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Andrea Smith has tea with Jackie Lavin at the Beacon Hotel, Sandyford

Andrea Smith has tea with Jackie Lavin at the Beacon Hotel, Sandyford

Andrea Smith has tea with Jackie Lavin at the Beacon Hotel, Sandyford

BUSINESSWOMAN and former model Jackie Lavin is reflecting on what has been a terrible year for her and her partner of 33 years, Bill Cullen, as we have tea in the Beacon Hotel, Sandyford.

Last October, a receiver was appointed to Glencullen Holdings Ltd, which operated Bill's Renault dealerships in Airside and Liffey Valley in Dublin, and in April, the couple lost a High Court bid to continue running their beautiful five-star Muckross Park Hotel in Killarney, Co Kerry.

"I don't see the point in raging and being bitter, because that only destroys you, and the whole thing is to be healthy and to be as happy as you can in life. We consider ourselves very lucky as we still have our good health and our determination and strength, and we haven't gone down under it."

Mr Justice Peter Charleton removed the examiner and reinstated a receiver to the hotel, ending court protection while Bill and Jackie tried to trade out of their difficulties. ACC Bank, which is owed €9.2m, opposed an application for full examinership, claiming that Bill had failed to disclose that the ownership of the hotel was split equally between himself and a group of companies, and they had not approved a leaseback arrangement of a newly developed wing to the hotel. Bill's lawyers contested this, arguing that the bank would have been aware of the lease.

FLASH

It was an agonising outcome, given that the hotel that Bill and Jackie took over in 1990 was doing very well. It employs 105 people, and in 2011, revenue growth was up 53pc, food sales up 56pc, the spa revenue increased by 15pc and there was an almost doubling of room occupancy.

"We were able to prove to the examiner that not only did we have a viable business, but we were able to pay all our bills and suppliers and carry on as normal.

"We had a three-year forecast that was cash-plentiful. The thing is that when a receiver is appointed to a company, they can write off all the debts, but they can still take in all of the cash. How can that be right? So in our case, they wiped off the guts of a million in debts, so the rates and suppliers to the hotel didn't get paid, and we felt absolutely dreadful about that.

"If our business had continued, they would all have been paid, unquestionably, so look at the effect that will have had on the local economy in Muckross and Killarney."

They may have been wealthy, with fine homes in Kildare and Kerry, but given that Bill and Jackie are notoriously hard workers and didn't flash the cash the way many others did during the Celtic Tiger, there is a lot of sympathy for them.

Jackie previously revealed to the Herald that the couple had sold their Florida retirement home for €3m and had given the cash straight to the banks.

"In our case there was no reason for receivership apart from a bank who wants to get out of the country now and doesn't want to take the long term view," she says.

"You don't invest in a five-star hotel and expect to get all the money back in five years. Not everybody was a developer – Bill and I certainly weren't. When he sold to Renault, we could have taken that money anywhere we wanted, but we didn't. We didn't head off to a tax haven."

Muckross was a labour of love for Jackie and she took great pride in The Cloisters Spa. Acquiring the hotel was a natural progression for the former model from Ballyduff.

At 17, Jackie Purcell moved to Dublin to work in the Bureau of Military History at the Department of Defence. She lasted six months, she laughs, because, while she'd find the work fascinating now at the age of 64, her teenage self found it "the most boring thing on God's earth".

Country people were just expected to better themselves in Dublin, she explains, so you had to do night classes, join the choir, learn French and suchlike.

She did a modelling course at night and after a few months in London, lost her teenage puppy fat as she was living on beans on toast to pay for the clothes that dazzled her on Portobello Road.

Her new leaner figure propelled her into a successful modelling career when she returned to Dublin, and she jokes that there was scarcely a car or washing machine launched back then didn't have an ad with her sitting on top of it.

Jackie never grew up thinking she was beautiful. "Oh gosh no," she protests. "I had mousey brown hair and wasn't the prettiest child in the world, but my brother Brendan was beautiful and blond with gorgeous curls. I remember this woman coming in and praising him, and then turning to me and saying, 'She has great character in her face'."

She pronounces it "car-actor" with a heavy Kerry brogue, and it's clear that Jackie Lavin is well able to laugh at herself.

She is also accepting of the decisions she made back then, including her marriage at 20 to publican David Lavin, less than two years after they first met.

