Ireland Calling by John Spain
Former billionaire Sean Quinn tells a story of two Ireland's
Posted on Wednesday, August 15, 2012 at 09:24 AM
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|Sean Quinn outside the High Court in Dublin in June (Credit: Photocall Ireland)|
The story of Sean Quinn, just four years ago Ireland's richest man and now bankrupt, is the story of two Irelands.
It's the story of the Ireland of the boom and the Ireland of the bust -- and how we got from one place to the other.
It's also the story of sophisticated urban Ireland and simple rural Ireland -- and of the great gulf that still divides the two.
You may already be familiar with the Quinn story. But it's probably worth repeating the basic facts.
Quinn, now 64, came from very humble beginnings, a family farm of 20 acres or so in Co. Fermanagh in Northern Ireland, close to the border with Co. Cavan in the South. It may have been a very small farm even by Irish standards, but it had a gravel pit.
As a young man Quinn borrowed enough to get machinery to extract and wash the gravel so that he could sell it to local builders. He drove the truck himself.
He called his business Sean Quinn Quarries, which was probably overstating what he had, but the grand title showed his ambition. He may have left school at 14 but he was a smart young man.
Delivering his gravel to builders, he noticed there seemed to be only one brand of cement around. The cement market in Ireland was a virtual monopoly just waiting for someone to bust it open, and that is exactly what he did.
Quinn Cement became the model for his approach to business. It was all about finding a sector of the economy that was a closed market divided up between a few players and busting it open with lower prices.
After cement he turned his attention to glass bottles with Quinn Glass, and then it was heating radiators and plastics and other businesses.
With his record of success and can-do attitude, the banks were happy to back from one venture to the next, even as the stakes became high.
By the time he got into the insurance business the Quinn Group was huge, employing over 5,000 people, many of them in his home territory straddling the border, an area that had been forgotten by the rest of Ireland north and south.
By 2008 he was Ireland's richest man, according to Forbes magazine, with personal wealth estimated at over €3 billion. He remained a country man of simple tastes, enjoying sport (he had been captain of the Fermanagh Gaelic football team), a pint in his local bar and a weekly game of cards with old friends where the stakes were pennies.
In time he built a palatial home in the Cavan countryside, which as far as the Dublin sophisticates were concerned was evidence of how unsophisticated he was. You can take the man out of the bog but you can't take the bog out of the man, they said.
He seemed to have the golden touch in business. He was a hero not only to the people in Cavan, Longford and Fermanagh, where his business empire was centered, but to ordinary people across Ireland, many of whom, for example, got car insurance from Quinn Direct at quotes other insurance companies could not match.
It was the same with health insurance. When one of the big two companies here, BUPA, was pulling out of the Irish market Quinn stepped in and took over the business, rescuing the worried customers and offering strong competition to the other big health insurer in the Irish market.
The insurance business grew rapidly and Quinn expanded into the U.K. market, again carving out business with lower quotes than the traditional providers were able to offer.
Behind the scenes, however, an even bigger play was going on. With a huge personal fortune made from his businesses during the boom and a river of premium payments cash flowing into his insurance business, Quinn had a pile of money to make the biggest play of his life.
Using Contracts for Difference (a financial mechanism that enables people to gamble on shares), Quinn built up a 28 percent stake in Anglo Irish Bank.
Anglo, you will remember, was the small bank that was largely responsible for the crazy lending that fuelled the construction boom here and which eventually collapsed, bringing down the Irish economy and the other banks with it.
Quinn lost close to €3 billion on his Anglo gamble, wiping out his personal fortune and leaving him deeply in debt to Anglo (now the IBRC, the body trying to sort out the Anglo mess, which is pursuing him through the courts).
The construction collapse had crippled his cement business and the economic downturn also hit his other businesses hard. Hopelessly in debt, he was declared bankrupt and lost control of everything in the Quinn Group.
But the biggest mess was Quinn Insurance. The new Financial Regulator looked at the books and discovered that the reason it had been able to offer low premiums and make big profits was because of under-provisioning for future claims. In layman's language, it was not putting enough aside to meet the claims that were bound to be made in the future.
The hole is now estimated to be somewhere around €1.8 billion. To avoid a collapse that would have left people with Quinn insurance both in Ireland and the U.K. without cover, the government is now applying a levy on ALL insurance policies in Ireland.
In effect, everyone in Ireland with an insurance policy will be paying for the mess through a levy that will be applied for the next 20 years or so. So the next time I get my car or house or health insurance renewal bill it will have a lump added on to pay for the Quinn debacle (and it will be the same for everyone else here).
Meanwhile in recent weeks, attempts by the Quinn family to keep their foreign property assets out of the reach of the Irish banks they owe money to have ended up with one of Sean Quinn's sons being jailed.
Several hundred million euro worth of assets are at stake, mainly in eastern Europe. They appear to be the last part of the Quinn family's wealth.
Despite all this, you may have seen that there was a mass rally in Cavan recently in support of the Quinn family. Joining the march were prominent sports and business people from the Quinn heartland, as well as the high profile priest Father Brian D'Arcy.
The question asked at the rally was clear -- why are the Quinns being hounded by the Irish courts, when all the politicians, accountants and bankers who oversaw the economic collapse are still free (apart from one or two bankers who are facing court in the near future)?
Why are the courts ruining the Quinns when a lot of the people in power during the boom are now being allowed to retire on fat pensions and with big pay-offs?
It's possible to have some sympathy for this view. There are a lot of professionals (lawyers, accountants, etc.) who now lecture or even sneer at the Quinns who were up to their necks in the boom charging huge fees.
And, unlike Quinn, who created up to 7,000 jobs in a depressed part of the country ignored by officialdom, these people have never created a single job anywhere.
As for the politicians and the courts, it's easy to be pure and sanctimonious when your big salary is coming from the state and you don't ever have to graft or get your hands dirty to earn a living.
Having said all that, it's hard for the average person here to have much sympathy for Sean Quinn.
We now know that the way the insurance company was being run was highly irresponsible, and we're all going to pay for that. And the extent of the gamble he took on Anglo Irish shares showed little or no concern for the jeopardy he was placing his business empire, his employees and even his family in.
The Quinn story is really the story in microcosm of what went wrong in Ireland.
Drive, ambition, unbounded self-belief, and a willingness to take huge risks are all admirable qualities. But too much of this can be dangerous.
A country, like a man, has limits. Quinn forgot them.
But so did many other people here.