Sunday 22 April 2018

Those fabulous Brogan boys mean business with new hotel

Dublin GAA's most high-profile family have spent millions on a hotel, but not every sports star has made big deals work in their post-playing days.

Brothers in arms: Bernard and Alan Brogan with the Delaney Cup. The pair have paid €8m for the Pillo Hotel in Ashbourne
Brothers in arms: Bernard and Alan Brogan with the Delaney Cup. The pair have paid €8m for the Pillo Hotel in Ashbourne
John Meagher

John Meagher

Bernard and Alan Brogan are as Dublin as it gets: True Blue brothers who have thrilled Hill 16 time and again and, in Bernard's case, the prospect of bagging yet another All-Ireland Senior Football medal this September.

The all-conquering side, of which he is a key member, are odds-on favourites to win back-to-back titles. Alan, the older by two years, retired earlier last year and will no doubt be cheering on from the sidelines.

And yet, it's Meath - the traditional arch-enemy of Dubs football fans everywhere - that represents the Brogan siblings' latest shot at glory. Along with their father Bernard senior - another All-Ireland winner in a family steeped in magical Croke Park days - the pair have purchased a hotel in Ashbourne for €8m. The four-star, 148-bedroom Pillo hotel, which opened in 2007, was put on the market last January.

It's thought that they got something of a bargain for a five-storey establishment boasting a large banqueting room capable of hosting 550 people as well as a fully equipped gym and spa with eight treatment rooms.

The hotel's proximity to the roller coasters and family-fun of Tayto Park is likely to ensure a steady stream of guests, even in the off-peak 'shoulder season' when the sector can find itself struggling to fill rooms.

The Brogans are no strangers to the hotel business or to big-money investments. They reportedly forked out €2.75m to take control of the Dundrum House resort and golf course in Co Tipperary, and have apparently made it known in property circles that they want to expand their interests in the area.

Their father has led the way. Bernard Sr was part of a consortium that bought the Setanta House Hotel in Celbridge, Co Kildare, three years ago in a deal estimated at €1.25m.

"They've got shrewd heads on those shoulders," says an agent who knows the brothers well. "Bernard studied business and accountancy in college and would have had a strong instinct for business irrespective of which path he chose. Being high-profile GAA players who transcend their sport certainly helps, but there are only so many doors that can open. You've got to know what you're about, especially when the sort of figures that have been quoted in the papers are floating about. This is not small potatoes."

Bernard, in particular, is no stranger to the demands of business. The 32-year-old is registered as a director of eight companies, including businesses tied to Adaptive Ireland - a tech company in the Digital Hub in Dublin. The Irish office acts as the European arm of Adaptive, which is focused on managing large volumes of data for firms.

He is also thought to be the GAA player who commands more sponsorship than any other Gaelic footballer or hurler in the country, and has inked deals with such diverse firms as SuperValu and Volkswagen.

Meanwhile, Alan (34), works for communications consultancy Custodian and although he never quite attained the marketing pulling power of his brother, he was no slouch on the playing field, having been named the All Stars Footballer of the Year in 2012 (succeeding Bernard).

An estate agent, who specialises in the hotel business, believes the Brogans' latest investment is a shrewd one. "They've bought a newish property that seemingly requires very little work," he says. "They got it for a good price and with the way the market is going, they could simply sit on it for a year or two and make a tidy profit, if that's what they so wish. But I'd imagine they're looking at the long-term picture."

Should they require advice on how to run a hotel, they need look no further than another figure steeped in GAA history: former Wexford hurler Liam Griffin and their manager in 1996 when the Model County last won an All-Ireland.

Griffin trained in the hotel business in Switzerland, generally regarded as the world's best nursery, and is the owner of the five-star Monart, outside Enniscorthy. An adult-only spa-hotel, it's considered one of the best of its kind in the world.

Former Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson has frequently said that business leaders can learn from sports stars when it comes to discipline, hard work, determination and drive to succeed. But can it work in reverse? Can top sports people make it in business if they choose?

Derry McVeigh, a sports agent who has worked with several Irish athletes, including the World Champion walker Rob Heffernan, is not convinced. "If you look at a typical squad of, say, a football team, only a handful of them might have an aptitude for business," he says. "You either have it or you don't, and while you might be a born winner on the playing field or on the athletics track, it simply doesn't translate."