"If you weren't married by 21, or at least engaged, you were on the shelf," she explains. "I had my son Troy at 21 and Gary at 22 – 15 months apart. It was a juggling act, but at the time it was normal and it all seemed grand.

"I also went back to UCD to study Psychology, English and Philosophy, so I would drop Troy to a rugby match somewhere on a Saturday morning, and then drag poor Gary to lectures with his colouring pencils."

Jackie and David's marriage ended after seven years, and she swapped her modelling career for retail in her 30s.

Her entrepreneurial career was evident even then, as she opened three very successful boutiques – Jackie was the first to bring labels such as Monsoon and French Connection in to Ireland.

She met Bill Cullen at the Spring Show in 1979, and wasn't overwhelmed initially when he invited her out to lunch. "I thought, 'Oh my God. He's totally not my type'," she smiles. "He was wearing a pinstriped suit, which I thought was dreadful and wondered why he couldn't wear a pair of denims.

"He was just so nice though, and he obviously grew on me because here we are 33 years later. Although the first thing I did was throw out all of his pinstripe suits.

"We clicked over time, and we had children and businesses and responsibilities on both sides, so we were like-minded."

Although the Bill we all know and love was a fearsome boss on The Apprentice, would it be fair to say that this was just a persona for the camera? "He had to be tough because that was the role," says Jackie.

"He's probably the kindest man you could ever meet, and would never say or even think anything bad about anybody. He sees the good in everyone. I'd be more sceptical."

PRESSURE

So would Jackie be the tougher of the two then? "Yes I think I am," she says. "I wouldn't be as easily taken in. Bill always sees the good in everybody. The business crash has been tough, but we'll muddle through it and will come out the other end.

"The most dreadful thing that happened is that Bill's younger brother Aidan died very suddenly two weeks after the receivers moved into the company.

"He was only 54, and he had a massive heart attack because he couldn't take the pressure. He ran one of the dealerships. And then their sister Rita died a few weeks later, so Bill and I saw their deaths as the bottom. There was only one way to go after that, because it brings it all into perspective. At the end of the day, life is very short."

Jackie feels that the pressure experienced by people in financial difficulties is not spoken about openly, and some people are unable to cope with the stress. Most of her friends are in business, and she sees the same struggle happening to all of them.

"Some become depressed," she says. "We've seen suicides among businesspeople, and those who go out of business can feel embarrassed and ashamed and think they've let people down, which isn't the case. Take someone in a small town with a business that might have been started two generations ago by a grandfather, for instance. They might feel they have let the family down, but, it's not their fault."

So how have she and Bill coped since last October and are they a good support to one another?

"Oh yes," she replies. "You'd have to be. Bill got hit hugely on a personal level and that's far more devastating than any business collapse, but coming on top of it, it was particularly hard.

"We're survivors, and we have fantastic friends – really amazing people who have all rallied around."

Some of Bill and Jackie's supportive friends include sculptor Orla de Bri and Noelle Campbell Sharp, and straight after we meet, the colourful couple were heading to Noelle's artists' retreat, Cill Rialaig, in Kerry. While neither is claiming to give Graham Knuttel a run for his money, they have both produced paintings that will be auctioned off next week as part of The Scoop Foundation's showcase and sale of 50 extraordinary artworks from many notable artists to raise funds to build a school for street children in India.

"It's a wonderful cause, and Bill and I spent two lovely days painting it with Pauline Bewick in her studio in Caragh Lake," says Jackie.

"She is such an amazing woman, and she put a whole lot of articles on the table, like shells and feathers and stones, and produced these massive canvases that we had to paint. It was great fun."

CONFIDENT

While Jackie is sad about what happened to them, she says that it is not over for herself and Bill in business and there are many legal battles to be fought yet.

"I'm definitely up for the challenge," she says. "A lot of people are willing us well, and if and when we do set up in business again, I'm confident that we'll get huge support because I think people see the wrong that was done.

"I've designed my own products for the spa and my own make-up range, and I'll do that again and I'll also go into business consultancy. I'm going to be entrepreneurial always and forever, even if it's in a small way."

The Mealys/SCOOP (Supporting Children Out Of Poverty) Contemporary Art Sale auction takes place on Saturday, July 6 from 3pm at Bewleys in Ballsbridge, Dublin. Full details on www.scoopart.org


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