are very different, they look at it almost like a business - very pragmatic." And, for the Southern Europeans, the Latins, as she's learned herself through direct personal experience, "it's all about the love."
Sunday Indo Living