AT DINNER in the White House, Irish-american businessman David Mccourt was surprised that President Ronald Reagan had light stubble on his chin. Later, the young McCourt, a scrappy cable layer enjoying his first big breaks, would quietly slip a White House china cup down his trousers to prove to his friends back in Boston that he really had been there, right next to the President.
More than three decades on, it is clear that the staff in the Merrion Hotel know the public face of Irish company Enet well and are unconcerned about the fate of the hotel’s china.
“My friend just sold his art gallery to Janet Jackson,” he says, finishing up a meeting with a nonplussed Englishman, his strong Boston accent carrying across the room. Asked later, he explains that the gallery is aimed at promoting street artists: “I really like it because it’s sort of a bottom up idea... I’m a big David and Goliath type of guy because I’m the runt of the litter.”
Estimates of his net worth range anywhere between €500m and €1bn. That fortune will grow if, as expected, his company Enet gets the nod from the Irish Government to finally roll out the National Broadband Plan (NBP). His stories come from the privileged life he has created for himself, with references to presidents, titans of industry and beautiful film stars aplenty. But Mccourt is always keen to take his reference from the Boston streets where he grew up.
So, back in the 1980s, when he noticed the President’s stubble, he thought immediately of his own father’s habit of showering and shaving at night rather than the morning.
“I guess it was a custom that came from times when most men did manual labour during the day and wanted to clean themselves up before going to bed with their wives,” he writes in his new book, Total Rethink — part biography, part manifesto for what he calls “creative entrepreneurs”.
A conversation with Mccourt — like his new book — is peppered with such curious tangents. His ability to notice the small details — like President Reagan’s stubble — is a key talent, he says.
“This carpet has a clover on it and I would have noticed that,” he says, his eyes fixed firmly on the Merrion’s ceiling. “They changed this carpet seven years ago. When they re-carpeted the stairwells last year I noticed. I notice little things that other people might pass by. To me it’s all relevant.”
Mccourt insists he has no extraordinary talent: “I have ordinary talent with an extraordinary persistence.” But persistence, he says, is a weakness too. “Sometimes I don’t let go of something that I should,” he says. “I can waste an incredible amount of time on something that I’m curious about but actually is not going to further my current goals.”
Yet persistence has paid off with the NBP. Enet — of which his company Granahan Mccourt Capital retains a 22pc share after SSE Airtricity and the Irish Strategic Infrastructure Fund (ISIF) bought in last year — is now the last remaining bidder for the NBP.
Mccourt has previously made no secret of his frustration at what he perceives as negativity and politicking around the NBP. Neither too has he held back from criticising Eir, which pulled out of the process leaving Enet as the presumptive winner of the huge state contract. Eir continues to exert a crucial influence over the eventual cost of the NBP because it has the right to be paid for the use of its existing poles and ducts in many areas.
“The NBP is a very ambitious plan and I don’t think people in Ireland are giving politicians enough credit for the balls they’ve had to undertake this. This is a big undertaking,” says Mccourt.
It will take an “unbelievable amount of creativity to fix it”, he says. “My insatiable curiosity will hopefully bring some creative solutions to a very complex problem. If I have to string the cable myself, I will. If I have to get out with the Minister [Denis Naughten] and dig the holes myself I will.”
Mccourt himself has bought a home in rural Co Clare and has centred numerous other tech-related businesses here. He estimates he has invested more than €100m in Ireland and wants to invest more. “And I’ve never gone, you know, to IAD or DIA or whatever it’s called that you go to get tax breaks. We never got any of that stuff. We just quietly wanted to do business here.”