Monday 22 January 2018

The rise and fall of the Boomtown Prats

Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

It is a mark of how far the Stokes twins have fallen that the best defence they could offer to the High Court this week was their own cluelessness.

With businesses in ruins all around them, Simon and his brother Christian said in an affidavit that they had been "irresponsible" -- but denied that they were dishonest.

The 36-year-olds put their behaviour down to "incompetence" -- a humiliating admission for a pair of businessmen, no matter how young.

It was all so different five years ago. Known as the 'Bang brothers' they were the much-adored and admired Jedwards of the Dublin hospitality scene, feted in the gossip columns.

Their Bang Café restaurant drew rave notices. One female fan enthused in print: "Just imagine, Christian serving me margaritas for breakfast and Simon pouring my Bolly at dinner time. It's enough to make a girl forget that Conrad Gallagher exists at all."

Then there was their pub, The Clarendon, modelled on paintings by Van Gogh and Manet.

When the twins finally opened an opulent members' club, Residence, in 2008, it was hardly surprising that celebrities like Bono, Brian O'Driscoll and Victoria Smurfit were quick to join.

The twins' every move seemed to be played out in public, ensuring that when things went wrong the label, "poster boys for the Celtic Tiger", was quickly stuck on their backs.

And indeed they did appear to lead gilded lives. When the pair were house-hunting a decade ago, they were followed by an RTÉ crew for a suitably-titled documentary, Boomtown.

And when Christian splashed out €150,000 on a Ferrari Spider car we learned the splendid details courtesy of the Sunday Independent.

"I don't drink or smoke, but I have an interest in cars and a passion for Ferraris," said Christian. "I bought it in Belfast and the garage thinks it was owned by David Beckham or some other Premiership footballer."

They were perhaps more chastened men this week when they were barred by the High Court from acting as directors of any company for four years.

Ms Justice Mary Finlay Geoghegan said their conduct made them unfit to manage a company.

It is well-established practice in business that directors do not dip into their firm's funds for personal use.

But the Bang Boys were getting rather more than a bang for their buck by doing just that at the end of the boom and the start of the recession.

The High Court heard again this week how they used money from their restaurant company to pay bills at plush hotels and restaurants.

At a previous court hearing, we first learned of their feats with company credit cards. They racked up bills of just under €150,000- including Simon's visit to the exotic-sounding Coral Reef Club in Barbados, and a bill for €4,425 at the Gucci store in New York (see panel).

In a statement to the court this week, Simon Stokes said the intense publicity surrounding the demise of their business had already acted as a significant punishment.

One acquaintance said: "They put themselves in the public eye. It was inevitable that they would be the centre of attention when things went wrong."

The careers of the twins started so promisingly after their comfortable upbringing in Kilternan, South County Dublin.

Their parents, Pia Bang, a Danish designer and clothes shop owner, and Jeff Stokes, a part-time model turned businessman, were equally glamorous figures back in the 1970s.

According to Pia's account, retold by one of the boys in an interview, they had met at a fashion show when he fell off the cat-walk.

The twins attended the fee-paying Sandford Park School in Ranelagh and Wesley College. A friend from their time in school, said: "They were well-liked by most people. They weren't academic geniuses. Christian was the more outgoing of the two."

They did a bit of modelling on the side, and after a stint at a private business college, went into the restaurant trade with Bang Cafe at the age of just of 24.

Situated just next to the Unicorn, by then owned by their father, it became an immediate hit with politicians, media folk and what passes for glitterati in Dublin.

Subsequent events showed that they did not have heads for business (perhaps they were just too young), but their affability was frequently remarked upon.

PJ Gibbons, editor of Social and Personal, said: "They were always very friendly and worked hard front of house. They were not the types who would be seen out drinking in clubs in Dublin."

"I think their social lives revolved around where they worked and perhaps their families."

Even though the clouds of recession were already rolling in when their club Residence opened, it became popular. One regular visitor at the time described it as a "stylish hub of activity with music, chat and good-looking people on every floor".

"The problem is that they spent a fortune doing up a club in a building that they didn't even own," a member told me.

When the club's financial troubles first emerged, some members, including the VIP publisher Michael O'Doherty, stuck up for the Bang Boys.

O'Doherty, in his column in the Evening Herald, put criticism down to schadenfreude, "a heady cocktail -- one measure of glee, one measure of ambivalence, and a large shot of 'it serves them right'".

But sympathetic members such as O'Doherty began to change their view when they learned how the Bang Boys had racked up debts -- with the taxman and others often going unpaid.

"I think people were surprised that Christian and Simon had built up all the debt," said PJ Gibbons. "If they had known about it, I don't think many of the members would have joined."

Their financial reputation was shredded when the High Court was told two years ago that tax deductions from their workers had not been passed on to the Revenue Commissioners. Mr Justice Peter Kelly said it was "a form of thieving" to use this money to subsidise a business. At a later hearing, the same judge described the boys as "delinquent directors".

Christian did not do his image any favours when he remarked in an interview in the midst of these troubles: "There is more to running a business than paying the Revenue."

The tone in their affidavit to the court this week was much more contrite.

They now work in another restaurant, Il Segreto on Merrion Row, where father Jeff is a director, and earn €2,500 a month, this week's court hearing was told.

They are both married with young families and still have liabilities from their business activities from personal guarantees they gave.

The twins, in their court statement, said they now realised the "heavy responsibilities" attached to running a business, thanks to "greater maturity".

They are now disqualified from acting as directors until 2016, and it remains to be seen whether the boys who went bang in spectacular fashion will rise from the ashes.

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