Anthony Kieran of Aurient Ltd is proud of its transformation of properties at Regency House, Belfast, writes John Breslin
A sudden switch from studying A-levels at a grammar school to a youth training programme in computers changed the trajectory of Anthony Kieran’s life and career path..
A few years later he was working for NASA. Then he went travelling around the world, more of which later.
Anthony, the co-founder of usedcarsni.com and later an angel investor, is now in the property development business with his long-time business partner Cecil Hetherington.
The pair used their investment vehicle, Aurient, to buy a famous property on the Upper Crescent in the university area of Belfast.
Regency House, at numbers 11 and 12, was derelict for years. In a project with a spend of approximately £2.5m the team is transforming the 8,000 square foot space into luxury accommodation.
It is a passion project, says Anthony about the development of the properties, three-storey dwellings in late Regency style built in 1846 by timber merchant Robert Corry.
“Upper Crescent has always been an area of personal interest to me,” he says. “When we first started our business in 2003, I would drive or walk through the Crescent and remarked often at the amazing feats of architecture before me and how unfortunate it was that they had been derelict for so long.”
He adds: “When the option came to buy them several years ago, we weighed it up and decided it was a risk worth taking, even though we had never invested in commercial property before, let alone a restoration project.”
The Regency, aimed at both long and short-stay visitors, will consist of six luxury apartments along with one communal garden and two private outdoor courtyards. It will open its doors to visitors next year.
Potential customers include those visiting the university, legal and medical professionals, and those working in the growing television and film industry.
The partners believe there is a gap in the market for high end accommodation in the city.
“Belfast in recent years has become a desirable visitor destination and with the upward trend for first class luxury accommodation for the long and short term rental market, we feel this is the right direction to go,” Anthony says.
They have bought two further properties on Upper Crescent, 14 and 15, and plan to turn them also into luxury apartments. The deal to buy them was signed on Friday.
A third acquisition on Lower Crescent will be turned into seven rentals and house the offices of usedcarsni.com. The targets are young professionals, mature students, doctors and nurses
For Anthony, who is originally from south Armagh, it has been a winding path to the point where he is restoring some of Belfast’s most interesting properties.
His first passion was computers, beginning in the mid-80s before they became so central to people’s lives. Kieran attended St Colman’s College in Newry where he passed nine O-levels. He would have been expected to take his A-levels.
He realised quickly that the academic-centred school was not going to teach him the practicalities of computing, including basic programming.
“I left and went to study for a BTEC certificate on a YTP programmed while attending Newry Tech,” Anthony says. “I did it because I was interested in computers and I knew it was going to be a good thing to be involved in.”
He then attended John Moore’s University in Liverpool, studying computer science.
After gaining his degree, and seeing opportunities here limited, Kieran decided to emigrate to the United States, first landing in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
“Then I was really fortunate when I got a job working for NASA in Washington D.C. as a programmer working on its internal applications,” he says.
He was working with thousands of people in the space agency’s headquarters. It was at the start of the internet revolution, those days of slow, slow dial-up connections.
“I remember on a Monday morning logging in to check the football scores and to took me ten minutes to find out how Liverpool had done at the weekend,” Kieran remembers.
After several years working with “brilliant” people from the top institutions in the US and beyond and at the cutting edge of computing, Anthony came to a turning point in his life.
It was either settle in the US or return home. He was 29 and had no family or mortgage.
“I decided I wanted to go home and start a business,” says Anthony. At that stage he did not know exactly what sort of business but knew it was going to be internet-based.
But before returning, he decided to go travelling around the world. He went on the road with a backpack, visiting 22 countries over a year and a half. This included a stint in Australia where the computer skills and knowledge allowed him to earn what he says were substantial amounts of money.
His return back to this part of the world in the early noughties, first to London, happened to coincide with the dotcom crash. Jobs became scarce for computer programmer, Anthony says, adding he was out of work at one point for six months.
It was time to come back to Northern Ireland, where he landed a job with Biznet, the tech solutions company with offices on Upper Crescent.
Nearly two years later, and after meeting partner Cecil Hetherington, it was time to start a business. The web development company they founded grew to serving approximately 200 clients.
Then in 2006, the pair, sensing a gap in the market, set up usedcarsni. Their only competitor was Autotrader. And they built the business on the foundation that they were local people wanting to develop long term relationships with local dealers.
It was a success and, after some years of growth, it became obvious that two operating the business day to day was not the best use of resources.
“We decided the company had grown to a point where it was not a good use of our time for both of us to be involved day to day, so we created another company,” says Anthony.
Aurient was set up to invest in small start ups, mainly in the technology sector. Among the companies they backed was Pitch Booking, which manages bookings for sports venues, including local councils
The philosophy behind Aurient was that they were not just providing money but also advice and broader support, says Kieran. Pitch Booking is now housed in the same building as Aurient.
“We are really proud of them,” said Kieran, adding that they also invest in stocks and shares.
Now the partners have moved into property development, though their first experience of the game was an unhappy one.
Aurient was an early investor in the proposal to build the George Best Hotel and ploughed £50,000 into the project. It has not progressed and the site in Belfast’s Donegall Square remains vacant.
“That did not work out but as far as I am concerned it is done. We lost our money but there is no point lamenting it.”
It did teach the pair to be more careful and to maintain control of all future projects. And they are in complete control of the transformation of Regency House, a listed building, and the development of the other properties.
Anthony describes himself as “thrilled” to be involved in the restoration of the buildings, noting the turn from being in the “fast-changing world of technology” to restoring something so “beautiful” and “old”.
Another turn in the winding path that began as a teenager going against what was expected and following his instincts.