Johnny Ro­nan

With Amer­i­can back­ing, con­tro­ver­sial busi­ness­man Johnny Ro­nan is again one of Ire­land’s big­gest de­vel­op­ers. But the Celtic Tiger is over, and to­day Ro­nan de­rives a more mod­est in­come from ‘sweat eq­uity’ and other fees

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE - Mark Paul Busi­ness Af­fairs Cor­re­spon­dent

How the con­tro­ver­sial Celtic Tiger busi­ness­man made a kind of come­back.

It was early sum­mer in 2014, and Johnny Ro­nan, then still a ward of Nama, was try­ing to kick­start the deal that he hoped would re­store him to com­mer­cial suc­cess. Fit­tingly for the most flam­boy­ant of Ir­ish prop­erty de­vel­op­ers, it was plot­ted over din­ner in May­fair, the heart of mon­eyed Lon­don.

They met at the fine din­ing restau­rant of Ca­van celebrity chef Richard Cor­ri­gan. In the prop­erty game busi­ness partners are rarely wooed over a sand­wich.

Ro­nan’s din­ner com­pan­ions in­cluded English­man Guy Leech, who was his fi­nance di­rec­tor be­fore the crash and was now ad­vis­ing him, and a 35-year-old Ger­man ex­ec­u­tive Ste­fan Jaeger, a man­ag­ing di­rec­tor with US pri­vate eq­uity gi­ant Colony Cap­i­tal.

Ro­nan, bruised and bat­tered from the ¤2.7 bil­lion col­lapse of Trea­sury Hold­ings in 2012, wanted to work with Colony, while the in­vest­ment group wanted an Ir­ish partner.

Weeks pre­vi­ously, and with fi­nan­cial back­ing from a stock­mar­ket- listed UK group, Ro­nan had been named pre­ferred bid­der on a Dublin 4 de­vel­op­ment site be­ing sold by Nama be­side the Burling­ton ho­tel.

His con­sor­tium topped the bid­ding with an of­fer of about ¤ 42 mil­lion. Colony, in part­ner­ship with Ty­rone de­vel­oper Paddy McKillen, whom the US com­pany had just backed out of Nama, fin­ished down the or­der with ¤32 mil­lion.

Fol­low­ing an in­tro­duc­tion by McKillen, both sides met in Cor­ri­gan’s eatery to dis­cuss join­ing forces to buy the Burling­ton site, which would give the strait­ened Ro­nan ac­cess to greater fi­nan­cial fire­power to put up a prime of­fice block.

As he cul­ti­vated Jaeger, an­other Ir­ish ac­cent kept ris­ing above the restau­rant din. It was Cor­ri­gan, in high spir­its, re­peat­edly call­ing from an­other ta­ble: “Hey, that’s my mate Johnny Ro­nan. If you’re look­ing to do busi­ness in Ire­land, do it with him.”

Jaeger liked Ro­nan and they did the deal, a t urn­ing point f or t he Carrick-on-Suir de­vel­oper. He had just spent four years bat­tling Nama and suf­fered the ig­nominy of busi­ness fail­ure.

Ro­nan was also the tar­get of pub­lic ire for his per­ceived ar­ro­gance and, his crit­ics say, vul­gar an­tics dur­ing the prop­erty boom. Ro­nan was the poster boy for ev­ery­thing that an­noyed peo­ple about the Celtic Tiger.

Con­sor­tium

But now his con­sor­tium and McKillen’s were team­ing up to build the mas­sive Ver­tium of­fice block on the Burling­ton site, which was to be rented out to Ama­zon two years later in 2016, in the largest let­ting Dublin had seen in years. The deal se­cured Ro­nan’s first few mil­lion euro for him­self since his em­pire had im­ploded. It gave him the seed cap­i­tal for a shot at a real com­mer­cial re­birth.

The Ver­tium deal was also the ge­n­e­sis of his re­la­tion­ship with Colony, run by US bil­lion­aire Tom Bar­rack, a close friend of Don­ald Trump. Colony and Ro­nan have since be­come sym­bi­otic in the Ir­ish mar­ket. Jaeger is Ro­nan’s han­dler, and Colony, along with an­other group, M&G, sub­se­quently fi­nanced his route out of Nama in a ¤ 300 mil­lion deal in 2015. Ro­nan paid back his per­sonal loans to the State in full.

