HE’S one half of the Irish firm behind the the €594 million purchase of iconic London landmark Battersea Power Station.
But few people on either side of the Irish sea know much about Johnny Ronan – the bearded and pony-tailed Dublin developer dubbed The Buccaneer as much a comment on the publicity-shy tycoon’s sartorial sense as it is on how some view the way the self-made pig-trader’s son conducts his business operations.
The Battersea development deal – which will cost up to more than €3 billion over ten years of various phases to conclude – is just one of many similar projects with his signature on.
As well as a €1.2 billion deal to develop a prime site in China’s Shanghai, projects run by his Treasury Holdings firm – which he co-owns with trained barrister business partner Richard Barrett – include a €4 billion development of a 52-acre Dublin docklands site called Spencer Dock on top of a string of other projects over Ireland, Europe and Russia.
He is increasingly branching out into hotels, wind farming and has shown more than a passing commercial interest in owning a radio station or two.
“chauffeur-driven metallic blue Hummer”
Although not as widely recognisable as some of the Irish Capital’s more celebrated residents like singers Bono and Enya, married father-of-three Ronan is hardly the most understated of the country’s elite rich.
He owns one of the Republic’s handful of Maybachs – his is black – and can often be seen stepping from his chauffeur-driven metallic blue Hummer, or one of his other treasured four-wheel possessions, a gleaming Mercedes McLaren SLR coupe.
His face is a regular feature at any one of a number of the best clubs, bars and restaurants and is a notable bon viveur.
What little is known about 52-year-old John Bernard Ronan’s early years is that he appears to have started in business while still in his 20s working for his late father, also called Johnny, who himself had started out as a pig-trader in Tipperary but branched out into property – developing offices in Dublin.
Johnny Jnr, who went to posh Castleknock College, later trained as an accountant at his native Waterford’s Institute of Technology, shared his father’s love of wheeling and dealing and was soon cutting his teeth on deals of his own.
Ronan first met his business partner Richard Barrett, who comes from a wealthy Mayo grain merchant family, at Castleknock but they went their separate ways – with Barrett going onto train as a barrister.
They both pursued a variety of low level property interests. Barrett would later say that despite his lack of experience in the field, he didn’t see why he shouldn’t do as well as the next person, taking the view that “there’s no degree in property development.”
“People underestimate our ability to cause chaos”
They first started working together after they bumped into each other on the same deal and decided to pool their resources and become partners. Their first big “purchase” was an office block in Dublin’s Blackrock. It’s success speaks volumes about the knack they had then for the game. They exchanged contracts on the premises and – little more than a week later – they sold them on to someone else . . . before they had even paid for them.
Treasury was formed in 1989 with their first serious development being the Treasury Building – from where the company name comes from – on Grand Canal Street on Dublin’s southside, which continues to house the National Treasury Management Agency.
They soon became a formidable force, taking advantage of a string of opportunities – which now amount to more than 50 projects in development including Spencer Dock development, phase 2 of Central Park in Leopardstown and the imminent development of 2,000 homes and an 11-acre public park near Foxrock.
But as much as their successes with Treasury, Treasury’s multitude of subsiduaries and Real Estate Oppportunities (REO) have brought them to the verge of being billionaires in their own rights, they have also earned a reputation for toughness, even ruthlessness, when it comes to business.
In a letter to a property developer who had had a few run-ins with Ronan and Barrett over a shopping mall project in the centre of Dublin – Barrett pointed out with cold understatement: “Certain opponents of ours have underestimated our ability to cause legal chaos to their detriment.”
Indeed, to date, they have stacked up more than 30 High Court actions, many of which were against other developers. Two were launched “with vigour” last year for more than €100 million damages against UK finance firms they say badly handled various transactions on their behalf.
“the backing they have got does not come to a pair of shysters”
A debate in the Irish parliament Dail also saw the pair blasted as “purveyors of untruths” – claims denied through spokesmen, who said in 2001: “It is a tough business, and to achieve the success that Johnny and Richard have achieved they are obviously tough businessmen.
“But they are also fair people, and they command the respect of the business community not just nationally but internationally. The sort of backing they have got does not come to a pair of shysters.”
