How Ireland’s Richest Man Lost Everything

This story is one of the most extreme riches to rag stories in Irish history, this is the story of Sean Quinn a self-made billionaire who made some poor choices and saw his industrial empire turn to dust before his eyes.

Sean Quinn was born in Ireland in 1947 he had a brother Peter and both of them were avid European football players, he came from a humble background without money or much access to high-quality education and to start his first business he first had to borrow a hundred British pounds from a friend, but over the course of several decades of hard work and savvy business since he was able to eventually build up a formidable industrial empire.

Quinn’s first business was started in the early 1970s he was able to borrow 100 British pounds from a friend and used a startup capital to start a business extracting gravel from the ground.

He started small taking gravel out of his own family’s personal property and selling it to local businesses himself, at the time the Irish economy was still in a post-world war II slump, especially in the 1980s business was tough.  During the first decade of his time in business, Quinn was able to establish himself as a respectable small business owner and became familiar with the intricacies of his gravel and other quarry related businesses. Starting in the later half of the 1980s the economy in Ireland began to heat up and throughout the 1990s Ireland’s gdp made up for lost growth in previous decades and experienced gdp growth of as much as 10 percent per year.

In the later half of the 90s Quinn had expanded his business from just extracting materials from the ground to producing cement with the Quinn Cement Company, he was in the exact right place at the right time to benefit from Ireland’s economic boom, Quinn Cement ended up becoming the backbone of Quinn’s fortunes from which he would achieve the status of billionaire.

After a prosperous decade in business during the 1990s, Quinn found himself outgrowing the domestic cement industry in Ireland and he diversified away from the company’s core business and entered into the hospitality industry. With the company Quinn Hotels he owned several high-end hotels all around Europe including the prestigious Prague Hilton he also diversified into other industrial businesses taking advantage of the same booming economy that had given him his fortune in cement he went on to produce plastics, glass and other more specialized products from within Ireland, but his most faithful decision was to steer the company into the financial services industry he started with an insurance business in 1996 which he called Quinn Direct Insurance.

For more than a decade Quinn Direct was a profitable business and made tens of millions of euros in profit each year, it reported in 2006 that it had 420 000 customers making it the third biggest insurer in Ireland, Quinn’s foray into the insurance industry expanded further in 2007 when he acquired Bupa Ireland.

Bupa Ireland was at the time Ireland’s second biggest health insurer, durign this period they were involved in a row with the Irish government over risk equalization with the company saying that the government regulations would cost the company hundreds of millions of euros in just the first three years. By acquiring Bupa, Quinn’s business empire would not have to comply with those same regulations immediately, allowing the company to remain profitable in Ireland at least in the short term, however after 2008 they would have to start complying with the same risk equalization regulations. Around the same time as Quinn was turning his company into an insurance powerhouse he also was developing a taste for the banking industry, he started buying up shares of Anglo-Irish Bank, which he owned five percent of by the first part of 2007. Anglo Irish bank was a mainly commercial bank with little retail exposure and operated throughout Europe. In the United States, it experienced booming growth from its founding in the 1960s through the early 2000s mainly from its business and property lending Quinn had ambitions to be a substantial shareholder in Anglo-Irish Bank partly because of his own businesses in the hospitality and real estate industries.

By 2008 Quinn was undisputedly the richest man in Ireland, he had an estimated net worth of 6 billion us dollars placing him among the top 200 richest people in the world according to Forbes, but the 2008 financial crisis would prove to be the beginning of the end for Quinn’s business empire and his obsession with his stake in the Anglo-Irish bank extrapolated his previous business success too far and he over leveraged himself in this risky investment. Although expanding the business into new industries usually has the purpose and effect of diversifying the businesses interests protecting it from a catastrophe in any one isolated industry Quinn’s approach to the Anglo-Irish bank did the opposite and by the middle of 2008 Quinn had increased his business’s stake in the bank to 15 percent which cost more than one and a half-billion dollars. Quinn’s business could not afford to purchase that large of a stake without financing and did so by taking on significant debt liabilities. This exposed his company to a large amount of risk, because if the bank did poorly then Quinn’s company would be at risk of not being able to service the high debt load, furthermore, the bank was heavily dependent on the property and real estate industries they mainly dealt with business lending related to property development and hospitality in the second half of 2008 this industry had its infamous decline leading to huge losses for the bank.