Colony has con­tin­ued to back Ro­nan in a slew of huge deals since. In 2016, us­ing mostly Colony’s cash, they paid Nama ¤43 mil­lion for a prime site on Spencer Place in Dublin. The fol­low­ing year, Ro­nan be­gan seek­ing per­mis­sion for a 22- storey tower on Tara Street, which Colony will likely fund if it ever gets plan­ning.

Three months ago they paid ¤ 180 mil­lion for an­other dock­lands of­fice site, the Water­front.

Last month, Colony and Ro­nan se­cured Face­book as a ten­ant for a ¤ 200 mil­lion scheme, Fi­bonacci Square in Balls­bridge, which will be­come part of the so­cial me­dia gi­ant’s new in­ter­na­tional head­quar­ters on AIB’s cam­pus.

Face­book, which now will have space to add thou­sands of staff in Dublin in com­ing years, will pay Ro­nan and Colony an es­ti­mated ¤600 mil­lion in rent over 25 years.

Ro­nan – now of­ten to be found hold­ing court in the Ivy restau­rant in Dublin where one of his favourite wines is Gevry Cham­bertin – thinks he is back.

His friends say he is once again the big­gest prime of­fice de­vel­oper in Ire­land. But within the in­dus­try there are vary­ing opin­ions on the ex­tent of his fi­nan­cial re­newal.

Ei­ther way, a trawl of me­dia men­tions in re­cent years shows that, whereas re­ports on Johnny Ro­nan few years ago tended to re­fer to his dif­fi­cul­ties, now they are more likely to be about his new deals. Ro­nan, who cel­e­brated his 65th birth­day on Tues­day, be­lieves he can do it all over again.

Sev­eral Johnny Ro­nans

There are sev­eral Johnny Ro­nans. It de­pends on your view of the man, but he is the sum of their parts.

There is the tal­ented, driven, ebul­lient s on of a wealthy Tip­per­ary f armer-turned-prop­erty de­vel­oper. The Ro­nan who, along with his old school­mate Richard Bar­rett, built Trea­sury Hold­ings into a ¤4 bil­lion jug­ger­naut, de­vis­ing some of the most im­pres­sive com­mer­cial schemes ever built in Ire­land, be­fore los­ing it all in the crash.

There is the party an­i­mal Ro­nan, who in­fu­ri­ated ev­ery­body around him by fly­ing off to Mar­rakech with a model on a pri­vate jet af­ter a boozy ses­sion in 2010, to the dis­gust of tax­pay­ers just as Nama was be­ing es­tab­lished. This is the Johnny Ro­nan who pa­raded around town in May­bachs and he­li­copters, flaunt­ing his wealth even as the walls were cav­ing in dur­ing the crash. At that time he per­son­i­fied ev­ery­thing at which a chas­tened pub­lic was an­gry.

Then there is the snarling, ag­gres­sive com­bat­ant, the Ro­nan who could get into a fight in a phonebox. Ro­nan reg­u­larly clashed with his com­mer­cial op­po­nents, in the courts and in the press. His re­la­tions with Nama, whose lead­ers he pub­licly com­pared to “butch­ers per­form­ing heart surgery”, were also no­to­ri­ously un­civil. Re­la­tions were strained with Nama in pub­lic, while in pri­vate he would crudely in­sult them.

He be­came em­broiled in sev­eral bit­ter court cases with the State agency as it hunted down Trea­sury’s as­sets, in­clud­ing those in China, for the tax­payer. He was more ac- qui­es­cent when it came to Nama over­see­ing his vast per­sonal as­sets in Ro­nan Group Real Es­tate (RGRE).

A de­gree of mis­trust de­vel­oped be­tween Nama and Ro­nan over his per­sonal con­duct in pub­lic, says a source in Dublin’s fi­nan­cial com­mu­nity. “He has to shoul­der some of the blame for that him­self.”

Al­though Trea­sury went into Nama in 2010, the more ur­bane Richard Bar­rett had avoided go­ing into the agency per­son­ally be­cause he had never given any bank a per­sonal guar­an­tee on a loan. He could walk away from his com­pa­nies.