It’s hardly a view shared by Irish National Trust conservation agency’s Michael Smith who has said court documentation “reveals Treasury to be as ‘cavalier, litigious and gratuitously truculent’,
And he added: “Their failure to observe the prevailing ethic has attracted comprehensive and virulent antagonism across every sector, from community to environmental to government and most interestingly to the commercial and construction sectors.”
Ronan’s stance on the future of world famous Bewley’s cafe – whose Grafton Street building he owns – has also hardly endeared him to conservationists, let alone the 22,000 people who signed a petition to save the historic watering hole. The matter is due to come to a head early next year with a five-day court hearing.
Many believe he is trying to force out the restaurant – which pays less than the going commercial rental rate for such a prime spot – in favour of plans to open a market rate-paying huge store – which some say could end up as the centrepiece of a Powerscourt Townhouse shopping mall-style development.
Ronan first came to prominence in the UK when himself and Barrett emerged as majority backers behind a £125 million bid to buy the Millennium Dome in 2001 which collapsed after English Prime Minister Tony Blair stepped in to block the sale.
Secret Service raid
As well as costing them £2 million, it attracted considerable hostility from an English press more than happy to pen sneering articles about the two Irishmen attempting to snatch what was at the time a more substantial icon than it is now as it languishes across the Thames from thriving Canary Wharf – near where Ronan’s billionaire neighbour Dermot Desmond has substantial investments.
One paper introduced the couple as the two highly ambitious Irish tycoons who thrived “more than most in the murky waters of the Dublin property market”
The Financial Times went a few leaps further and wrongly accused them in a front page article of being linked to the IRA. Barrett even claimed at the time that a break-in at a hotel he was staying in was the work of the British Security Services.
It seemed poetic justice that last week the pair again made the FT’s front page – only this time in a story about their Battersea Power Station deal. Both of them have grown thicker skins since the days of the Dome – and experience which did affect them.
Around the same time they were trying to push through the Dome deal, they were also eyeing up the ex-Taoiseach Charles Haughey’s Abbeville mansion and 230-acre estate.
In 2000, Treasury Holdings had acquired 10 acres of the Kinsealy estate for £6m – some of which helped Haughey pay off a £1.1m gift tax bill. At the time, he was facing an even bigger tax bill following investigations the Moriarty Tribunal.
However, despite their patience – and their offer of around €30 million – the former Taoiseach (who died earlier this year) instead signed a deal in 2003 for €10 million more with a rival developer he played off against them.
Privately, for Ronan though – it must have been a slap in the face because as well as effectively helping him out of a financial pickle by buying some of Haughey’s estate, he was also a man he both respected and socialised with.
The pair were frequent guests at film-maker Noel Pearson’s Christmas lunches for the ex-leader at his former home at Harcourt Terrace.
Guests at the lavish bashes included celebrated ex-soccer star-turned TV and radio pundit Eamon Dunphy – a guest at the €200,000 Enniskerry garden party bash Ronan threw at his €20 million home in Enniskerry for his daughter Jodie’s 21st birthday last November – actor Michael Colgan and Dermot “The Kaiser” Desmond.
Favourite holiday destinations for Ronan include the Riviera, where – in Saint Jean Cap Ferrat – polo-playing ex-playboy chum Oliver and wife Yona Caffrey have a hideaway.
He regularly joins them there with other friends like Abrakebabra fast food chain founder Graham Beere and Renards nightclub boss Robbie Fox.
The man is also keen on America – spending last Christmas in Miami, followed by him hosting a lavish New Year’s Eve bash in the €9,300-a-night Royal Suite at New York’s Four Seasons for guests including wife Mary, Beere, Fox and his wife Martina, and Irish-American hotel heir John Fitzpatrick.
The 52-year-old is also a regular gig-goer and close pals with the U2 entourage. Along with his model friend Glenda Gilson, Fox and Beere, he was spotted enjoying himself in the VIP section of the crowd at the last of the band’s three home-coming gigs in Croke Park in June 2005 and at the after gig bash in the Clarence Hotel.
