| 10.9°C Dublin

Emmet Oliver: Quinn torn apart while swimming with sharks

Close

Despite the humble trappings and low-key profile, Quinn was ambitious for his business

Despite the humble trappings and low-key profile, Quinn was ambitious for his business

Despite the humble trappings and low-key profile, Quinn was ambitious for his business

YESTERDAY was undoubtedly the darkest day in Sean Quinn's business career and arguably his life.

But the seeds of Quinn's destruction were sown many years ago when a previously risk averse, rural businessman decided to play the markets and came off second best.

Until quite recently the tycoon was reported to be worth €4.1bn by 'Forbes' magazine; he was Ireland's richest man and his insurance-industrial holdings business was the envy of virtually everyone in Irish business.

Because it was a company involved in real trading businesses, it had a reputation for caution and prudence; but strangely Quinn departed from these values and dipped his toes into shark-infested waters, often betting against some of the biggest banks in the world. Because of that, Quinn has been on the financial ropes since 2008.

We may never know why Quinn took these risks. But in recent years he had become keen on trading the markets, effectively stepping outside his comfort zone.

He had a brief flirtation earlier with dot com shares and this had ended badly, but with his Anglo gamble Quinn plunged even further into an area he had previously shunned.

It was said he often watched developments on financial networks like CNBC and Bloomberg, sometimes while doing his morning exercises. This was not the Sean Quinn of old.

But despite the humble trappings and the low-key media profile, Quinn was ambitious for himself and his businesses.

With his shares in Anglo and his own insurance company, many thought Quinn's ultimate aim was to own his own bank.

This would have been some coup for the Cavan man, but private banks are relatively common in other parts of Europe and at one point Michael Smurfit's Smurfit Group had its own bank.

But while this may have been the ambition, Anglo was not the most suitable vehicle to advance these ambitions, certainly not coming into 2008 when the financial crisis erupted, particularly with the effective collapse of Wall Street giant Bear Stearns.

In March 2008 for instance Quinn found himself in Buswells Hotel sitting down with Anglo chiefs Sean FitzPatrick and David Drumm to discuss disposing of his Anglo shares.

According to FitzPatrick's account of this meeting, Quinn was even then "close to tears'' as he knew his carefully assembled business empire was on the line.

Ever since that day, Quinn's hold on that empire has been tenuous at best.

Since that period Quinn has not only had to deal with the consequences of his Anglo gamble, but also the severe nature of the Irish recession which has made his businesses less valuable right at the time when he needed them most.

The outcome of the Quinn/Anglo gamble, shared by Quinn and various family members, is an astonishing debt of €2.8bn. The Irish Independent understands this is the largest single portion of debt in the Irish banking system.

Quinn was never going to be able to pay this back from his existing resources and companies, and as a result the banks and bondholders have been holding all the trump cards for the last two years. Complicating the picture is that Quinn has been dealing with Anglo Irish, a nationalised bank since January 2009.

As a result all Quinn's debt problems have become problems for Irish taxpayers too, bringing the whole sensitive subject of his debt into the public domain -- something Quinn detests.

Since last year Quinn and his family have been running out of options to repay the staggering €2.8bn of debt to Anglo Irish.

Anglo itself admitted as much last year when it put aside €2.3bn in the expectation that the Quinns wouldn't be able to repay the majority of the money.

Of course, putting aside money (known as making a provision) is one thing, it doesn't prevent the bank pursuing the debt more extensively -- potentially by trying to take direct personal assets of Sean Quinn and his family. That is essentially what happened yesterday.

In the final galling act of betrayal for Quinn, the whole package was approved by the Cabinet despite Quinn's strong presence in border counties where he remains a folk hero to many.

The problem for Quinn is a simple one -- the debt is huge, but his resources have become modest.

The €2.8bn can only be paid from existing assets and cash from the trading businesses owned by Quinn and his family -- the Quinn Group and Quinn Insurance.

However, the Quinn Group has its own debt problems (totalling €1.2bn) and this is owed to a syndicate of banks and overseas bondholders.

While Quinn remained the owner of this company until yesterday, any cashflow it produces in the years ahead will now be directed towards paying down this €1.2bn debt.

Last year Quinn was effectively deprived of the Quinn Insurance company too, another potential source for paying off his debts.

It was placed in administration last year, and, while Anglo now takes over the insurance group (with US insurance giant Liberty Mutual), it will take many years before this business will start helping to pay down the Quinn debts.

Whatever happens there is no chance the taxpayer is going to get all the €2.8bn owed by the Quinns back. Already, the Quinn Group itself is writing off €500m of debt -- although this is company debt, not Quinn's personal debt.

The whole reason the problem for Quinn arises is because previous Anglo Irish executives advanced him loans (along with others) to build up a highly risky stake in that bank, using exotic instruments called contracts for difference (CFDs).

To be fair to current managers, they were not in place when the original loans were advanced. Those loans were advanced when chief executive David Drumm was running the bank and it was chaired by Sean FitzPatrick. The decisions to extend such large sums now seem baffling, considering the huge fault line running through Quinn's empire -- property.

From his cement business to his radiators business to his glass business to his hotel business, Quinn's empire was always going to be under significant pressure once property values declined.

This was going to place the Quinn empire in an alarming negative equity position and this is precisely what has happened at Quinn Group.

Irish Independent