The man tipped to become No 1 on the Irish rich list
Sean Mulryan had to sell his own house to finance his first building scheme. Now the property developer has projects worth ?22bn. Kevin Murphy reports
A one-time small builder from Roscommon was this week being tipped to become Ireland's wealthiest man. If all his current investments work out as planned, Sean Mulryan of Ballymore Properties will have come a long way in the past two decades. And, at 50, he still has plenty left in the tank.
The affable but shrewd businessman from Oran, Co Roscommon, is listed in the 2005 Sunday Times rich list at number 40 with an estimated worth of ?224m, one place ahead of former racing driver Eddie Irvine (?219m) and one behind Joe Brennan (?226m) who bakes today's bread today.
It might sound like a lot but in pure money terms he's still got a long way to go to become the richest in the land. Top of that list were Brown Thomas owners and Canadian grocery magnates Galen and Hilary Weston whose worth was valued at ?7.28bn. In getting there Mulryan will also have to leap-frog people like newspaper owner Sir Tony O'Reilly and his wife Chryss Goulandris who have a combined worth of ?1.9bn, ranked second wealthiest, and Campbell soup heir John Dorrance who is estimated to be worth ?1.8bn, ranked third.
The speculation of his rise to ever greater heights came about because he has projects in hand with an estimated gross development value of ?22bn. The profit flowing to him from these has been estimated around ?5bn.
That won't fall into his lap this year or next year, mind you, and it will only happen on condition that everything goes according to plan, and in property things don't always go to plan. Even if the ?5bn does materialise, he'll still have to work nights and weekends to make up the extra couple of billion to catapult him into the No 1 spot.
Still, to be considered in the same league as the heavyweights says a lot about the success of the man. From a relatively small house-building firm in Ballymore Eustace on the Wicklow-Kildare border in the early 1980s his company rapidly grew, building housing estates in Greystones, Co Wicklow, Leixlip and Naas in Co Kildare, Galway and Dublin.
At his first development he had to sell his house and move into rented accommodation to finance the project. He and his wife also traded in their cars for cheaper models. Things are different now. He lives in Ballymore Eustace and, like his long-time friend, builder Michael Bailey who hails from his same part of the country, he now owns his own stud farm, Ardenode Stud.
It was there that he celebrated his 50th birthday in style last year at a champagne-only event which included 400 specially invited guests from the worlds of politics, business and entertainment. He is said to have erected an entire glass marquee in the garden for the occasion.
His leisure time is spent in the racing world and, as a leading builder, he is a regular in the Fianna Fail tent at the Galway races. He also sponsors an annual race at Punchestown and owns a number of racehorses. He is reputed to be a generous man and is no stranger to the charity circuit. In keeping with the practice of businessmen of status, he is conscious of his public image and employs the services of a public relations consultant to manage his profile.
Along the road to earning his fortune he has grown his Irish construction group into a leading player in Ireland, London's Docklands and Central Europe. As if to put down a marker of his arrival into the mainstream, last month he appointed Dr Michael Smurfit as a non-executive director of his company. This came soon after another main board appointment earlier in the year of leading economist Dr Peter Bacon, who took over responsibility for the management and development of the company's fast-expanding central European business.
To put some context on his activities, Ballymore is now involved in 28 projects in Ireland, the UK and central Europe and is the second-largest landowner in the London Docklands, after Canary Wharf plc. He is shortly to begin construction of Europe's two tallest residential towers at Millharbour, east of Canary Wharf.
Further afield, Ballymore is to develop a 35-acre riverside district in the Slovakian capital of Bratislava, to include the country's largest shopping centre. The company also has a key site on Wenceslas Square in Prague where it plans to build over 60,000sq m of shops, offices and homes.
In Budapest it has an 80-hectare site close to the Hungarian capital's main railway station and parliament, where it is to build a major shopping centre as well as offices, leisure facilities and housing.
In Ireland, the company is developing the ?400m Whitewater Shopping Centre in Newbridge, in which Mulryan has a half share, and the Royal Canal Park residential scheme in north-west Dublin.
He's also moving into the medical field. In February of this year he emerged as a major shareholder in a new 125-bed private hospital near Lucan, west Dublin, where work has begun. The ?110m Hermitage Medical Clinic, is being set up by two medical consultants, Mr James Sheehan and Dr George Duffy, founders of both the Blackrock and Galway Clinics. In there with them is Mulryan, whose Ballymore owns the land at Fonthill in the Liffey Valley where it is being built.
But things do not always run smoothly in the world of property development. Just last month in Co Wicklow, Bray Town Council said it had received a number of objections to his latest plans for the proposed Florentine Centre - a 9,000sq m development bordering Main Street and Florence Road.
In April it emerged he was facing a legal battle to hold onto a multimillion euro development site in Hungary. His ownership of the 20-acre site in Budapest city centre, bought in 2003 for ?13m, is being challenged by a Hungarian firm. Ballymore is also the subject of a legal dispute in the Czech Republic over ownership of the landmark Kotva department store in Prague.
A group of investors who claim to have lost money in an unrelated deal involving Kotva are seeking ownership from Markland, a company that also operates in Ireland and which is a partnership between Mulryan and well-known builder Patrick Kelly of Kelland Homes.
Nor has Mulryan escaped the attention of the planning tribunals. In 2002 Frank Clarke SC, for the Flood tribunal, revealed in the High Court that Liam Lawlor received a total of ?65,000 in payments from Mulryan's company Ballymore Properties in the 1990s. The TD issued fake invoices, from companies which did not exist or in which he had no interest, in respect of most of the money, it was claimed.
Responding at the time, Ballymore Properties said the only contribution the company had made to Mr Lawlor was ?1,524. Three other payments totalling ?63,500 were made to two companies and these were for assistance Mr Lawlor provided over property transactions in central Europe. "None of the payments relates to planning issues either in Ireland or anywhere else," Ballymore said then.
In 2003, the link between Liam Lawlor and Mulryan surfaced again, this time at the renamed Mahon Tribunal when Lawlor denied that he pursued a demand for a £2m "finder's fee" from the Ballymore Group for his involvement in the purchase of a building in Prague in 2000.
Mr Lawlor told the tribunal the payment of the money hinged on the commercial advancement of the Hybernska project but because it had not progressed as expected, he had not sought the payment.
Counsel for the tribunal, Mr Des O'Neill, produced a fax sent by Mr Lawlor to Mr Brian Fagan, group director of Ballymore, on March 10, 2000 which said the finder's fee was £2m, on top of the £4m cost of the property.
Also that year, the selling on of options of the former racecourse land at Baldoyle, North Dublin, saw the company mentioned again at the tribunal. Former public relations consultant Frank Dunlop's controversial attempt to have the Baldoyle land rezoned failed in 1992 after massive media coverage and opposition from residents. The tribunal was told he later sold his option to Mulryan for ?1.27m.
If the road to riches has many twists and turns, then Sean Mulryan has seen his fair share of them. What marks him out from his close contemporaries, such as the Bailey brothers or Gerry Gannon, is that he found Irish bankers who were willing to fund his large-scale forays into commercial property in London and beyond. The prospect of the Olympics in London, in particular, could pay off handsomely.
Whether Sean Mulryan will eventually make it to being Ireland's richest man is hard to say. But he's certainly going about it the right way.