McVeigh believes that in Bernard Brogan's case he has wisely started to think about what he does once he hangs up his boots. "There comes a time in every athlete's life where they know that retirement is not too far away and they have to think about what they're going to do with the rest of their careers. Making that adjustment can be very difficult, but the ones that find it easiest are those who have made plans for the future and have not reached the point where they retire and then the question, 'What do I do now?' springs up.

"Because GAA players aren't paid for play - and most of them can't command sponsorship either - they're different to professionals in rugby, football or other sports. And, yet, you hear of Gaelic footballers and hurlers who effectively put their professional careers on hold so they can fulfil all the demands of being an inter-county player. Sometimes, they neglect their education too, and when they retire they find they're having to start over from scratch."

An All-Ireland football winner, who played in the 1990s, says several teammates struggled to pick up the pieces once their playing careers ended. "The GPA [Gaelic Players Association] wasn't around back then and there was no talk about getting the playing/real-life balance right. You had fellas quitting college once they broke into the team and had to rely on bit-part jobs they got through county connections.

"That was all fine when they were in the thick of a Championship season, but once they stopped, they were playing catch-up. It's all very well having an All-Ireland medal in your back pocket, but how many employers will be okay when you turn up for interview and say you left your degree course after a year because you wanted to play football?"

Both the GPA and the Irish Rugby Union's Players' Association have done considerable work in recent years to make players aware of the importance of continuing with eduction and thinking about contingency plans when they retire or - as is especially the case with rugby - a serious injury brings their career to a sudden and premature end.

"I think the rugby guys are very clued into it," says a Dublin-based agent who looks after athletes from a variety of sports, "but some of the footballers are living from day to day and seem to think that the good times will continue forever. There's a current Irish international who really sticks out as someone who could use advice about how to look after the money he's got and to bear in mind that he's going to have to do something once his career ends.

"In some ways, their attitude is understandable when you consider that some of them are going over to England when they're 15 years old and are very wet behind the ears. Those that make it suddenly start earning undreamed-of money and if they're not well advised, they can squander it all too easily. I've seen that happen."

The remove that young professional sports stars can feel from the real world was illustrated this week when it emerged that a promising Manchester United player requested that the Old Trafford chef hard-boil two eggs for him to take home: he admitted he didn't know how to do it himself.

While the Brogans look to the hospitality industry to make their money, several sports stars seek out punditry, with English footballer Joey Barton announced this week as a TV3 analyst for the upcoming Euros. But only a finite number of footballers, hurlers and rugby players can get such gigs and even the those who are established pundits find they need other challenges.

Niall Quinn was considered one of the smartest footballers of his generation, and he has attempted to take the hard graft on the pitch to the boardroom with his rural broadband supplier, Q Sat. But take-up has been slower than the experts may have anticipated and he once noted that "it's not the pot of gold I thought it would be".

Another venture, an apartment complex in Co Carlow, proved to be something of a nightmare for him when the recession hit, although he was able to shift the properties earlier this year and clear the debt owing.

And, last year, it emerged that several football managers, including Ireland boss Martin O'Neill, faced multimillion pound losses after investing in film schemes and property deals recommended by financial advisers operating at the heart of the English game. "Some investments don't work out," the sports agent says, "and that's life. It's rarely anything to do with their former lives in sport."

But with the ink on their hotel deal still wet, the Brogan brothers will be hoping that this is an investment they don't come to regret.

GAA's most  marketable

Bernard Brogan will be hoping to win a fourth All Ireland medal this September - and the bookies reckon Dublin have one hand on the Sam Maguire Cup. But whether they're crowned champions or not, Brogan will continue to score off the field when it comes to sponsor

He's considered to be the best-paid player in GAA history, with some estimates putting his sponsorship earnings at €100,000 per year. Such a figure would be laughably small in professional football, for instance, but carries considerable weight in an organisation that still places such an emphasis on its amateur-status.

Brogan's sponsors include Volkswagen and SuperValu, and he's been the face of the latter's 'Real Food Karma' healthy-eating campaign. "He's got it all," according to Eoin Conroy, founder of Titan Marketing. "He's very well known nationwide, not just in GAA circles, he's highly articulate and very presentable and he's got a strong social media presence. He's successful, too, of course."

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