Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 September 2014

Workers besiege Quinn HQ and call for tycoon's return

Protest sparked by job concerns at troubled firm

Protesters occupied the Co Fermanagh headquarters of the Quinn Group to show their support for Sean Quinn

Protesters who occupied the Quinn Group's headquarters have said they fear for jobs at the company without former figurehead Sean Quinn in control.

“Punish the sinners, not the Quinners” was the call from protesters who occupied the Co Fermanagh base of the beleaguered firm in a sit-in yesterday.

At one stage up to 1,000 demonstrators crammed into the Derrylin building, including community members, business people, schoolteachers, a parish priest and the president of the local GAA club.

The protesters only agreed to leave when Mr Quinn himself sent thanks, but asked them to vacate the building and let staff get on with their work.

The protesters are demanding the reinstatement of their forrmer boss and his family to the helm of the insurance, glass and cement company.

The firm spectacularly crashed and burned after Mr Quinn bought a huge number of shares in Anglo Irish Bank.

The bank went bust and was taken over by the Irish state, and is now calling in its loans.

Last week it emerged Anglo, on which Mr Quinn gambled his fortune, appointed accountants KPMG to take control of all the Quinn family shares in the business.

Mr Quinn’s holdings will be transferred to KPMG’s Kieran Wallace after he failed to repay €2.8bn (£2.4bn) in loans built up through borrowings used to fund investments in the bank.

Quinn Insurance, which went into administration a year ago, is to be sold to a joint venture of Liberty Mutual — the fifth largest insurer in the US — and Anglo.

But there are now warnings that former allies of the Quinn Group will not work with “a defunct bank” — spelling more potential misery for staff.

The peaceful protest included short speeches, and campaigners put up a sign saying ‘We want Sean Quinn back’ on the door of the ousted businessman’s office.

While the new team in charge of Quinn has promised little or no job losses, protesters are not convinced, and there is still huge support for Mr Quinn in Co Fermanagh and the border counties of the Republic where he created employment for thousands.

Alongside the demonstrations — a dumper truck was abandoned at the gates of the Derrylin complex last week — a Facebook campaign with thousands of followers has branded Quinn “a true Irishman” and “a legend”.

Despite his fall from grace, |almost all of the anger on the website is directed at Anglo and the Republic’s government for putting employees at risk.

Padraig Donohoe of the Cavan, Leitrim and Fermanagh Action Group said the crowds gathered to hand over a letter to the new management team appointed by Anglo.

“People fear for their jobs. They feel that Anglo will not run the company the way it was run for the last 38 years, when it was a successful model employing 8,000 people worldwide, 6,000 of those in Ireland — many in this immediate area,” he said.

”We are hearing on the grapevine that a lot of Quinn customers and suppliers do not want to do business with a defunct bank and this will lead to no jobs at all.

”We have a list of demands, including the reinstatement of Sean Quinn and his family to the company that he founded.

“We also want to know why Sean Quinn’s own recovery plan to take back the firm at no cost to the taxpayer, involving between 1,500-1,800 new jobs, which would safeguard the existing jobs and keep the Quinn Group afloat, was not accepted and never even put on the table. They just wanted Sean Quinn gone.”

Mr Donohoe said that the only reason protesters dispersed was out of respect for Mr Quinn.

“There was a hardcore of about 200 protesters, but at one stage there were up to 1,000 people in the building,” he said.

“The doors were not locked when we arrived. We were not obstructed. However, communication was sent from Sean Quinn that while he thanked us all for our support he would like us to leave the building and let the staff get on with their work, which we of course respected.

“We will be having more protests, this is not the end. They will be peaceful protests, but we will not be silenced by anybody except Mr Quinn himself.”

An international empire built up from a gravel pit

Sean Quinn’s business career stretches back nearly 40 years.

The Fermanagh man began his multi-billion pound empire in 1973 after borrowing a few hundred pounds to set up a gravel business. He quarried stone from a small pit on his family farm in Derrylin when he was just a teenager and made a profit by selling to local builders.

Just decades later and he was said to be worth £4.4bn by Forbes magazine's rich list.

Now his grip on the massive company he built up from nothing has finally been relinquished, essentially because of his relationship with the bailed-out Anglo Irish Bank.

However, his supporters may not let him go so easily, crediting him for single-handedly providing jobs and opportunities for rural border communities where little other employment existed.

His first foray into major industry was a grant-aided cement plant in the 1980s.

This led to an interest in glass, and in the 1990s insurance was in his sights.

Hotel and leisure opportunities in the UK and Europe beckoned in the 2000s, before an ambitious takeover of private Bupa Ireland's customer base for £100m added another asset to the Quinn portfolio.

But the house of cards began to collapse in front of his eyes in 2008.

The insurance industry started to decline and investment returns nosedived as global financial markets imploded.

