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Bankruptcy better than Nama noose, says Grehan

RAY Grehan's decision to declare bankruptcy in the UK in the dying hours of 2011 shouldn't have taken Nama by surprise. But it did.

Today, Mr Grehan -- who famously paid €171.5m (a record €84m per acre) at the height of the boom to acquire the Veterinary College site in Ballsbridge -- explains his dramatic move, saying it puts him in a "better position to rebuild, rather than staying on and allowing Nama to prolong the agony with a noose around my neck".

By going for bankruptcy in the UK, the Glenkerrin Homes chief will have a clean bill of financial health by the end of this year. Most significantly, the €300m judgement the State's so-called 'bad bank' obtained against him here last November will not be worth the paper it is written on. And while Mr Grehan understands that there will be public anger, given that this money is owed to the taxpayer, it's an anger he believes is misdirected.

"I did not choose to go into liquidation or receivership. I worked with Nama. I signed a memorandum of understanding with them to work out our assets. We were the best-placed people to do that.

"Had they worked with us, they would have got the bulk of the money back -- probably it all -- over the eight-year plan," he claims.

The Galway-born developer's anger towards Nama becomes clearer when he is asked for his view of its chief executive Brendan McDonagh's announcement that the agency would sell a significant proportion of its UK property portfolio by 2013.

"The minute Brendan McDonagh said they were going to unload their assets in the UK over a two-year period, they wiped probably 20 per cent of the value off that portfolio. All the wealth funds in the world are looking at that.

"London is a very small market and a very specialised market. You can't go in there and put several major assets on the market at the one time. It's a very fickle market and one that you work with very carefully and quietly to sell assets," Mr Grehan says.

Referring to his own company's experience in London following Nama's intervention in its affairs, he adds: "I had a deal done for the hotel we had in Shoreditch for Stg£83m (€100m) the week Nama decided to appoint a receiver.

"The buyer was an American fund and they walked away when we were within 12 weeks of completing the hotel extension. They couldn't get certainty as to when it would be finished.

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"The receiver put the hotel back on the market and got an offer for Stg£74m. They went into due diligence for 30 days and came back and offered them Stg£64m for the hotel.

"Today, the hotel extension is still not completed and it has cost the taxpayer millions.

"London is a market that only developers know. I've been in that market for 12 years. Nama don't have the expertise or the know-how to work the market for the benefit of the taxpayer."

'The minute that Brendan McDonagh said they were going to unload their assets in the UK, he wiped probably 20pc off the value of that portfolio'

Asked how international investors viewed Nama, he says: "It's very simple. The funds' view is that Nama are not there to deal. The funds' view is that they have wasted a lot of time trying to put together deals with Nama and have met closed doors. A lot of funds are pissed off with Nama.

"Nobody knows what the game is in Nama -- I don't think they know themselves. They have buried themselves in paperwork. As a result, they're very slow with their decisions and I don't think they're able to keep up."

A spokesman for Nama responded to Mr Grehan's claims, saying: "With respect, we don't believe Mr Grehan could be considered an objective commentator on Nama."

Whatever their opinion, Mr Grehan is already going back into business in London.

"Over the last couple of months, I've been approached by several funds to head up various property portfolios for them. Nama has been adamant that clients of theirs cannot get involved in heading up funds and that curtailed my activity in the Irish market.

"By doing this (declaring bankruptcy), maybe it will free me up from that and leave me in a better position to rebuild, rather than staying on and allowing Nama to prolong that agony with a noose around my neck over several years.

"Hopefully, we'll be successful in rebuilding a company that can possibly come back to Ireland in due course. I feel somewhat hurt that I've gathered millions and millions of euro (in taxes) for the Irish taxpayer down through the years and now a State agency (Nama) has basically kicked me out of the place and left me with no choice.

"Over the next few months, you will see a lot of people looking at the same options. I know for a fact there are several well-known people looking at it."

Asked if he regretted the massive €171.5m he paid for the Veterinary College site in Ballsbridge, Dublin 4, he says: "We paid a huge price for it on the day. In hindsight, we overpaid for it. The figures at the time would suggest we would have got a very handsome return had the market held -- but it didn't and it was too big of a bite at the time. These things happen in property."

Mr Grehan's greatest regret, however, is that he and his brother Danny didn't act quickly enough to take "hard decisions" in relation to the company controlling the Vets' College site, decisions that he believes could have saved the Glenkerrin Group.

And while he might be seen as having taken the 'easy way out' by declaring bankruptcy in the UK, Mr Grehan is adamant that he didn't take the decision lightly.

"Bankruptcy is not a lightly taken decision. It's a tough time, watching a portfolio built up over the past 25 years being unwound and taken apart. It takes its toll and it's not where we want to be, but at least we're alive and we're not in the Mater Hospital suffering from a fatal illness. We'll take it on the chin and we'll get back on the road again.

"You look at Donald Trump. He's gone bankrupt three times. In America, you're seen as a more secure credit risk if you've gone through bankruptcy as you're more cautious. Of course you learn an awful lot. I'll be hoping to put it [the experience of bankruptcy] to good use when we come back."

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