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The €300m men who beat the property crash

Dozens of tycoons may have been laid low by the property bust, but for each loser in this crisis there is often a winner. While Bernard McNamara and his developer colleagues lick their wounds, and face possible bankruptcy, the deal-makers who sold property to them at the most opportune time have reason to smile.

Everywhere you looked, investors were splashing out vast sums on property, but Paul Coulson, the seller of the Dublin Glass Bottle site, and hotel magnate John Gallagher saw that it was time to flee the market. They sold up in the nick of time at the height of the boom, just before the bubble burst.

Through a shrewd piece of financial engineering, Coulson, known in business circles as 'the Cooler', organised for his company to sell the Ringsend Glass Bottle site four years ago for a staggering €412m.

Remarkably, it was a site which his company had leased and did not originally own. Through legal loopholes, the 58-year-old was able to buy it for a knockdown price and sell it for the vast sum.

Coulson himself is thought to have pocketed €30m from the deal, while the purchasers -- including Bernard McNamara, a group of investors and, ultimately, the taxpayer through the Dublin Docklands Development Authority -- lost a fortune. The empty site is now believed to be worth as little as €50m, a tiny fraction of the sale price.

John Gallagher, the 50-year-old husband of Bernie Gallagher of the Doyle hotel empire, was another prescient player on the Dublin Monopoly board.

He was instrumental in off-loading a string of hotels -- including the flagship Jurys in Ballsbridge, the Berkeley Court and the Burlington -- to some of the country's biggest property barons at the peak of the boom for a total of €2bn. Together with his partners, he is believed to have made a €1bn profit on the deals.

While the NAMA-bound buyers, including Bernard McNamara, who bought the Burlington for €288m, look at plummeting values, Gallagher and the Doyle family came up trumps.

Paul Coulson and John Gallagher were by no means exceptional in seeing which way the wind was blowing, according to close observers of the Dublin business scene.

"There are many investors, many of them not well known, who held on to their wealth, because they sold their assets at the right time,'' says Rory Quinlan, head of HSBC Private Bank in Dublin. "They might have sold their businesses or land, and they now have a lot of cash. Some of them operate below the radar."

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Coulson has been a well-known figure in Dublin business circles ever since the Dubliner accumulated a fortune in the '80s through his aircraft leasing and investment company, Yeoman.

In the '90s, his wife Moya was a frequent fixture in the social columns. Nowadays they keep a much lower profile, and they spend a lot of time abroad.

This year's Sunday Times rich list estimated Coulson's fortune at €115m.

Although they spend much of their time in Paris, where they have a property, and are fond of skiing in Switzerland, they have also kept on their fine Gothic mansion on Shrewsbury Road in Ballsbridge -- with a swimming pool in the garden, tennis court and gym.

In 2008, the Coulsons put the house up for sale for €27.5m. But it has since been withdrawn from the market. When the wisteria-clad residence was on the market, it was noted that the cutlery drawers were lined with velvet. The drawing room, decorated with Tipperary Crystal chandeliers, had enough space to seat 60. Whatever happens, they are likely to make money on the Ballsbridge bolthole, having bought the house for just €1.3m in 1998. It was another great deal.

Dublin southsider Coulson had a privileged upbringing, attending the Jesuit Gonzaga College and Trinity College, where he captained the tennis and hockey teams. Sport remains one of his biggest passions.

As a student in the early '70s, he showed early business promise as the man who finally managed to make the Trinity Ball profitable.

He was nicknamed 'The Cooler' during his time in university for his air of breezy self-confidence, and the moniker has stuck.

Many Dublin businessmen must have wished they had some of the same coolness he showed in 2006 when he sold the Glass Bottle site.

His wife Moya was previously married to entrepreneur Paul Doody (brother of Alison Doody). Moya herself has a strong business pedigree as the daughter of Ken Wall, who was chief executive of Lombard and Ulster Bank.

The Coulsons married in New York in 1991, and John Gallagher and his wife Bernie were among the guests at the wedding.

Having taken control of Ardagh Glass, the company that ran the Ringsend bottle factory, in the '90s, Coulson turned the firm into the third biggest glassmaker in Europe. But the expansion happened abroad rather than in Ireland, and the Ringsend Bottle Plant was closed in 2002.

Unions complained bitterly about the redundancy terms and there was a strike at the plant in 2002 in the weeks before its closure.

In his career, Coulson has not been afraid to take on some of the titans of Irish business. For over half a decade, he has been fighting a battle with the now-beleaguered tycoon Sean Quinn for dominance of the British glass industry.

While many of Dublin's big property dealers have Fianna Fail connections, Coulson is closer to Fine Gael.

Senior figures in the party say he was very much a "behind-the-scenes'' operator in the party when he was a Fine Gael trustee in the 1990s. "He was someone who operated in the background and did not get involved in day-to-day political matters,'' said one former Fine Gael minister.

Like Coulson, John Gallagher, who engineered the sale of the Doyle hotels, hardly ever gives interviews, but when he does, investors are likely to hang on his every word.

Having sold some of the Doyle family's best-known hotels, Gallagher said in July 2007: "My view on the Irish market is that, whether we get a soft landing or a hard landing, definitely the weight of percentage is on the downside. . . I think there's a correction here and how bad that correction is I don't know."

After reading the market so accurately, Gallagher could be forgiven in the unlikely event that he decides to rest on his laurels.

The 50-year-old certainly has plenty of cash to indulge one of his great passions, singing in his own rock band, Dakota 66.

Since they made a correct call on the Irish property market when all around them were losing their shirts, the next moves of 'The Cooler' and the rock'n' roller will be studied closely.

They offer conclusive proof that not everybody lost their heads during the boom.


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