While he was apprenticed at 14 and an emigrant at 18, Pat Doherty’s life since reads more like that of a pop star than an Irish developer, writes SUZANNE LYNCH
IT’S A DISMAL April day when I make the trip up North to meet the man behind Belfast’s newest district, the Titanic Quarter. Perched at the edge of Belfast’s port, the striking façade of Titanic Belfast looks defiantly out across the Irish Sea, its distinctive shape an obvious echo of the ill-fated liner.
The inclement weather is a fitting reminder of the fate of the ship and its passengers but a sense of dignified pride also imbues the atmosphere of the new development, constructed in the spot where, over 100 years ago, Titanic was built over three years.
“I was going to say it’s a pity about the weather, but then this is a typical Belfast day,” laughs Pat Doherty as we begin our whistle-stop tour of the new visitor attraction. Titanic Belfast is the centrepiece of the residential and commercial development known as the Titanic Quarter.
There’s a twinkle in the eye of the Donegal developer as he darts around the six-floor visitor centre – a stunning exhibition, part history, part social commentary, which tells the story of Titanic and provides a window into Belfast’s once-thriving shipbuilding industry.
But while Doherty is happy to talk at length about the Titanic Quarter, he is initially less candid when it comes to his own career. As we take a seat in the cafe and the conversation broadens out, a quietness sets in.
Doherty is not a man who does interviews. Naturally private, he is notoriously publicity shy. His reticence may have something to do with his surprise appearance at the Telecom Enquiry. Doherty was named in the Glackin report as the owner of the Johnston Mooney& O’Brien site in Ballsbridge that was sold to Telecom Éireann for £9.4 million in 1990. The site had been bought by Dermot Desmond the previous year for £4 million.
The Glackin report, which centred around the ownership of the companies involved in the sale, found that Desmond had been a beneficiary of the sale. He has disputed the findings.
While Doherty keeps mum on the details of the events, he says the inquiry was about “the press and trying to blame someone”. Recalling the event, he says with a smile: “We bought a site and then sold it for more than £9 million. That was a good business deal, something that should have been praised.”
His friendship with Desmond stretches back to this time, but the Titanic Quarter, in which Desmond has a 50 per cent holding, has been their only business partnership, he says.
These days, Doherty is better known as one of the few Irish developers who has managed to keep his head above water. Last month’s Sunday Times Rich List put his personal fortune at £66 million, putting him in 163rd place on the list (albeit down from 113).
Born in Buncrana in Co Donegal in 1942, Doherty went to train as an apprentice with his uncles at the age of 14. By the time he reached 18, he had left for England. “The wages then were £4 a week; they were £14 in England, so myself and a friend headed off for six months,” he says. “The usual story, we’ve been there ever since.”
But it’s at this point that the similarities with the typical Irish emigrant story end, with Doherty’s life reading more like the life of a pop star than an Irish builder.
In the early 1970s, he met Andrew Parker Bowles, then married to Camilla, the current wife of Prince Charles.
“They had a small development company, which we were doing work for. I offered that we would do the work for them for 25 per cent of the profits, and they agreed.” It was to be the start of a lifelong friendship and business partnership – Andrew Parker Bowles is a director of Harcourt Developments.
Other business relationships developed in London. Doherty began working for Chrysalis Records, one of the top record companies in the country, managing their property portfolio and developments on a 50:50 basis. “They put up the money, we did the work. We ran that for them for 17 years.”
His partnership with Chrysalis brought him into contact with some of the top stars including Debbie Harry and the Monkees. He also met the Beatles, after appearing in the video of Hey Jude with two pals from Donegal.
Though Doherty has spent most of his life in England, his Donegal accent is still present, as strong and indecipherable as they come.
By the 1990s, Harcourt Developments was taking off in Ireland, building up a collection of shopping centres, hotels and residential and commercial developments. It opened regional shopping centres in regional centres such as Letterkenny, Drogheda and, most recently, Portlaoise, as well as hotels including Lough Eske in Donegal. Park West, the business park in west Dublin, was one of the company’s main ventures, while it also owns a 100-acre site at CityWest.
