Wednesday 22 May 2019

Inside the mind of Dermot Desmond

In his first major Irish interview for nearly a decade, Ireland's most celebrated deal-maker on his continuing admiration for Charles Haughey, why he wants George Bush to win the US election, why he left Ireland in 1994 - and the key to his astonishing business success

Dermot Desmond is rich beyond most mortals' wildest fantasies, but he is still as driven as the day he set up his legendary company NCB nearly 25 years ago. His latest venture, launched this week, is Vivas Health - which is set to slug it out with the health-insurance giants, VHI and Bupa. Yet again he is challenging the status quo.

One overriding principle seems to encapsulate his mindset, which he expresses in a rare interview. "If you were to go by what the majority say, you'd never do anything. We've got to realise that the majority doesn't succeed: it's always the minority. So I'm always looking for a minority view."

In the interview he speaks of his admiration for former Taoiseach Charles Haughey and former Finance Minister Charlie McCreevy, his pride in his brainchild, the Irish Financial Services Centre (IFSC), why he wants George Bush to win the US election, why he thinks Seamus Brennan did an "abysmal job" with Aer Rianta - and the reason he left Ireland in 1994: "I'm leaving the press and I'm avoiding small-minded people."

Charles Haughey doesn't have too many defenders these days, but Dermot Desmond won't hear a bad word about him. The billionaire financier has the former Taoiseach to thank for having the "vision" to help him build Dublin's IFSC.

"No other politician in Ireland would have built the IFSC but Charlie Haughey," he says. It was Haughey who put it on Fianna Fail's election manifesto in 1987 after his feasibility study had been languishing in some official's drawer for two years. "He did me the biggest favour - he believed in me."

The financier's gratitude led to him giving money to Haughey and his family - but Desmond maintains this was only after he had left office. He says no favours were asked for or granted.

He firmly believes that Haughey's name and legacy have been besmirched. "I keep asking people what did Charlie Haughey do wrong and how was he corrupt? The whole issue came about when Ben Dunne gave him the money. I was approached at the time, because Ben Dunne told me he didn't want Charlie to be embarrassed with the banks. I didn't have the money at the time.

"If you analyse this for a second. Charlie had borrowed money from the banks, so he was hardly robbing the country. His lifestyle was based on borrowings."

Desmond, 54, is still brimming with pride about the development of the IFSC. "I get a kick every time I come down here, I remember in 1987 talking to Michael Buckley [now chief executive of AIB] how this could transform Dublin. I watched a programme about Patrick Kavanagh the other night and it showed Dublin at half-seven in the morning. Dublin has completely changed," he says.

"Most people at the time objected to the IFSC, they didn't want it to happen. They doubted that we could create the number of jobs we said we could.

"If you were to go by what the majority say, you'd never do anything. We've all got to realise that the majority doesn't succeed; it's always the minority. So I am always looking for a minority view."

Known in business circles as "the man with the Midas touch", Desmond's reward has been a fabulous lifestyle beyond most people's dreams. The keen golfer owns spectacular homes in Dublin - including famous designer Sybil Connolly's former salon and home on Merrion Square - and at the K Club.

He also has a villa in Marbella, a stunning Palladian property in London's exclusive Belgravia area and a residence in Gibraltar where his companies are registered. And then, of course, there is the icing on the cake - the spectacular golf resort at Sandy Lane in Barbados that he co-owns with John Magnier and JP McManus.

So what's the key to his success? Desmond, who owns stakes in Glasgow Celtic and Manchester United, calls himself an "eclectic investor" and says there are no rules to his investment decisions.

"I don't have any rules about holding on to something or selling. I'm not a seller, nor am I a buyer in the sense that if I believe something is right for the business and right for me as a shareholder, then I will take that course of action."

Desmond's investment vehicle International Investment and Underwriting (IIU) has an excellent track record in spotting opportunities and turning them into hard cash for its owner.

But his ambitions have been frustrated on several occasions. One project that didn't get off the ground is Desmond's Millennium Project in the IFSC, the Ecosphere that would have housed a massive aquarium and simulated a tropical-forest habitat.

"Unfortunately, we didn't have a Charlie Haughey in power who'd say let's get it done. It would have been built by 2000. It takes a man of vision to recognise it."

Desmond also regrets resigning as chairman of Aer Rianta in 1991 after the Telecom Eireann/Johnston, Mooney and O'Brien affair.

He still speaks very fondly of Aer Rianta and strongly disagrees with Government plans to break it up. "It is the silliest decision ever. There are too many savings to be made by keeping the three airports together. Why replicate or duplicate overheads, including boards and management?

"There has been a tremendous history of working together, so this was purely a political decision. Seamus Brennan as a minister did an abysmal job and Noel Hanlon did an even worse job. The result is a break-up of a great company."

Desmond also has very strong views on the fraught relationship between Ryanair and Aer Rianta. While clearly an admirer of the high-flying low-fares carrier, he is less than impressed with its constant sniping at Aer Rianta.

"There would be no Ryanair today without Aer Rianta. When I was chairman of the board, Ryanair owed Aer Rianta hundreds of thousands of pounds. The recommendation was to put Ryanair into receivership because it didn't pay us. We took a decision that Ryanair was a mould-breaker and we extended additional credit. If it hadn't got that additional credit, it would have been history."

While he regrets that he resigned from the board, he says he also learned a lot about airports while with Aer Rianta, leading eventually to the purchase of London City Airport.

Desmond also has strong views on the US, where he spends a lot of time and has many business interests, and its leader George W Bush.

He says: "I think he went into Iraq for all the right reasons. He was just ill-advised as to how he would get himself out. Also, his military intelligence wasn't as good as he thought it was."

Desmond's views are shaped by his experience as a young executive in Afghanistan prior to the Soviet invasion of the country in 1979.

"It's a tribal nation, they don't understand democracy, they want strong leaders. I think it shows a lack of understanding of their culture to impose democracy."

However, he recalls fondly his time in the Afghan capital Kabul. "People were very warm, cultured and looked after you. They were also very glamorous: you'd take a picture of a suit out of Vogue, get some material, go to the tailor and, two days later, you had this beautiful suit."

Desmond worked as an executive for Coopers & Lybrand on a World Bank/UN project involving the creation of an export-finance bank. Even though it was "only" a year, he says it did put certain things into perspective.

"There are a number of things you learn when you see schoolgirls getting shot: one, that you are a coward and two, that whatever you do for the rest of your life, it is just so small. So much takes place in the world, you just don't realise it until you're actually there."

Desmond returned to Ireland but opted to move overseas in 1994. He now divides his time between Ireland, the UK, Barbados and Switzerland.

"I am not a tax exile. Through my various investments in Ireland I create millions in tax revenue in Ireland. I could have all of these jobs in India.

"The reason I left is to have the freedom to do what I want to do. I'm avoiding politicians, I'm avoiding the press and I'm avoiding small-minded people."

This is an edited version of an interview in the current issue of 'Business and Finance' magazine

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