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Monday 17 December 2018

Tough guy McCourt, the man who could bring down Government

Streetwise Irish-American cable contractor David McCourt is the type of guy who usually gets what he wants, writes Liam Collins

MEETING: Leo Varadkar met David McCourt this year to present him with Science Foundation Ireland’s St Patrick’s Day Science Medal
MEETING: Leo Varadkar met David McCourt this year to present him with Science Foundation Ireland’s St Patrick’s Day Science Medal

When billionaire David McCourt went for lunch in the members' restaurant in Leinster House, he didn't exactly over-extend himself, with a bill that came to €37.

But he certainly hastened the end of the ministerial career of the man who booked the table, paid for the lunch but didn't eat it, Denis Naughten. Ironically, the Irish-American cable contractor may also have hastened the end of the current Government.

"I'm not a big spender and I don't like to talk about my net worth, but if you believe what you read online you'd go for about $1bn," said McCourt during the promotion of his 'self-help' book for budding millionaires, Total Rethink, published earlier this year.

With homes in Ireland, Belgravia, London and Florida, the businessman, who will be 62 next Sunday and is married with two children, has been spending about a week every month for the last 15 years in the upmarket Merrion Hotel in Dublin looking at business opportunities that culminated in the plan to roll-out rural broadband.

He's the type of guy who usually gets what he wants, at least that's the impression you get from his book.

Ironically, one of the photographs shows himself and the recently resigned Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Denis Naughten "having a laugh after a day of hard-fought negotiations". The billionaire adds: "This is a typical Irish trait I've inherited - that we can be tough, but still enjoy a laugh together when the work is done, with no hard feelings."

Another photograph shows him in the sitting room of his opulently appointed house in Co Clare, and in company documents in Dublin his address is given as South Pointe Drive, Miami Beach, Florida.

David McCourt grew up in South Boston, the domain of criminals like 'Whitey' Bulger and said to be one of the most dangerous suburbs in the US. Both his grandfathers, John McCourt and John Broderick, were hard-working Irishmen who had emigrated to the United States and imbued an interest in business in him at a young age.

By the time he was in his late teens, he was making money out of 'keg parties' - supplying the beer for better-off schoolkids to drink.

"I'm pretty sure that I was born a creative entrepreneur. I was the youngest of seven siblings, living with my parents in Watertown, a suburb of Boston - one bathroom shared by nine of us - my mother's parents, the Brodericks, lived in their own little house out the back of ours, making 11 of us in all," he says. It was a typical lower middle-class Catholic Irish-American family, but he and his brother Frank made so much money in their contracting business, that for his mother's 100th birthday, the entire family stayed with David McCourt in his house in Ireland.

"Her philosophy on life was that if things went wrong you should do your best to fix them, not whine, put one foot in front of the other and keep moving forward and know that whatever problems you have, someone else has much worse," he said.

While still in his 20s, he was invited to the White House by Ronnie Reagan, and during the visit stole a coffee cup belonging to the President Lyndon B Johnson's table setting - he was careful not to steal his own coffee cup, but the one used by the person sitting beside him. "When I proudly showed it to my father a few days later, he was appalled that I would stoop to do such a thing. 'But Dad', I protested, 'no-one is going to believe that I was there'."

He has plenty of names to drop in his book, businessmen like Walter Scott, who is involved in his Irish broadband operation, and Jack Welch, the legendary CEO of GE, Hollywood stars, prominent politicians.

The McCourts initially made their money as cable TV contractors, at first installing the networks that the bigger contractors wouldn't touch, mostly because they were too difficult. But by doing his research, he discovered on one early job nobody else would touch, that it could easily be done using an underground tunnel beneath the streets of Boston that nobody else knew about.

He even learned to read upside down to see other people's quotes, usually fanned out on the desk of the guy who was handing out the contracts.

"Business was brilliant, but it was volatile too," he writes. When Chuck Dolan, at Cablevision, refused to pay him for one of his first major contracts, claiming they had run out of money, McCourt was left on the brink of disaster. "It was not a new story in the construction business. The contractors are always the ones who developers let down first in these situations, because once the thing is built, they don't need to use us again."

His solution was to get one of his tough Irish-American workers take out a digger and together they dug up enough of the cable to shut down the cable network altogether.

There was a "lot of shouting", threats and legal letters flying. But he wouldn't back down, and at a crucial meeting, he was able to read what was written on the memo pad of the Cablevision executive who had to make the decision: "Be careful, he's from South Boston." He got paid.

"No one likes a guy who makes money when everyone else loses, simply because he possesses information that they don't have and that he fails to share," he writes in his book Total Rethink.

"To have a sustainable career in business you need to build a reputation among the people you want to do a deal with in the future, for having always been consistent when it came to being fair and honourable in the past."

With Denis Naughten's resignation, David McCourt will now be dealing with a new minister, Richard Bruton, who is unlikely to want to get as close to the tough Irish-American.

Sunday Independent

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