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Sunday 19 November 2017

How an 'ordinary couple' became extraordinarily successful

DESPITE international media reports to the contrary, Brian and Mary Pat O'Donnell are no "ordinary" couple.

The husband and wife team are long-standing, canny property investors with €43m worth of residential properties in Ireland as well as a €13.3m ski chalet in the French resort of Courchevel.

But it was their companies' eye-catching and audacious foray into the heart of London's financial district that turned the intensely private couple into celebrated investment gurus.

Before he embarked on an international buying spree that would leave him and his companies facing an €800m-plus debt pile, high-flying solicitor Brian O'Donnell complained there was "no value in Ireland". However, despite funding a stunning portfolio that stretches from Washington to Stockholm, mostly from an array of foreign banks, it is domestic lender Bank of Ireland that has brought the commercial lawyer and his wife back to the Four Courts in a €69.5m loan dispute.

Mr O'Donnell, a former managing partner in top five commercial law firm William Fry, was not the first solicitor to swap servicing the Celtic Tiger for becoming one of its biggest players.

Many partners in law firms, barristers in the Law Library and even some judges are nursing heavy property-related debts, some of which may find a new home at the National Asset Management Agency.

Mr O'Donnell and his psychiatrist wife Mary Pat are not in NAMA, although Mr O'Donnell's legal firm Brian O'Donnell and Partners secured a lucrative place on the bad bank's legal panel.

The firm has yet to receive any work from the agency.

When news of the O'Donnells' bank debts emerged earlier this year, some international media reports marvelled at how such an ordinary couple could amass such a portfolio.

In 2005, they became the first private individuals to own a building in London's Canary Wharf when they splashed out €207m on 15 Westferry Circus, a prime office block leased to investment bank Morgan Stanley.

Shortly after that acquisition, their London-based company Vico Capital -- named after the exclusive Killiney Road on which they live -- bought a second block in Canary Wharf for €185m.

They then snapped up the landmark Sanctuary Building, the headquarters of the UK's secretary of state, in August 2006, just as the property market at home in Ireland peaked.

According to former colleagues, Mr O'Donnell -- who suffered few setbacks -- kept pushing, even when others were withdrawing from the property game.

In March 2007, Vico Capital acquired the landmark Fatburen building in Stockholm, home to Sweden's Revenue authorities, for €285m.

In April 2008, when the worldwide credit crunch was tightening its grip, Vico Capital acquired 2099 Pennsylvania Avenue, a "trophy class" property designed by world-renowned architecture firm Pei Cobb Freed and Partners, for $172.5m.

Vico Capital boasted that it was able to negotiate and close on the property, which has sweeping views of the nearby White House and the Potomac River, in just seven weeks.

The recession has strained many relationships previously enjoyed between banks and borrowers and in the current action at the Commercial Court the O'Donnells have complained that Bank of Ireland has adopted a strategy, dating back to 2008, to keep them under "constant pressure" to force them to sell shares in a property holding company whose only asset is the Sanctuary Building.

Today the O'Donnells will find out if their complaints will be enough to ward off a €69.5m judgment against their company.

Irish Independent

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