Sunday, 12 October 2008

A review of 'The Builders' by Kathy Sheridan and Frank McDonald

Non-Fiction - Book built on sand

First, I'll make a confession. Three years ago, I began working on a book about Ireland's developers. After meeting four of my main sources, however, I dropped the idea because each one pointed out that, with the tribunals, the book would be out of date almost immediately after publication.

That, in a nutshell, is the problem with The Builders, the new book by Irish Times journalists Frank McDonald and Kathy Sheridan, which examines how property developers became hugely affluent over the last 15 years. Their problem, though, is not the tribunals but the collapse of the property market. That downturn is gradually, and in some cases instantly, wiping out developers' fortunes.

For example, one developer in the book, who was regarded as immensely rich at the time the book was written, is now known to have a huge working capital problem and has to pay his creditors in instalments. Another, regarded as equally wealthy, has quietly had to sell off sites to raise capital.

McDonald and Sheridan try to deal with the impact the downturn is having in an epilogue but it is not, in my opinion, long enough.

The Builders grew out of a series in the Irish Times last year, one that was largely a collection of anecdotes that had already been written, along with a financial analysis of the accounts of each developer's major companies. This continues in the book, which has a cut-and-paste feel, with many chunky quotations being used. In general, though, it is written at a good pace, though it occasionally gets bogged down in lists of each developer's schemes.

There is the occasional gem, such as the builders' dinner where, worse for wear, many of them let loose at then finance minister Brian Cowen about the state of the market. Some of the tales of extravagant spending are also noteworthy.

The chapter layout, however, is clumsy, with the one dubbed 'Bernard the Builder' also sketching out the history of Jim Mansfield of Citywest fame and Michael Cotter of Park Developments. There are also factual errors. Frank Gormley, for example, is described as the man who runs Howard Holdings but he left the company in 2006 after a well-publicised buyout and now runs his own company, Howard Eurocape.

Some of the details omitted are also notable. Take Seán Mulryan of Ballymore, for example. No mention is made of his decision to raise €242m of private equity at the peak of the market from Davy Stockbrokers' private clients for Ballymore International Developments, or the motivation behind it. He is "believed" to have a stake in Sunderland football club, according to the book, when in fact it was known that his personal stake was 12.5% at the time of purchase. In addition, the purchase of the Kotva department store in Prague via Markland Holdings, in which Mulryan is a shareholder, doesn't merit a mention, even though it was one of the most enthralling stories of the last decade involving an Irish developer, pertaining as it did to a building that, before Markland's involvement, had been at the centre of blackmail allegations and was the site of at least two explosions.

Nevertheless, this is a book that had to be written. It is unfortunate that, while McDonald and Sheridan make a good stab at it, circumstances have changed so much that some of the material is no longer relevant. In addition, you're left waiting for a major new revelation that nobody has heard, and it never really comes.

Sunday Tribune

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