Ro­nan, the source said, “blinked” with a cou­ple of guar­an­tees late in the boom on per­sonal as­sets, which meant Nama could train its sights on all that he owned.

Ro­nan be­lieved Trea­sury’s pro­posed 8 mil­lion sq ft re­de­vel­op­ment of Bat­tersea power sta­tion in Lon­don, in con­junc­tion with Malaysian partners, would yield bil­lions of euro, enough profit to keep it sol­vent.

How­ever Nama, which would have been slated if it was seen to be back­ing his resur- gence, pulled the plug. It later sold Bat­tersea out from un­der Ro­nan and Trea­sury, to the same Malaysians with whom they had planned to de­velop it. This in­fu­ri­ated Ro­nan, who feels be­trayed over it to this day.

In the fin­ish it was Bel­gian bank KBC, and not Nama, that pulled the trig­ger on Trea­sury’s liq­ui­da­tion in 2012 over a ¤ 55 mil­lion debt. Nama could have pre­vented this by buy­ing out KBC’s loans, but how would it have looked pub­licly at the time, dur­ing the nadir of the crash, if Ir­ish tax­pay­ers were to cough up on prop­erty loans to a for­eign bank?

“Nama should re­ally have bought out KBC. But with Mar­rakech and ev­ery­thing else that went on, could it re­ally have gone out on a limb for him?” says one source.

Hang­ing the sword

Nama also held Ro­nan’s ¤400 mil­lion per­sonal loans, hang­ing the sword of Damo­cles above as­sets all over Ire­land and abroad, in­clud­ing of­fice blocks and other build­ings, his coun­try es­tate in En­niskerry, wine col­lec­tions and horses.

Re­la­tions be­tween Ro­nan and Nama were dif­fi­cult, so the agency in­stalled an in­de­pen­dent mon­i­tor, Ro­nan Bar­rett of Ci­tadel Cor­po­rate Fi­nance, to babysit RGRE.

Ro­nan’s friends say his best achieve­ment in the Nama years was keep­ing the agency at bay for long enough on his per­sonal as­sets to al­low the rent-roll from his ten­ants to rise higher, help­ing him to at­tract a backer to fi­nance his way out.

Ne­go­ti­a­tions with Nama on his exit started in 2014. Ro­nan brought Leech in to front the talks. They came close to re­fi­nanc­ing deals with AIG and Citibank, be­fore Colony ar­rived on the scene in the wake of the deal for the Ama­zon build­ing. Along with M& G, it backed Ro­nan to pay off his Nama loans. The State had lost out heav­ily on Trea­sury, but it was re­paid in full by RGRE.

In April 2015, when his exit was con­firmed, he held a huge party in his “Pink Palace” palazzo in Dublin 4. “It’s like get­ting me mickey out of a bear trap,” a re­lieved Ro­nan is said to have mused at the time.

He re­mained bit­ter about his Nama ex­pe­ri­ence, and was of a mind to con­tinue fight­ing it in a suc­ces­sion of le­gal bat­tles. Sources fa­mil­iar with his re­la­tion­ship with Colony say the group, as well as his daugh­ter Jodie Ro­nan, RGRE’s chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer, con­vinced him to let it go.

Colony had de­cided it would in­vest heav­ily in fi­nanc­ing huge prime of­fice com­plexes in Dublin for multi­na­tion­als. It wanted Ro­nan, con­sid­ered one of the very best at such projects, to be its partner and to build them. This was par­tially why it had backed his Nama exit in the first place, to free him from its yoke.

“How could they have bought the sites from Nama to do of­fice deals if Ro­nan had been su­ing Nama in the courts?” asks a source. The de­vel­oper is said to have con­cluded that he might “piss Nama off even more” if he recre­ated his old suc­cess. He let it go and faced the fu­ture, leav­ing his past achieve­ments, and his fail­ures, be­hind.

In less than four years, Colony, with Ro­nan at its side, has made a ¤3 bil­lion bet on the Ir­ish com­mer­cial prop­erty mar­ket. It be­lieves that for­eign multi­na­tion­als, such as the ma­jor Sil­i­con Val­ley tech com­pa­nies, will main­tain an “in­sa­tiable de­mand” for ma­jor of­fice schemes in the cap­i­tal for the fore­see­able fu­ture.