In the mid-2000s, Harcourt, which had added people like RTÉ’s Mike Murphy to its board, began building in the Channel Islands, the Caribbean and the US. In 2004, Titanic Quarter Ltd, a joint venture between Doherty and Dermot Desmond, bought the Belfast site.
The latest stage in Harcourt’s odyssey is Nama. The company’s loans have transferred to the state agency. How does Doherty feel about that?
“Nama has got a job to do,” says Doherty. “Everybody’s complaining about them; all they want is their money back. You have to work with them, be straight and open. They know we’ve been running our business successfully for over 30 years.”
Though Doherty appears relaxed about the company’s relationship with Nama, the agency is evidently flexing his muscles. He reveals that Nama ordered Harcourt to sell its five-star Chelsea hotel in London, which was put on the market in March. Harcourt bought the hotel in October 2006 from Lloyds TSB for £63 million. Property sources suggest it may sell for more than £80 million.
“Part of our arrangement with Nama was that we would sell a few things to reduce debt. That’s why we’re selling it.” Is he confident of a sale? “We’ll sell it,” he says decisively, though he notes there are virtually no English buyers in the market.
He also says he’s glad to be getting out of London. “Prices around the world over the last five years have virtually halved. Prices in central London have doubled over the past five years. Use your head. Do you think that’s going to be sustained?”
The most recent results for Harcourt Developments show it made a pre-tax loss of €30 million in 2010, though it had reserves of €87.5 million, a decrease of €15 million on 2009. Doherty says all its properties are income-accruing, with some developments “on hold”.
“Take CityWest as an example. We have a nursing home on the site, and about 95 acres rezoned for 2,000 houses. The market will come back. We’ll sit and wait. We’ll do it when the time is right.”
While he believes “no-one could have predicted the scale of the property crash”, he points out that Harcourt didn’t overextend itself. “The last land we bought in Ireland was in 2000. That tells its own story. The prices were getting so out of hand. We had already seen crashes in the UK in 1972. Yes, the banks were ringing us saying we weren’t borrowing enough, but we weren’t interested.”
Harcourt instead turned its attention outside Ireland, investing in the Carlisle Hotel in Antigua which Doherty says is “doing well”.
Another project was a multimillion dollar joint venture in Las Vegas, an ambitious “village” complex, comprising apartments, offices and shops. The project never got off the ground, and reports followed that Harcourt’s US partners were suing the Irish company. Doherty is keen to set the record straight.
“We were the ones who put a stop to it. We had the funding arranged – we were providing all of the funds. Something in the market wasn’t right and I wanted to put it in the hold for six months,” says Doherty. “We were always in control of the situation.
“To be honest, we were happy to get out of it. We now have full control and would have been in real trouble if we’d started building then, given the collapse of the market. We’ll return to it when the time is right. It was a strategic decision not to fund it.”
A project in Jersey also ran into complications. While Doherty is keen to point out that “everything Harcourt built in Jersey is let”, a plan for the second phase of a development stalled, after Harcourt’s joint partner, the Waterfront Enterprise Board, demanded the payment of a £90 million bond.
Harcourt is now planning to sue WEB, says Doherty, who believes it’s putting unwarranted obstacles in its way. “We had tenants lined up for this second stage but they put up this bond with no planning. There’s no bank in the world that would put up money for a bond without planning.”
Doherty’s other big punt in the last few years has been the Titanic Quarter in Belfast. He bought the 200-acre plus site nine years ago from shipyard owner Fred Olsen. Why Belfast? “Well when we saw the site, [we] could see it offered stunning opportunities for development. It’s not often that a site over 200 acres comes up in the middle of a city.”
Doherty brought Desmond in to help fund the project. Given Desmond’s close involvement with the IFSC in Dublin, many assumed that the Titanic Quarter would seek to replicate the Dublin financial district’s success. Doherty maintains it was always supposed to be a mixed development, comprising a mix of commercial, residential and public sector amenities.
Today the site has a number of tenants including CitiGroup, which employs 1,500 people, a 120-room hotel, Belfast Metropolitan College and Northern Ireland’s public record office.
