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Bullish Mansfield believes jewel of property empire 'can be saved'

BUSINESSMAN Jim Mansfield isn't running, and he refuses to hide.

Yesterday, he was at home in Tassaggart House and at his desk, facing up to the greatest challenge of his career after the dramatic collapse of his Citywest empire, following the appointment of a liquidator to HSS less than 24 hours previously.

While Mr Mansfield, who is battling the debilitating illness MSA (Multiple System Atrophy) appeared frail and tired, speaking to the Sunday Independent, he promised to do his level best to pay all those owed money and expressed his determination to restore his battered business, which has imploded leaving debts behind of €192m.

Asked what he had to say to his company's creditors, Mr Mansfield said: "The €192m is mostly made up of money that is owed to the bank, and that depends an awful lot on the value of the [Citywest] properties, and as you know, values have plummeted. There probably won't be enough money for the bank, but we hope from other sources to be able to pay the local people we owe. I'm sending a list of suppliers into the receiver and we're hoping that he will be able to do something with them shortly. I would know most of the people that would be involved in the thing, and I would be very sorry for them.

"I can't be more sorry than I am. I'm there to meet my creditors any time, and I do meet them. There are days I have to go through 100 people here, from the big to the small. But this will sort itself out. We have to be patient sometimes."

After months of uncertainty, Mr Mansfield's hotel business was placed into voluntary liquidation on Friday. The family business, HSS, which owns the Citywest Hotel and other assets in west Dublin, had already been placed into receivership last July by Bank of Scotland Ireland, which is owed €140m. Mr Mansfield and his family put the company into voluntary liquidation after the Revenue Commissioners moved to appoint its own liquidator to recover an estimated €1.1m.

More than 100 creditors turned up at Citywest Hotel, once the hub of the Mansfield empire, for a meeting on the fate of the business on Friday morning. They are amongst 400 companies and individuals who are owed money, ranging from a solicitor's firm to food companies and the golfer, Christy O'Connor Junior, who is owed €1.4 m. The unsecured creditors are owed €37m, most of them smaller businesses, many of them suppliers to the hotel. The company's larger creditors include Bank of Scotland Ireland, the Irish Nationwide Building Society, which is owed €11.3m, and a local building contractor, Swift Concepts, which is owed €23m. George Maloney, of BakerTilly Ryan Glennon, was appointed liquidator.

Commenting on his feelings on what had happened to his business and economy generally, the former billionaire said: "How do I feel? Well, I suppose there's a fierce downturn in the economy, and everyone is getting an awful doing, the bankers. Who do I think caused it? It was caused by various people and I better not say who. But what do I feel? I feel it's very wrong the way the whole thing went and the way it was let go. There's no bank that can do anything for anybody at the minute because the amount of property we have. But those properties can only be marketed right by ourselves, because if you put someone in who doesn't know the area, he won't get the potential that I see.

"And I have the bloody oul' illness that's not going to get any better. I've been told that clearly, so I have to get the lads [my sons] into this thing properly so we can get this thing going, because the convention centre is the root of the whole thing up here [in Citywest]. I know they have a lovely one down in the docks, but they have no bedrooms on site, so someone else is getting the money. The only money you earn from a convention centre is from the bedrooms. That's my belief."

The Citywest chief also addressed head on criticisms levelled against him, that he would not be held personally liable for the €192m to his company's creditors, and would therefore simply walk away from the problem.

"That's true [that I'm not personally liable]. On the advice of our auditors four or five years ago, everyone was going unlimited, and we did the same thing. We've had all our tax audits since and the whole thing is up to date.

"We paid a huge amount of tax in our time and employed many people in the area, so that's all I can say about that I suppose."

Asked if he wasn't just walking away from his creditors, he said: "That's not my intention at all. I've walked away worse than they did. I put every shilling into building that convention centre without bank money at the time."

Asked how much of his own money he had invested in the development of the convention centre, Mr Mansfield said: "A massive amount. The personal money I can't get back. I would say €12m. If I had that money today, they could all give out all they liked about me!"

While Mr Mansfield's absence from the meeting of his creditors last Friday is understood to have angered some of those in attendance, the former billionaire explained how this had been unavoidable due to his medical condition.

"To tell you the truth, if I was in the whole of my health, I would have been there on Friday to tell the creditors that 'we will get the thing going again'.

"I believe that it [Citywest] can be saved. And it will be saved. I got up at half past six for the thing, and I just couldn't stand. There are days when I can't walk and I can't stand. I have this disease, it's MSA. There are times when I can't even talk right. It comes and goes, but there is no clear day now. It controls everything.

"I had the prostate done. I had a heart problem, and the speech went. It was only after 10 years that I noticed the thing [the MSA]; and that's the problem with this disease.

"By the time you notice it and have it diagnosed, it's too late. After the diagnosis, it's up to yourself. Hey [the doctors] expected me to be in a wheelchair, probably by now.

"Then you're on a bloody walking frame, and it would drive you mad. But we'll get over all of that. We have to keep at it."

Commenting on the wider economy, he said: "There are problems everywhere, but I would have to say that the banks were the main cause of it -- the banks, the Financial Regulator, the Government and the civil service.

"The country is in a bad way. And it won't get better any time soon. It could be five or six years before there's any move. But I don't know how it's going to happen. How is it going to happen when we're paying 5.8 per cent for money [to the EU and IMF]? I don't think it's going to happen quickly. I hope I'm wrong, because we have a lot of things to do and we have to get the money to do them. Ireland doesn't have banks anymore, so it will have to come from hedge funds or whatever. There is plenty of money out there, but it's very dear [to borrow]."

Reflecting on how the difficulties in his business had arisen, Mr Mansfield pointed to the planning problems the Citywest Convention Centre had experienced since its conception.

"From the time we started off the hotel, it kept getting bigger and bigger. We ended up with 1,100 people employed, and then this thing happened with the convention centre, it must be six years ago.

"We got the planning permission through as quick as we could, but the [South Dublin County] Council forgot, or didn't think they needed to notify An Taisce.

"That held us up on the centre for a long time. But while we were held up on that we started building hotel rooms, and we built those to have when the centre was finished. We kept extending and a lot of people were employed, and then the receiver came in.

"The bank was giving us the money we needed, and when we finally got the permission for the centre through, the bank rang us to say congratulations. And then it went on and on and they never gave us any money. We ended up getting nothing. Between everything, we were promised the money and we never got any money.

"The bank put in a receiver about six months ago to see what way we were going. We paid any people we could pay, thinking the money would come through from the bank. When we found out there was no money, we put the whole thing on hold.

"We had to put the liquidator in voluntarily on Friday. We would hope at the end of the day, out of various sources, that we would get the money we need. That's my intention anyway."

Recalling the good times at Citywest, Mr Mansfield remembered the Ryder Cup and the other major events that had been held there, including the ard fheiseanna of the major political parties.

Asked by the Sunday Independent what he thought of those same political parties now, Mr Mansfield -- ever the realist -- quipped: "You'll think what you'll always think. They're never there for you when you want them."

Sunday Independent