Larne FC's millionaire Purplebricks' founder on proving the doubters wrong... and making football club biggest in the land
Exclusive: the online entrepreneur who revolutionised the estate agency business has ploughed millions of pounds into the club he supported as a boy. It's all about saying thanks for everything the town has done for his mother, Anne, and his siblings, he tells Steven Beacom
Kenny Bruce is sitting in a Heathrow lounge preparing to board a flight to Los Angeles. He'll do business there for a couple of weeks before jetting off to Sydney for more of the same. Then it'll be back to England in December and a trip "home" for Christmas.
Home is Larne. It's also where his heart is and the place where he has spent a considerable amount of his fortune over the last 15 months.
Kenny, along with older brother Michael, is founder and owner of Purplebricks, the online estate agency, which six years ago started to transform the house selling industry. A huge success in the UK since being formed in 2012, the company has expanded to the United States and Australia, hence the trips around the world - even if Kenny admits he isn't too fond of flying.
Together, the siblings entered the Sunday Times Irish Rich List this year at number 62. The local boys made good are multi-millionaires.
Kenny also happens to be the most talked-about man in Irish League football right now, having invested millions of pounds on and off the pitch in his boyhood club Larne.
Chelsea have Roman Abramovich, Larne have Kenny Bruce and, like the Russian oligarch, the Co Antrim businessman is determined to make his team the best in their country and savour special nights in Europe.
It was in this newspaper, in August 2017, that the 42-year-old first spoke about his stunning plans to take over Larne.
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At the time, the club was struggling in the second tier of football here. There were serious financial problems, major issues with the Inver Park ground and strained relationships between board members and fans. On occasions, only 50 people were turning up to watch home games.
There were many more attractive sporting options to invest in, but Bruce only had eyes for Larne FC, as he wanted to give something back to the team he supported as a kid and the town he grew up in.
Now look at them, they are a full-time side well on their way to promotion to the Irish Premiership under manager Tiernan Lynch after Bruce spent heavily on recruiting quality players from here and England. The stadium has a wonderful new stand with another to follow, the average gate at Inver Park is around 1,000, hundreds of children are enjoying the youth academy, and the buzz around the place is incredible.
Off the pitch, chairman Gareth Clements, his board and commercial director Gavin Clements are working wonders and Larne are fast becoming the envy of other clubs in Northern Ireland.
Kenny smiles at the thought of it, though he insists there is still much work to be done.
He is as driven as he is down-to-earth and as fearless in business as he is fun in person. And behind it all, he points to his supportive family, who inspire him to make his dreams come true.
There is a sense of pride as he speaks about wife, Corrina, and their three children, George, Thomas and Keira. Kenny also talks warmly about his brothers and sisters and his mum, Anne, who last month opened the plush new Agnew Suite at Inver Park.
"I have a beautiful wife, three beautiful children and a great family," he says. "My family have been hugely supportive. To have a scenario where you have a wife and children and family members and you are investing two and three million pounds of the kids' money into trying to give something back to the local community, you might not necessarily get a huge amount of support from everyone in your family, but my family have been absolutely terrific.
"Last month, my mum opened a new suite at the ground. It was named after mum's family, the Agnews, who were Larne born and bred.
"My mum is very, very proud of everything her children have achieved. I know Purplebricks and what I'm doing at Larne gets a lot of publicity, but my mum is proud of all her six children and for me to get the opportunity to ask her to open that lounge and to be able to say thank you for all her support as she brought us up was wonderful.
"Mum is Larne through and through and for her to be able to see I cared enough about the town and our family cared enough about our town to give something back to the people is something we are all happy about."
He adds: "We've gone beyond the football club. As a family, we have sponsored a new boat for the rowing club and done a lot of work with the Music Yard in Larne and have given them a substantial donation as a family to allow them to relocate and work with schools and do projects with the elderly and disabled. It's all about us as a family helping the community to say thanks for all that the town did for us.
"All of my family, including my brothers and sisters and my mum, are coming to our Boxing Day game against Ballyclare to enjoy the festivities and it gives me a chance to say thank you to everyone for all the support they have given me. They have been amazing."
Spending half the year in the USA and Australia and the other half in the UK between Southampton and Portsmouth, where he lives with his wife and children, the St Comgall's College old boy reveals how he finds the time for his family commitments, Purplebricks and Larne.
"I don't sleep very often," he says. "When you are as passionate about what you do, as I am, and enjoy it, you don't really get concerned about whether you have the right energy levels, or the time, you just get on and deliver it. I only sleep four or five hours per night.
"I love Purplebricks and love recruiting great people and trying to build this great business we have. I also love having the outlet of Larne now.
"Before, I was 20 hours per day working. Now, I have 16 hours per day working and three hours per day on Larne. It's good to have another interest outside of family and work. Life is great - it really is."
Accepted by the people of Larne, Bruce appreciates it wasn't always that way when he arrived on the scene with ambitious plans for the town's football club.
There were those who thought he would be here today, gone tomorrow, or was just interested in Inver Park so he could use it in relation to his property empire.
"Once I started to demonstrate that I wasn't going to build 200 flats on Inver Park, the sceptics and some of the cynics decided that I was here for the long term," says Kenny.
"I am totally committed to fulfilling everything that we have set out in our five-year plan. It means we will have first-class facilities, a team that we are proud of, who are competing for top domestic honours and playing in Europe, and to have a thriving relationship with Larne Youth.
"A major thing was buying the football ground from the local authority. Anne Donaghy, the CEO of Mid and East Antrim Borough Council, has been so supportive with everything we have tried to do.
"The council didn't have a particularly great relationship with the previous board and we were able to come in and show them a blueprint of what our vision was. They have supported us wholeheartedly and sold the ground to us.
"As we develop it, Inver Park will become a more valuable asset for things beyond football. In the summer, there will be concerts and commercial activities going on at the club and it will become the hub of the community.
"We have spent £1.4m on the stadium so far. We will have another £2m to spend over the course of the next 12 to 18 months on the stadium and it will be a football ground in Northern Ireland that people are really proud of.
"I think because I'm one of their own and I've come back with no agenda apart from trying to give back to the community, the Larne people have endorsed that. They have looked in the whites of my eyes and seen that I'm solid about what I promise and they have got behind us."
Kenny adds: "When I go back to watch games, I sit in the stand and talk to as many fans as possible and they are delighted at what the club are achieving on and off the field.
"My ambition is to make Larne the best team in Northern Ireland. I will do everything I can - emotionally, financially and in terms of effort - to make that happen. If we fall short, I'll be able to say I gave it a damn good go.
"But we don't intend falling short."