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Family affairs: How Ireland’s newly rich are putting money to work in secretive firms

As a result of sales of businesses, a plethora of family investment vehicles have sprung up in Dublin in around Fitzwilliam Square and its adjacent streets

Engineer Barry English didn’t own his own home or even a car in 1994, when he joined a group of businessmen in giving Bertie Ahern a “dig-out” after the future taoiseach’s marriage broke down.

The then 28-year-old had returned to Ireland early that year after working abroad. He came into contact socially with Ahern’s pals, including builder Joe Burke, while networking, he would tell the Mahon Tribunal into payments to politicians 13 years later.

English contributed IR£5,000 (€6,349) to a £16,500 loan, even though he had only met Ahern on a handful of occasions by then. The amount “would not have been a lot to me personally at the time”, he told the tribunal.

It would mean much less now, after English agreed last week to sell control of Winthrop Technologies, the engineering business he founded in 1995 which has become one of Europe’s biggest data centre developers. It currently has projects in Dublin, Warsaw, Amsterdam and Munich.

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US private equity group Blackstone’s planned purchase of a 50.7 per cent stake is said to value Winthrop, in which English currently owns a 65 per cent stake, at around €800 million. It will lead to a €260 million payday for him and an ongoing 32 per cent interest valued at the same level.

Much of the proceeds are bound to make their way to a family investment vehicle – or family office – that English set up seven years ago, named Penman Securities Trading.

Many family offices continue to invest in companies in areas where the principal is an expert. They have natural networks in that area

Funded by scores of millions of euro of Winthrop dividends in recent years, Penman had €162 million of current assets at the end of 2022, up from €40 million a year, earlier, according to its most recent accounts filed with the Companies Registration Office (CRO).

Some €6.12 million was invested in stocks, exchange traded funds and investments, a further €5.64 million in private equity investments and almost €150 million in cash. English declined, through a spokeswoman, to comment on his plans for the money.

Penman, based on Fitzwilliam Square, is among a plethora of such businesses that have sprung up in Dublin in the past decade or so around the Georgian garden square, its offshoot streets Fitzwilliam Place and Pembrook Street Lower, and nearby Merrion Square. They have typically been set up following multimillion-euro business sales as founders sought to retain tight control over subsequent investments.

The Guinness family may have been an international pioneer in the family office space, when Arthur Guinness’s great-grandson, Edward, set up Iveagh Trustees to manage the proceeds of the brewing group’s £5 million initial public offering (IPO) in London in 1886. But 138 years later, the home of the black stuff is a laggard in the field.

“Most family offices in Ireland are first-generation ones, as it is really only in the last few decades that we have seen serious wealth creation in the State. The family offices that we have seen being set up over the past 10 years have largely come from the sale of businesses,” said Damian Roddy, head of capital markets at Davy.

“We remain a long way off having the types of family offices you see in countries in Europe, like Switzerland, the UK or Germany, where the initial wealth-creation event may have happened generations ago.”

Walmart fortune

Walton Enterprises in Arkansas is the largest family office in the world, with almost $225 billion (€211 billion) of assets. It was set up in 1983 by Walmart founder Sam Walton and is now controlled by heirs to his retailing empire. Europe’s largest is the Italian chocolate-making Ferrero family’s $55 billion Fedesa vehicle in Monaco.

The number of family offices globally has tripled in the past five years to 4,500 which, between them, now manage at least $6 trillion in funds, according to a recent report from Preqin, the UK investment data firm.

Penman, where investments professional Fergal Scully is managing director and former Davy man Roland French joined last year as an analyst, is a rare animal among Irish family offices in disclosing even limited financial details in CRO filings.

“What upside is there to me discussing our investments?” said the principal of another family office, who declined to be identified.

Discretion is key, even if slivers of activity – like property deals and share purchases that breach disclosable levels – find their way into the public domain.

“The family office structure can ensure privacy and confidentiality as you can keep all the family’s portfolio activity, tax and personal information in-house, enabling the family to operate discreetly if they so wish,” said John Mullane, chief investment officer with Cantor Fitzgerald Ireland.