By the time 2009 came along, the stock price of the bank had lost 98 percent of its value, this was a shocking loss to Quinn as he had just started building up a leveraged stake in the bank. In the months and years prior to the financial collapse, at the peak he owned a 28 percent interest in the company, including the use of using leveraged financial products he had squeezed his other businesses dry trying to come up with the money for the investment, leaving them with little capital to weather a bad year or rainy day scenario and when the real estate market collapsed in 2008 there was no way for his companies to withstand the losses.

Quinn had taken out a total of more than 3 billion dollars worth of loans in relation to the stake in Anglo-Irish bank, at the same time Quinn’s insurance business also took a huge hit in 2008 due to risky bets they had independently made that were leveraged to the real estate markets. As a result Quinn’s massive conglomerate found its diversified companies disproportionately sensitive to the 2008 real estate crisis and by 2011 the entity in charge of winding down the Anglo-Irish bank which Quinn had a massive stake in attempted to collect more than 3 billion dollars of debt which Quinn personally owed. Around the same time he also lost control of his insurance operation, US-based Liberty Mutual was bought in in a joint venture to take control of the insurance operation after he was unable to save the company himself. One of the key concerns that Anglo Irish bank had about Quinn was that because he had built up such a large stake in the bank using debt financing that he would use his ownership stake to push out outsized dividends and he would need the bank to pay dividends that were too large for its own good because the dividends would help him pay the interest on his financing for his stake.

When he was finally unable to pay his debts, the courts stripped him of his entire ownership in all of his companies. In 2011 his property started being liquidated to pay down his debt but he did not want to lose the possessions that he had built up over the decades so he tried a number of different strategies to preserve his wealth. The first thing he tried was declaring personal bankruptcy in late 2011, he applied for bankruptcy in Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, however this quickly led to accusations of bankruptcy fraud against Quinn in particular.

The entity responsible for liquidating Quinn’s assets alleged that his main personal and business interests lay not in Northern Ireland but in the Republic of Ireland and by filing for bankruptcy in Northern Ireland Quinn would be subject to significantly less harsh consequences than in the Republic of Ireland. The Irish Bank resolution corporation claimed that Quinn had frequently indicated his residence to be at an Irish address and in fact had significant business interests in 95 different companies.

In the Republic of Ireland moreover the electoral register for an Irish County showed Quinn as officially being a resident of Ireland, this blatantly contradicted Quinn’s claims of his bankruptcy application in Northern Ireland, by the next year his bankruptcy in Northern Ireland was annulled and he was newly declared bankrupt in the Republic of Ireland.

With that defeat Quinn faced the prospect of losing everything that he had left and in the process of having his business and assets liquidated to pay down his billions of dollars of debt he engaged in another form of bankruptcy fraud called asset stripping. This is an activity where a debtor who is about to lose an asset towards their unpaid debt tries to salvage any assets that they can from the business before it is seized by liquidators.

In the case of Quinn, that meant sending hundreds of thousands of dollars to himself and his family members from his company’s accounts in a court case to determine whether or not the Quinn family had engaged in asset stripping it was found that two of Quinn’s daughters Colette and Brenda were paid 881000 euros over the course of a year through some of their father’s subsidiary companies.

They claimed that the payments were for work contracts with the companies but could not provide any documents showing the nature of the work additionally when the court asked where the money was they claimed that they had spent all of it except for 12 and a half thousand euros with no receipts to prove what the money was spent on.

Naturally, the courts concluded that there was indeed asset stripping going on and they sentenced Quinn to nine weeks in jail. After he was released he had nothing to show for his once-mighty business empire. He currently lives with his wife and family on the same street that he grew up on a true full-circle rag to riches to rags story.


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