Tuesday 21 November 2017

Nervous 'Quinn country' watches and waits as fate of tycoon's empire decided

Geraldine Niland

The far reaches of the border counties of Cavan-Monaghan in the south and Fermanagh in the North make up what is known as Quinn country.

At its core is the bedrock of Sean Quinn's empire just beyond the village of Ballyconnell in Cavan and Derrylin in Fermanagh, less than a one-mile stretch that straddles the border.

Here the silos of his two cement plants north and south are the book ends of his empire. In between are the vast factories which house the hardware of the Quinn group, including packaging, glass, radiators, insulation and roof tiles. Sean Quinn has never moved far away from his roots, quarrying the land at Teemore for the past 37 years and ploughing the spoils of his 'liquid gold' back into factories and jobs in west Cavan and Fermanagh.

"The social and economic legacy of Sean Quinn seems lost," Vincent Reynolds of the Cavan County Enterprise Board told the Sunday Independent.

"Sean Quinn created employment opportunities in areas that were marginalised. Now many of those jobs are irreplaceable. It would be too cataclysmic to contemplate what would happen if the Quinn Group was lost. If you put a hand out in Cavan you will touch someone involved in the Quinn Group. This is the biggest social and economic issue to touch this region. The crucial issue is the employment of 5,500 workers and the sustainability of their jobs in the region.

"It is going to be a tricky weekend," Pat Clarke, IT manager with Quinn Insurance said this weekend.

In his early forties, he has worked with Quinn Insurance since 1998. A returned emigrant and a native of Cavan, he is married with four children.

"Back then we were in a small office and the IT department was in the toilet," he recalls. By then there were about 60 employees. Now there are 2,800 with 870 staff based in Cavan town alone.

"I have had long and interesting times with Sean," he said. "This is unreal. We moved from a position where we were working with a company with its commitment to no redundancies. Then 10 days ago we were cut off from our biggest market. It was like we were hit by a bomb. Quinn Insurance operates a highly sophisticated e-business. Last week we had to shut down much of the IT infrastructure we had for the UK."

Over 1,300 Quinn Insurance employees service the UK and Northern Ireland insurance market.

Mr Clarke is typical of the workforce profile of Quinn Insurance -- young, highly skilled and committed to life in his native county.

"Here in Cavan we are a highly skilled workforce. We are not going to walk out the door and get a job in Cootehill or Virginia," he said.

"Sean Quinn has placed us in the position where we have employment in Cavan and Fermanagh. Sean Quinn is a gentleman, he didn't plan to put anyone's job at risk.

"Now the atmosphere has turned from shock to anger. Everything was being presented as figures.

"But there are 5,500 employees and their families being affected by this. We need a swift decision," he said.

"It is all starting to get very confusing. We are all waiting to hear the outcome of the court hearing on Monday if it goes ahead. So we are going to be in limbo for another period of time. This is not good for our business. The longer we remain in limbo, the harder it is going to be to get back to where we were."

Eamon McDwyer is president of Cavan Chamber of Commerce. A 37-year-old accountant, he is married with four children. He returned to Cavan 10 years ago when his wife got a job with Quinn Life.

"There are 3,000 Quinn Group employees in this region alone," he said.

"These are quality jobs. Quinn Insurance is young, dynamic, profitable company with a highly educated workforce. If these jobs go they will never be replaced and the immediate knock-on effect would mean a total loss of 9,000 jobs in the area."

He said that Quinn Insurance alone has a wage bill in Cavan of e3m a month and an estimated e13m for the total number of employees working in the region.

He believes that the imposition of full administration would herald the death knell for the Quinn Group and employment in the region.

Quinn Insurance has posted their staff not only in Cavan town but in call centres throughout the region, including Enniskillen, Navan and Dunshaughlan.

Employees fear that under full administration many of these jobs will be lost. For Caroline and Gary Donnelly, this is a fear that has dogged them for the past 10 days.

In their early thirties, they too have returned to live in Enniskillen with their two teenage children.

"I work in the Quinn Insurance call centre in Enniskillen. I returned from Belfast to work with Quinn Insurance six years ago. It is a company with great opportunities and promotion prospects within the company.

"We are worried about our jobs and hope that Sean Quinn retains a majority sharehold in the company so that we are guaranteed our jobs will stay in the area," Ms Donnelly said.

The suspension of trade with the UK and Northern Ireland has meant that 1,300 employees are now idle and with the slide in their market share, fears mount for their jobs. As the employee rallies in Cavan and Enniskillen showed, the loyalty to Sean Quinn is immense, earned by his long enduring track record of building, sustaining and expanding his businesses in this region.

"Our loyalty to Sean Quinn is earned," TP Feehan, general manager of Quinn cement said. An employee for 27 years, he manages one of the most modern cement plants in Europe, generating 1.4 million tonnes a year.

For Damien Reilly, another long-time employee, from Leitrim, the last 10 days have driven him to unprecedented waters. "I have done things I never thought I would do in my life. I have lobbied politicians. I have spoken to the media. I have protested. Since I started work with Sean Quinn in June 1988, I have never feared for my job," he said.

"In the late eighties there was very little in this area. Most of my friends emigrated. Sean Quinn has plans for an extension of the cement factory; a new waste recycling plant and an extension to the packaging factory. I feel very passionate about my work and Sean Quinn.

"When the recession hit, he said there would be no redundancies and so when work slackened off he moved people around to keep them employed. If you take Sean Quinn out of the area, there is nothing."

Married with three young children from one years old to 14, Mr Reilly hopes that there will be factories and work in places like Cavan and Ballyconnell and Derrylin for his girls when they come of age.

Sunday Independent

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