Belfast Telegraph

Taking on the Barclay brothers

By Ronald Quinlan

Knighted by the Queen and honoured by the Pope, the billionaire Barclay brothers are accustomed, after a lifetime in business together, to getting what they want and on their terms.

And so it must come as something of a surprise to Sir Frederick and Sir David Barclay to find themselves in the twilight of their years forced to fight an upstart Irishman called Paddy McKillen, who was born in Belfast, for the ownership of Claridge's, the Berkeley and the Connaught Hotels - the three most precious jewels in the Maybourne Hotel Group crown.

There was certainly more than one eyebrow raised in court 26 of the Rolls Building at London's Royal Courts of Justice last Monday morning when Mr McKillen showed up, determined to press his case for Nama's sale of €790m (£660m) worth of loans associated with the prestigious hotels to the Barclays to be overturned.

Throughout the pre-trial hearings, lawyers for the Barclays and their interests had argued that the businessman didn't have the 'financial muscle' to buy the Maybourne Hotel Group out in its entirety, making his claim that as one of its biggest shareholders he should have been given an opportunity to do so, entirely irrelevant.

Add to that Mr McKillen's renowned aversion to any form of publicity in relation to himself or his business, and the Barclays may well have expected him to throw in the towel long before the first round of this legal battle. Court 26 was full to overflowing last Tuesday morning when Paddy McKillen, all 5ft 6ins of him, sat in the witness box to be cross-examined by Queen's Counsel for the Barclays, Kenneth MacLean, on the contents of his witness statement.

Smartly suited and sporting a healthy tan courtesy of his frequent travels between business interests in Argentina and the Far East and his luxurious homes in France and California, Mr McKillen did his best to make himself comfortable.

Flanked by upwards of a dozen barristers arrayed across three benches like a murder of crows, Mr MacLean could also count on the support of numerous individuals in the public gallery as he sought to take the Belfast businessman's claims apart.

Given the hands-on approach Mr McKillen has taken in relation to the improvements at Claridge's, the Berkeley and the Connaught since buying them in 2004 as part of the consortium drawn together by Mr Quinlan, one can understand how he might feel just a little hard done by as the Barclays try to force him out.

Recalling the lengths he had gone to personally to make the reopening of the Connaught Hotel in December 2007 a success, he said: "A mock-up bedroom was assembled by installing the proposed materials into a sample bedroom about half way through the project.

"I stayed in the bedroom for one night while the hotel was still a building site to test the facilities to ensure the quality and standards were acceptable and gave my report to the consultants the next morning. I also stayed on the site for over 48 hours without sleep on the run-up to the re-opening."

At Claridge's, Mr McKillen showed equal determination to bring forward the hotel frequented in the past by the likes of Winston Churchill, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the Duke of Windsor and favoured by the late Queen Mother for afternoon tea.

From the introduction of organic food to the removal of the 'old-fashioned' top sheet on all of the hotel's beds, Mr McKillen said his involvement "demanded my attention down to the smallest of details".

As I took tea in the lobby of Claridge's last Thursday, that attention to detail was still very much in evidence as several of the hotel's managers quietly consulted with each other on the removal of a barely-visible stain on the art deco carpet, which had been designed by Viscount David Linley at Mr McKillen's request.

Outside the hotel's front entrance, meanwhile, the Irish tricolour still takes pride of place among the flags of the world.

How long it stays there, however, will very much depend on how Paddy McKillen fares against the billionaire Barclay brothers.