Players in Dublin are reluctant to even guess the scale of the domestic market, as few know what is really going on beyond their own patch. The minimum needed to justify setting up a family office, staffed with anywhere between five and 20 employees, is about €100 million, they say.

“There is a saying in this sector that if you’ve met one family office, you’ve met one family office. Each one is different,” said Karl Rogers, chief investment officer at investment firm Elkstone, which has a family office business managing the money of its general partners and also invests on behalf of other high-net-worth individuals.

The family offices that we have seen being set up over the past 10 years have largely come from the sale of businesses

“But while investment portfolios of retail or mass-affluent investors would have high levels of publicly-traded securities like equities and bonds, there is typically a higher skewing of family office investments towards alternative assets.”

Two doors down from Penman is Barrymore Investments, set up in 2011 by Waterford pharmacist Seamus Mulligan, a former Elan executive who helped save the group in the early 2000s by flogging $2 billion of assets.

The low-profile entrepreneur would go on to merge Azur Pharma, a company he founded in 2005, with Nasdaq-listed Jazz Pharmaceuticals in a stock-based deal in early 2012, before subsequently raising about $99 million months later from the sale of a bunch of shares.

He retains a Jazz stake worth almost $130 million even after other share sales over the past 11 years – much of it used to fund his subsequent main enterprise, Adapt Pharma. Mulligan is estimated to have made more than $500 million from the 2018 sale of Adapt, which developed a nasal spray to reverse opioid overdoses.

Barely 100 metres away on Pembroke Street is Sencheer Holdings, the investment vehicle of the family of the late Feargal Quinn, who sold retailer Superquinn in 2005 for about €450 million. The Quinns’ investments range from property to a stake in aviation entrepreneur Donal Slattery’s Claret Capital investment firm, which structures its deals through special purpose entities, and interests in the likes of cloud and cybersecurity company Ekco, funds administrator Alchelyst, and indoor adventure centre GoQuest in Carrickmines.

Irish newcomers

Nearby Merrion Square is home to two newcomers who have made a splash: ecommerce multimillionaire Tommy Kelly’s Castlegate Investments and waste king Eamon Waters’s Sretaw Private Equity.

Kelly established Castlegate in 2021 following the sale of his ecommerce company ESW, formerly eShopWorld, in two stages which is estimated to have made him as much as €600 million. He hired the former long-time head of Goodbody Stockbrokers, Roy Barrett, to set up the office and put an estimated €500 million-plus to work across a diversified portfolio of shares in public and privately-held companies, bonds, property, infrastructure and private equity funds. Barrett stepped down late last year as Kelly took a more hands-on role.

High-profile assets include estate agents Sherry Fitzgerald, almost 4 per cent of Dublin-listed Cairn Homes, wearable sports analytics technology company Danu Sports and athleisure business Gym+Coffee. Kelly also built up a 4 per cent stake in HealthBeacon, the medical technology company that floated in 2021 but went into examinership last year.

You can keep all the family’s portfolio activity, tax and personal information in-house, enabling the family to operate discreetly if they so wish

Waters set up Sretaw after he sold Beauparc Utilities, the holding company of the Panda and Greenstar waste firms, three years ago to Macquarie Infrastructure Fund in a deal worth €1.4 billion. New York investment giant Blackstone had a minority 37.6 per cent Beauparc stake at the time of the sale, with the remainder almost entirely in the hands of Waters.

Sretaw has been among the most active players in Dublin’s commercial property market in the past few years. Deals include the €74 million purchase of the Royal Hibernian Way on Dublin’s Dawson Street, the €28 million acquisition of the Victoria’s Secret outlet on Grafton Street, and the acquisition earlier this year of the Chancery Building office block for a knock-down €14 million.

Hospitality interests include the 127-bed Grafton Hotel and the new 147-bed Chancery Hotel.

Sretaw hired former Brewin Dolphin Ireland investment manager Des Doyle as managing director two years ago and, in January, former Davy trader John Hickey as head of research. It revealed this month that it now owns 4.01 per cent stake of Irish Ferries owner Irish Continental Group (ICG).

It has also accumulated a stake of more than 7 per cent in lender PTSB, 10.3 per cent of listed insurer FBD – which Sretaw’s chairwoman Fiona Muldoon once led – and 2.8 per cent of Dalata Hotel Group.