Jaeger is known to be aware of all of Ro­nan’s foibles, but is ac­cept­ing, even em­brac­ing, of them. Colony seems to have de­cided that this is all part of his en­trepreneurial bent: his driven, fe­ro­cious ap­proach to build­ing schemes.

Ro­nan wants to build big­ger, higher, bet­ter than any­one else. With Colony’s fi­nan­cial back­ing, he can let loose.

Opin­ions are split in Dublin’s fi­nan­cial and prop­erty com­mu­ni­ties over just how much money Ro­nan is mak­ing from his part­ner­ship with Colony, which is his lender as well as his de­vel­op­ment partner. Some be­lieve he has very lit­tle eq­uity of his own in the deals.

They say he sub­sists on de­vel­op­ment fees, as a sort of glo­ri­fied hired hand. Oth­ers calculate that he gets a form of “sweat eq­uity” from Colony, a stake of the pro­ceeds that he has to earn as he goes along. The bet­ter Colony does, the more they give him.

The truth is that in al­most all of his deals with Colony, Ro­nan has all three: real eq­uity, sweat eq­uity, and fees. Colony will not work with Ro­nan un­less he puts some of his own money into projects, even if it is ac­cepted that the US firm puts in the ma­jor­ity of fi­nance.

Bought out

He is a 50- 50 eq­uity partner with Colony on Fi­bonacci, af­ter it bought out a stake held by Siob­han Quin­lan, wife of prop­erty fi­nancier Derek Quin­lan. She is a friend of Ro­nan’s wife, Water­ford na­tive Mary Ro­nan.

Colony, a source says, seeks high dou­ble- digit re­turns on its prop­erty in­vest­ments, but Ro­nan is heav­ily in­cen­tivised to achieve higher re­turns. The higher he goes over it, the big­ger his per­cent­age of the spoils: his “sweat eq­uity”.

Ro­nan also picks up chunky de­vel­op­ment fees as Colony’s partner on the ground, i den­ti­fy­ing sites, plan­ning schemes, en­sur­ing qual­ity and finding pres­ti­gious ten­ants.

Ro­nan is known in de­vel­op­ment cir­cles for his at­ten­tion to de­tail, and his stylis­tic flour­ishes. For ex­am­ple, ten­ants at Con­naught House, a Dublin 4 of­fice com­plex built by Ro­nan, point to its mas­sive cast bronze door han­dles, which weigh al­most as much as the doors them­selves, as the sort of gilded fea­ture that you sim­ply do not find at other Dublin of­fice com­plexes.

Out­side the front door lies a huge, bronze Pa­trick O’Reilly sculp­ture of Queen Maeve of Con­naught, ra­di­at­ing mil­i­tary and sex­ual power, bare-breasted and hold­ing aloft the head of an en­emy. Ro­nan liked the statue so much he is be­lieved to have had a replica made for the gar­den of his En­niskerry es­tate.

Ro­nan was also cen­trally in­volved in re­cruit­ing a ten­ant, thought to be the US tech gi­ant Sales­force, for the dock­lands scheme at Spencer Place. The 500,000sq ft deal, when it is an­nounced, is likely to be the big­gest of­fice let­ting in Ir­ish his­tory. Last month’s Face­book trans­ac­tion, at 350,000sq ft, isn’t all that far be­hind. The Tara Street tower will be the tallest in the city.

Rowan is known to be in reg­u­lar con­tact with IDA Ire­land, the State’s in­ward in­vest­ment agency, about the needs of multi­na­tion­als for large of­fice spa­ces. Ro­nan is as­sess­ing one ma­jor pro­ject for Gal­way, al­though it is un­likely Colony will fol­low him there.

Colony is pre­pared to do deals with him in Lon­don, but not just yet. Ro­nan also has plans for l ux­ury hous­ing on a site in Cabin­teely, where he is in a right- of- way dis­pute with a Nama re­ceiver on lands next door – plus ca change.

Ro­nan, as he passes of­fi­cial re­tire­ment age, is reach­ing as high and as far as he can to re­store as much as pos­si­ble of his for­mer em­pire be­fore he runs out of time.