Fox and Beere had earlier in the year attended the mammoth 72-hour party thrown to mark U2’s inauguration into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. On the flight back, the Renards owner suffered chest pains, prompting the pilot to divert the plane to Canada’s runway at Gander, Newfoundland.
But such is Ronan’s legendary largess when it comes to his pals, that it was rumoured he had sent a private jet from Dublin to Gander specially to pick Fox up for his return home. The story proved not to be true, as Fox later pointed out, saying: “As funny as the whole thing was, the story about Johnny and the private charter was the funniest. We all know that Johnny’s a generous chap but that’s just plain mad. After a good night’s rest myself and the boys were booked on a flight to London and then back to Dublin.”
As well as a regular face at charity balls, polo games, concerts and auctions, the parties he hosts at his extraordinary pink stucco modern mews in Wellington Road – the ‘pink palace’ which Hollywood actress Andie MacDowell stayed in when she was in Dublin last year to film Maeve Binchy’s Tara Road – are said to be legendary.
Wine served is invariably the best – and usually with an Irish connection, such as Lynch Bages or €150-plus bottles of French Burgundy from Montrachet.
His long list of favourite Dublin restaurants include Merrion Court’s Unicorn – a hot spot for any visiting or residing celebrity who mingle easily with local residents in a place famed for its laid back attitude towards the behaviour of some of its more celebrated clients.
Ronnie Wood, Mick Jagger and Bono – who likes to dine at the bar – pop in a few times-a-year but Ronan regularly holds court on a Friday afternoon at a large round table just inside the door with what the Unicorn affectionately call “The boys”, who are made up of the likes of Desmond, Fox, Caffrey and Dunphy.
Such is the rapport owner Giorgio Casari has with his clientele, that a laid back attitude to dining decorum is adopted. Last June is probably the best example.Then tennis stars John McEnroe and llie Nastase enjoyed an impromptu game of tennis, using rolled up copies of an in flight magazine and using a bread roll as a ball, which they volleyed over the heads of fellow diners. Instead of complaining, Casari – host of what is effectively Ireland’s answer to London’s San Lorenzo – played the roll of umpire while diners cheered the couple on before giving them a standing ovation.
When not eating, working or abroad and he has some time to kill, Ronan hunts with the Ward Union Stag Hunt – whose masters include notorious developer Mick Bailey and members, the late Taoiseach Charlie Haughey. Ronan is known to head back into town to the Unicorn still clad in his riding clobber.
“Very supportive over the years.”
He is also a charitable benefactor and generous patron of the arts. A dedicated cyclist, he takes part in an annual charity ride to France in aid of the blind and short-sighted. The gruelling Blazing Saddles Tour Du Tour Cycling Challenge raises more than €100,000 each year for the National Council of the Blind (Ireland).
A wide variety of other charities have benefited from his financial successes, including the Enniskerry parish church of St Mary’s near ‘Dargle’ – the sprawling 1,000 acre estate that is home to himself and wife Mary, and his celebrated €10 million art collection.
His new parish priest Fr John Sinnott has nothing but good to say of him, especially for his support in helping fund refurbishment work.
He said: “It would be inappropriate for me to discuss any of my parishioners, but I do know that Mr Ronan has been very supportive over the years.”
Other beneficiaries include the Irish Georgian Society, the Children’s Sunshine Home in Leapardstown, and the Bubblegum Club – which organises day trips for hospitalised children.
“a man with a generous heart”
His is also a patron of contemporary artists, including Fionnuala Collins – who was introduced to about four years ago as “an up-and-coming artist”. His first question to to her was “Are you any good?” Finn – who Ronan later commissioned to paint a portrait of a white Arabian stallion – recalled: “I cockily said I was one of the best, and he seemed to like that.
“I got the impression he really likes people who have a go at things, people with balls. If he believes you are committed to what you do, he’ll back you – especially if you can prove you are what you say you are.”
She added: “I don’t know if this makes sense, but he struck me as being a man with a generous heart and very keen to help people who want to better themselves.”
He also saved a collection of centuries old Irish poems for the nation when he shelled out €177,500 for the 400-year-old Nugent Manuscripts only to hand them over to the National Library in 1998.