Elsewhere, businessman Nick Furlong’s Pageant Investments, set up almost 20 years ago after he sold his DVD and video games business to DCC for €35 million, has long been among the most active family offices in Irish stocks.

Current holdings include 8.3 per cent of airline retail software company Datalex (in addition to 3 per cent owned directly by Furlong), 3.3 per cent of titanium minerals miner Kenmare Resources, and 9.4 per cent of Donegal Investment Group (DIG), an agribusiness that is essentially in wind-down. Furlong owns a further 3.2 per cent of DIG.

The outsized bets that some family offices have taken on individual stocks mirror the type of conviction that entrepreneurs must have building up their own businesses, according to sources in the sector.

There is typically a higher skewing of family office investments towards alternative assets

Other factors are at play, too. “Some of this is down to a significant decline in research coverage of smaller companies by brokerage firms in recent decades, driven by a variety of factors,” said Mullane at Cantor. “This has presented an opportunity for family offices, which have undertaken their own in-house research, to capitalise on perceived mispricing to take sizeable stakes in listed corporates.”

Beef baron Larry Goodman has been no stranger to dipping his toes in the Irish stock market. He used his Vevan vehicle to invest in Independent News & Media and Green Reit, before they were each taken over in 2019. He subsequently built up a stake in Barryroe Offshore Energy, before taking over the entire company late last year after sponsoring it through examinership.

Now in his late 80s, Goodman hired Edward O’Flynn, a former trader with Davy and Goodbody Stockbrokers, last October to help manage the quoted shares portfolio of his Parma Investments family office, whose other interests span property to the Blackrock, Hermitage and Galway private hospitals.

Kelly, Waters, Furlong and Goodman declined, through representatives, to comment on their investments.

Networking

Dublin’s fledgling family office scene, for now, lacks the well-established networking groups of London and New York.

“Contacts here are much more informal,” said Rogers of Elkstone. “When you consider that each family office has been set up by a businessperson and expert in one area, many family offices continue to invest in companies in areas where the principal is an expert. They have natural networks in that area.”

One of the more established firms is Irelandia, an aviation-focused vehicle of the family of the GPA and Ryanair founder Tony. It was founded in the early 1990s by the middle of his three sons, Declan.

Elswhere, down the street from Pageant on Fitzwilliam Place is Shannonbridge Investments, a vehicle owned by brothers Greg, Mark and Niall Turley after they made about €200 million from the sale of car rental technology company Cartrawler between 2011 and 2014.

There is a saying in this sector that if you’ve met one family office, you’ve met one family office. Each one is different

Kingspan founder Eugene Murtagh’s family has long managed investments through a company called Carraig Capital, where tax expert Eugene McQuillan is a director. Paul, one of Murtagh’s sons and a former investment banker with Merrill Lynch, heads the family-owned scientific industries company Tibidabo.

Other firms include Kellysan Enterprises, the vehicle of businessman Noel Kelly, a former executive and shareholder of engineering and construction company Kentz, who made tens of millions of euro selling shares between its 2007 IPO and subsequent sale seven years later; Killeen Group, owned by the Mahony family behind the Irish Toyota and Lexus franchise; and Volnay, set up by the late green energy entrepreneur Eddie O’Connor, founder of Airtricity and Mainstream Renewable Power.

Billionaire businessman JP McManus, meanwhile, has based his family office, Liberties Strategic Services, in Geneva.

Family factions

Most single-family offices ultimately become multifamily offices as assets are passed down through generations. “That requires a huge amount of structuring and drawing-up of charters,” said Rogers. “Different generations would have different investment appetites and needs.”

The Guinnesses offer a cautionary tale. Four generations after Iveagh Trustees was set up, the family office was disbanded in 2005, after a series of disagreements between factions of about 75 family members over how it should be run.

A chunk of the money found its way to a UK hedge funds specialist, Arundel Partners, which would be renamed Arundel Iveagh and, subsequently, in 2007, just Iveagh Ltd.

The business was sold on 10 years ago – resulting in the Iveagh name vanishing from the investment world.

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