Yet it feels that some­thing, or some­one is miss­ing: the calmer yin to his chaotic yang, his old Trea­sury Hold­ings busi­ness partner Richard Bar­rett.

There is no ev­i­dence of a ma­jor fall­ing out be­tween the pair. Per­haps it just a con­scious un­cou­pling of their com­mer­cial in- ter­ests. Yet Bar­rett is known to have been mor­ti­fied by some of Ro­nan’s pre­vi­ous an­tics, es­pe­cially the me­dia feed­ing frenzy over the Mar­rakech jaunt. The strain of their re­spec­tive tra­vails with Nama must also have taken a toll.

There is lit­tle con­tact these days be­tween Ro­nan and Bar­rett, who has in­ter­ests in China, and in Ire­land with Bar­tra Cap­i­tal. They are still co- in­vestors with Nor­we­gian ma­rine group Fred Olsen on a pro­posed ¤3 bil­lion wind farm off the Ark­low coast. But that ap­pears to be the long­est of long- term projects. Who knows what its own­er­ship will look like by the time it comes to fruition.

Bar­rett and Ro­nan were spot­ted at the same pri­vate party re­cently in Dublin – an event one at­tendee joked had de­scended into some­thing rem­i­nis­cent of a paint­ing by Hierony­mus Bosch, the clas­si­cal Dutch pain­ter known for de­pict­ing scenes of sin and hell.

Chauf­feured car

Ro­nan still knows how to en­joy him­self. He might be al­most old enough for a free bus pass, but he usu­ally goes around in a chauf­feured car.

Ro­nan also has an eye on the fu­ture at RGRE. As well as his daugh­ter Jodie, who is his right- hand woman, its 17 staff in­cludes her hus­band John Sav­age, and Ro­nan’s two sons John Jr and James.

The most re­cent ac­counts for Ardquade, one of RGRE’s main en­ti­ties, show bank loans of about ¤ 230 mil­lion, but RGRE’s as­sets are re­puted to have re­cov­ered their val­ues to well above that. His fam­ily’s fi­nan­cial fu­ture looks se­cure.

When not in Dublin Rowan spends most of his time these days in Ma­jorca, ac­quain­tances say, where he is be­lieved to have ac­cess to a yacht. Friends say he cy­cles most morn­ings to keep fit.

Ro­nan has many crit­ics, and his re­turn will al­ways ran­kle in a so­ci­ety that is still count­ing the costs of the last prop­erty crash.

In many ways, with his shame­less brag­gado­cio and con­spic­u­ous flaunt­ing of wealth, Ro­nan en­cap­su­lates par­tic­u­larly un- Ir­ish traits. In oth­ers, his arc over the past few decades hasn’t been too un­like the one fol­lowed by his home­land.

Like Ire­land, he had suc­cess upon suc­cess, which turned out to be ut­terly un­sus­tain­able. This was fol­lowed by a hum­bling reck­on­ing that al­most fin­ished him, and then, lat­terly, an un­likely but spec­tac­u­lar resur­gence with the aid of US in­vest­ment.

Ire­land learned some harsh lessons on its own, painful ver­sion of that un­du­lat­ing jour­ney over re­cent years. If any­thing came of it, our so­ci­ety re­alised what we need to do bet­ter.

We will find out, even­tu­ally, if Ro­nan did the same.

His friends say he is once again the big­gest prime of­fice de­vel­oper in Ire­land. But within the in­dus­try there are vary­ing opin­ions on the ex­tent of his fi­nan­cial re­newal Ro­nan, as he passes of­fi­cial re­tire­ment age, is reach­ing as high and as far as he can to re­store as much as pos­si­ble of his for­mer em­pire be­fore he runs out of time

Above: Johnny Ro­nan – now of­ten to be found hold­ing court in the Ivy restau­rant in Dublin – thinks he is back af­ter the mis­ad­ven­tures of the Celtic Tiger years. From left: com­put­er­gen­er­ated im­age of Fi­bonacci Square in Balls­bridge; Johnny Ro­nan (left) and Richard Bar­rett have lit­tle con­tact these days; Artist’s im­pres­sion of Tara House, an 88m, 22-storey glass tower

PHO­TO­GRAPHS: TOM MCENANEY & BRYAN O’BRIEN

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