Without the shielding of larger parent companies, Quinn had only its own reserves — which turned out to have a €448m (£396m) shortfall. It also emerged that the previously savvy tycoon had lost more than £1bn on his stake in Anglo Irish Bank.

The firm's woes continued and Quinn Insurance was placed into administration a year ago this month, to the dismay of thousands of staff on both sides of the border.

Notoriously private, Sean Quinn has been hailed as the epitome of modesty, despite his millions, with an interest in watching Gaelic games, enjoying a quiet game of cards and spending time with his wife and five children, all of whom worked in the family firm.

Notably, he remains in Ireland to face the music unlike many other company directors who fled the country in the face of financial ruin.

Last year Sean and wife Patricia resigned from the board of the Quinn Group and now the family have been removed from the group completely — but people power speaks volumes.

New levy on premiums to help pay for bailout

Consumers in the Republic paid the state almost €110m (£97m) last year in levies imposed on their house and car insurance premiums.

Figures from the Revenue Commissioners show policyholders have paid almost €900m (£795m) in levies on insurance policies in the past decade, but none of the money has been set aside to meet compensation claims.

The figures come after it was revealed yesterday that consumers will be hit with a fresh levy on their insurance policies to make up for a shortfall of €620m (£548m) from the collapse of Quinn Insurance.

Anglo Irish Bank and US insurance giant Liberty Mutual have agreed to buy the insurance company, but are not willing to take on the losses on its books.

The government will now have to make up this shortfall by imposing a new levy — expected to be between 1% and 2% — on non-life insurance customers.

But insurance policyholders have already been paying levies for almost 30 years.

The Quinn bailout will require the government to impose another new levy, under the Insurance Compensation Fund (ICF), first established in 1964.

The imposition of a new levy is sure to spark anger among consumers who are already reeling under a swathe of taxes and levies.

Finance Minister Michael Noonan warned a cross-border group of TDs and MLAs two weeks ago there was a possibility this levy would be necessary.

Q & A

Q Why is Sean Quinn in so much difficulty?

A His troubles began in 2008 when he was fined €3.4m (£3m) by Ireland’s financial regulator for using an inter-company loan to fund a 15% stake in Anglo Irish Bank.

That gamble lost him nearly €1bn. Last year the Republic’s Financial Regulator put Quinn Insurance into administration because its liabilities outweighed its assets.

And this month, not long after the first anniversary of that administration, Anglo Irish took control of the rest of the businesses in the Quinn Group, including cement and glass-making enterprises. Mr Quinn and his family still owe €2.8bn (£2.4bn) to Anglo Irish. A wind farm in Co Cavan and the Belfry Hotel in England, which is run by Mr Quinn’s son Sean jnr, remain outside the clutches of Anglo.

Q What do people in Fermanagh think of Mr Quinn?

A There is sympathy for a man whose business acumen brought employment to hundreds of people in his native Co Fermanagh — and to his adoptied home of Co Cavan.

Around 700 people worked for the Quinn Group of companies in Northern Ireland, part of a global workforce of around 6,000.

Despite accumulating a vast fortune which earned him the sobriquet ‘The Mighty Quinn’, he has remained down to earth and, legend has it, has hobbies no more glamorous than a game of cards and supporting Fermanagh’s Gaelic football team.

Q So what exactly does the |future hold?

A The continuing esteem in which Mr Quinn is held is now tempered by fears of how the new owner of Quinn Insurance — a joint venture of US giant Liberty Mutual and Anglo Irish — will run the company. Quinn’s form of claim management was rested on the practice of ‘third party capture’, in which self-employed agents negotiate settlement directly with a third party.

Employees are wondering if the new company will still use third party capture. Will jobs be kept in Fermanagh and Cavan, or will they be transferred to lower-cost locations?

Q What will this do to my premiums?

A Quinn Insurance’s reputation is as a low-cost insurer. With Liberty Mutual one of the world’s biggest insurer, it is expected to keep rates competitive.

Q When is Quinn Insurance going to be sold?

A Details are to be finalised by the end of the May, and completing the takeover by Liberty Mutual and Anglo should take another two months. The deal has to be approved by the Irish Central Bank, the European Competition Authority and the Financial Services Authority. Anglo itself is going through a major change as it is to be renamed when it merges with the Irish Nationwide Building Society.

Q I’ve read premiums will be subjected to a new levy because the new owners of Quinn Insurance won’t pay up for its full losses

A A levy is expected to be imposed by the Irish government on insurance policyholders in the Republic to pay for a €620m (£548m) shortfall in the amount Liberty Mutual and Anglo will pay. The technicalities of that levy are the responsibility of the Republic’s Department of Finance but will not apply to insurance customers here.

How to solve the problem of Quinn Insurance is thankfully something Northern Ireland need not worry about — unless Liberty Mutual defies expectations and makes staff in Fermanagh redundant.

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