Belfast Telegraph

Tycoon’s pub empire is Ireland’s biggest

Beannchor portfolio increases to 50 after buy-out of stricken chain

Margaret Canning

By Margaret Canning

Two property and pub firms in Northern Ireland have gone into administration — and the acquisition of their pubs by entrepreneur Bill Wolsey is set to make him Ireland’s biggest publican.

John Hansen of KPMG was yesterday appointed administrator to Wen Inns and Scandown Developments, both registered in Bangor, Co Down.

The firms are part of MAR Properties, set up by Adam Armstrong, Bill Rush and Noel Murphy in 1997 and now heavily indebted to banks including Bank of Scotland (Ireland).

Mr Wolsey’s pub group Beannchor has started running 15 of MAR’s pubs across Co Down on behalf of the administrators and is set to buy them outright.

Six pubs were sold to MAR for £12.5m in 2006 — but it’s understood Beannchor will buy 15 for no more than £10m, leaving it with 50 venues in its portfolio.

Beannchor finance director James Sinton said: “We have been working closely with MAR and its financial institution to try and secure an acquisition, and that should be confirmed in the next two to three weeks.”

The deal has taken place against a backdrop of severe difficulties for the pub trade but Mr Wolsey denied his growing empire demonstrated a ‘Midas touch’.

“We think long and hard about what market we are aiming for and how we can give that market value for money and invest in the properties. When we invest in property most people like the design.” The 15 pubs include the Hillside in Hillsborough, the Portaferry Hotel, Lisbarnett House near Comber and The Esplanade in Ballyholme, Bangor.

Beannchor plans to renovate the Portaferry Hotel. Mr Wolsey said: “It has the potential to become a great getaway place and Strangford Lough really is one of Ireland’s best-kept secrets.

“It looks attractive and I don’t like buying buildings that aren’t attractive and that’s the first thing that’s got to attract me.”

He will also carry out renovations to the Hillside pub and restaurant. “We want to restore it to what it really is — a lovely old historical building.”

Beannchor has built up a chain of four pizzerias, and hopes to open a fifth Little Wing soon — the only area Mr Wolsey expects to grow after the acquisitions.

Mr Wolsey said good relationships with banks were helping him expand: “We have relationships with various banks where they are supportive of us and we work hard and are a professional outfit.”

John Martin, a licensed trade property agent at Osborne King, welcomed the prospect of Beannchor’s acquisition.

“It’s excellent news because Bill Wolsey is the most experienced pub operator in the province at the present time. He has the ability and the organisation to provide the right product and level of service, together with price, that customers expect.”

The jewel in the crown of Beannchor — the Irish word for Bangor — is the Merchant Hotel in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter. Beannchor bought the old Ulster Bank in Waring Street for £1.3m, spent £10m on doing it up and opened for business in 2006. Last year it opened the hotel’s extension at a cost of £16.5m funded by Ulster Bank to be repaid over 10 years.

Beannchor also has plans for a four star, 68-bedroomed hotel in the old National Bank building on High Street in Belfast, and a pub and cultural centre called The Dirty Onion on Waring Street.

According to MAR Properties’ 2008 accounts, Adam Armstrong, Bill Rush and Noel Murphy have given guarantees to banks for the company's liabilities, including Bank of Scotland (Ireland). Mr Murphy and Mr Rush also have given guarantees to Ulster Bank for £9m.

Mr Rush and Mr Murphy signed personal guarantees to Anglo Irish Bank for £4.2m, while Mr Armstrong gave the bank a personal guarantee of £3.6m.

Bank of Scotland (Ireland) has withdrawn from Ireland and passed on its loan book to Certus.

Belfast Telegraph