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Former head of Coca Cola who came home to Northern Ireland to tell story of diaspora

Born in Co Down, Neville Isdell rose to be chief executive of Coca-Cola. Now he has pumped his personal fortune into a major new visitor attraction in Dublin celebrating Irish emigrants, featuring work by the team behind Titanic Belfast

Published 17/05/2016

Inside of Epic, CHQ — a 200-year-old former warehouse in Dublin’s ISFC
Inside of Epic, CHQ — a 200-year-old former warehouse in Dublin’s ISFC
Neville Isdell

There is a temptation to over-analyse the fact that the €12m (£9.5m) Epic exhibition in Dublin's CHQ is pitched as a celebration of the success of the Irish abroad. It's true Neville Isdell, the former head of Coca-Cola worldwide, certainly fits into the category of an Irish success abroad himself.

He left Downpatrick aged just 10, when the family moved to Africa. In his final years as chief executive of the Atlanta-based giant, Isdell earned a reported $27m (£19m). But any notion that Epic is designed as a barely disguised monument to his own globe-spanning achievements doesn't survive two minutes in Isdell's company.

The tall, trim, former rugby player is self effacing and personable. His accent retains a trace of Co Down, as well as a bit of South Africa in the mid-Atlantic mix. Isdell is quick to praise, upbeat and cheerful. If Epic is inclined to focus on the more positive elements of Ireland's history of emigration, it might be that it reflects Isdell's own positivity - rather than his ego, but it's also where the US-based executive spotted the gap in the market.

The Epic exhibition will use state-of-the-art digital technology to tell the stories of hundreds of outstanding Irish people down the ages. It is designed to be a permanent fixture in Ireland's tourism offering, and is the final building block in Isdell's three-year project to turn CHQ - a massive 200-year-old former warehouse in Dublin's ISFC - into a successful business.

Those chances of financial success have always been helped by the fact he bought the property at the pit of the crash. Isdell paid €10m (£8m) in 2013 for the historic property that previous owners the Dublin Docklands Development Authority (DAAA) had lavished €50m (£39.4m) refurbishing as a slick modern mall.

At the time, US-based Isdell was just another cash-rich American investor, looking to take advantage of the crash to buy bargain property. Prior to taking the top job at Coke in Atlanta in 2004 Isdell had sold and bottled Coke everywhere from Zambia and Australia to Russia during the collapse of communism. When it came to property investing, it was a case of, "the more boring the better", until he came across CHQ.

Despite its lavish revamp the CHQ property was clearly struggling. Its empty shop units made it a favourite with press photographers keen to illustrate the Irish crash, but Isdell was smitten. "I was ignorant enough not to have seen the failure of the shopping centre. I saw it through different eyes," he says.

Using his own cash, and with no debt, the Coca-Cola boss was able to take a long view.

There was no great strategy to start with. Instead, the idea for CHQ as a mixed-use development emerged.

An events business was developed to take advantage of the property during quieter periods. Epic, which opened this month, is the real game changer though. It ticks every strategic box for Isdell. The visitor attraction will mean weekend footfall for the still often largely empty building.

No expense, or effort, has been spared in preparing the exhibition. Many of the highly skilled technical teams who worked on Belfast's successful Titanic Experience are working on it. Epic has been developed in the atmospheric vaults under CHQ, space that was unsuitable for offices or retail but ideal for an immersive, self-contained, experience.

Isdell's focus was on the story of Ireland though, Irish-America and wider diaspora. "I had experienced that myself as an expat. I left at 10 but still felt very Irish," he says. One potential spanner in the works were State plans for a national diaspora centre, which could potentially have crowded out the CHQ project.

The CHQ team got involved the process, albeit reluctantly. "If there was to be one (diaspora centre) - we didn't want it not to be us," explains Isdell,

In the end, the State scheme never got off the ground, which the CHQ team think will work out better all around. "It has to be sustainable and the only way it will be is to run it on a commercial basis," he says. "With anything reliant on the political purse or on generosity, longevity is not guaranteed."

Making money is "fundamental from day one", he reckons.

Rather than a single diaspora centre, he would rather develop connections between a mix of sites across the country from the Famine Museum in Strokestown to the Queenstown Visitor Centre in Cobh and others.

Epic has established strong relationships with the Guinness Storehouse, Trinity Library's Book of Kells Exhibit and Glasnevin Cemetery.

"We're not a competitor to other Dublin attractions, we're adding to the attractiveness of Dublin," Isdell reckons.

"It's not about your share of the pie, it's about baking a bigger pie."

If things go to plan, it's going to be a pretty big slice.

Belfast Telegraph

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