The scale of his Barrett’s projects other than Battersea, Spencer Court and China – and not to mention a string of others around the country – include a plan to build 700 houses in the grounds of historic Catherine Palace near St Petersburg, Russia.
As well as the homes, they also intend building a hotel and two golf course on the palace’s 925-acre estate. They are also building gold courses and more homes on a 400-acre site near the centre of Gothenburg, Sweden,
They also have plans for 28 shops, 60 apartments and a 430-space two-storey basement car park in Sligo’s Wine Street through a Treasury subsidiary Callside Developments.
In September, Treasury Holdings bought 26% stake in Indian wind farm firm GI Power, which is planning to diversify into manufacturing wind turbines. The investment move adds to the company’s other links to alternative energy resources – like its two Eco Wind Power plants in Roscommon and Donegal, with three more currently being constructed off the coast of Wicklow in a joint venture with state forestry company Coillte.
Their move into China was first mooted while Haughey was quibbling with them over the price of Abbeville and they were under fire over their Millennium Dome deal in 2001. It was essentially Barrett’s dealings around this time that would eventually lead to the announcement in 2005 that Treasury’s global reach had extended to the Communist country with a €1.2bn deal to develop a massive resort on an island in the middle of Shanghai’s Yangtze River, the third longest in the world.
The deal, which was also spear-headed by the firm’s China president Des O’Connor – the man who brought Formula One racing to China – is the biggest of its kind of any private Western company and was signed in the presence of Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.
In a partnership with Chinese firm Dontan Company, plans are said to include golf courses, hotels, restaurants, and a marina. It is Euro for Euro what the Chinese government is putting into the project, which will open in a number of phases by 2010, the year China hosts the World Expo
The government’s end of things includes constructing a massive underwater tunnel and 13km bridge – the longest in the world when complete – to link the 900-acre Chongming Island to the mainland.
At the time of Treasury’s Chinese deal, a jubilant Barrett told reporters: “This has been the culmination of long negotiations with the state authorities and it will be the first of its kind in international projects in China.”
And he added that the project will only cost Treasury 25% of what it would normally cost them if building in Ireland “so it will be a lot more profitable”.
The transaction is, however, not without its indirect association to controversy. Thousands of peasants forcibly evicted from their homes – something neither of the Treasury Holding partners would necessarily know the first thing about – in other parts of Shanghai have been “resettled” on Chongming Island over the years in the Communist government’s determination to drag what is the richest corner of the country kicking and screaming onto a far more rampant free market footing.
There have been riots on the island and a humanitarian report in 2003 described “civilisation” in Chongming County as “challenged”.
Just a few weeks ago, secret video footage flashed around the world captured gangs of armed thugs fighting pitched battles with residents refusing to leave their homes in another part of Shanghai earmarked for development.
And earlier this year, the £13 billion Three Gorges Dam – which stretches for more than a mile across the Yangtze River – was completed after an arduous project that has taken 13 years and led to more than 1.3 million people from 13 cities, 140 towns and 1,300 villages being forced to leave their homes and lands to make way for it.
“One day all this will be mine!”
Regardless of these issues in the background of their first deal on Chinese soil, more are planned and can only help cement Ronan and his schoolfriend’s reputations as global players – a sentiment not lost on their group MD Rob Tincknell.
He told an interviewer in 2005: “Treasury is quite misunderstood. People assume we’re a fairly successful Irish property company.
“The reality is that we’re a pretty sizable international real-estate machine, with valuable interests all around the world. We have significant growth plans and a very clear agenda.”
And with regard to the fact that Treasury was one of the few property companies to invest in Jurys’ Ballsbridge site, he said: “We prefer Shanghai to a few acres in Ballsbridge.”
The scale of their ambition is also perhaps illustrated by a cartoon spotted by an Irish Independent reporter in Barrett’s office during an interview in 2001.
On a wall was a framed cartoon depicting a Manhattan-esque packed cityscape of skyscrapers and over which a voice exclaims: ‘One day all this will be mine!’
And so, no doubt, will it also be his school pal Ronan’s. It’s no accident then that the centrepiece on the home page of their Treasury Holdings website is . . . a large revolving globe.