While around half the apartments in the quarter are sold, Harcourt ran into difficulty when some purchasers reneged on contracts, claiming they were unable to secure mortgages for sales agreed at the height of the property market.
Was Doherty’s timing off? He admits that the last few years have been tough for the Belfast project. “For the last three years, it’s been quite a fight to keep going with what we’re doing, with no sales, no mortgages, residential gone still. This is the worst downturn we’ve had since the 1930s.”
There have also been mumblings of discontent about the cost of the development which is essentially a public-private partnership. Doherty tells me that he and Desmond put in £20 million to the development, as well as an additional £20 million from Doherty.
The remainder is funded between Belfast City Council and Belfast Harbour Commissioners. A recent report by the National Audit Office found that, compared to other world-class attractions, Titanic Belfast could end up “one of the most expensive relative to the number of visitors it expects to attract”.
Doherty is unfazed. He points out that Titanic Quarter attracted just under 80,000 visitors in its first three weeks of opening, well ahead of the estimates it needs to break even. He believes it provides an excellent return for the tax-payer.
“What you’ve got to remember is that this is a long-term project. This is a 75-year project. This will grow as Belfast grows. This is only the first stage, with about 10 per cent of developed. When people want to come and set up in Belfast, they’ll want to come here,” he says.
Though now 70 years of age, one gets the impression that Pat Doherty is still passionate about his work. As he looks out across the quarter, he talks about his plans for the development. Property is in his blood. When asked a question about his life and career, his answer is invariably: “The results speak for themselves.”
Though stressing that “nothing but time” will solve the current crisis, he lays most of the blame for it at the doors of the banks.
“The gambling institutions is what I call them. Derivatives, short selling, all that stuff. Financials don’t even produce a sheet of paper. It’s just sucking money out of the system. It should be going into doing good, infrastructure.
“I’ve no problem with anyone earning money, but it should be about producing something that’s good for society, what they want.”
Outside property, Doherty’s other big passion is art. He was first exposed to the art world by chance.
“I developed David Hockney’s studio in London in the early seventies. At that stage we wouldn’t know what a Picasso was,” he laughs “We were offered some Hockney etchings in exchange for knocking 200 quid off the bill. I thought I was doing them a favour by taking it!”
He has been a collector of Hockney ever since. His other connection with the art world was his relationship with Lucian Freud, the grandson of Sigmund Freud, who died last year.
Doherty met Freud through Parker Bowles. They used to meet “maybe once a month” for dinner, and Freud suggested he would paint Doherty.
“Andrew had been painted himself, and he told me Freud was interested in painting me. At first, I said no way! I’m not sitting for an artist. Poor Andrew was explaining that he’d turned down so many people, big names, so I did it.”
Doherty says he expected three or four sittings; in the end the process involved 100 sittings. “I used to go round to him every Saturday morning from 8.30 to 11.30. He’d spend about two-thirds of the time talking.
“I remember one time he was working on my tie and, after about six sittings, he was still dabbing away at this tie and then he said, under his breath, ‘There’s a lot of life in that tie’ and I said to myself, ‘holy shit, I’m going to be here a good while’.”
As well as the best known painting Donegal Man, now worth an estimated £4 million, Freud also produced an etching and a second painting of Doherty. Doherty owns all three pieces. A copy of Donegal Man hangs in Lough Eske hotel in Donegal.
How did he feel about being painted by a man, not usually known for his aesthetically-sympathetic portraits?
“When I saw the etching in particular I said, ‘Christ! what’s that?’ But what I realised was that he was trying to get inside your head. You’ve got to open up. He wants to see the real you. What Freud does is paint you from the inside out, tries to get into your character.
“I remember a friend of mine saying to me: ‘What are you doing Pat, sitting for him?’ Then a Freud painting sold for 18 and a half million. He rang me up straight away. I said to him: ‘You thought I was sitting around there waisting my time, didn’t you?’,” he says, with that twinkle in his eye.
In that split-second, mischievous look, you can see why Freud wanted to paint him.
Name: Pat Doherty
Family: Married with five children; lives between London and Ireland. His two eldest sons have married women from Donegal and work with Harcourt Developments.
Something that might surprise you: He appeared in the Beatles’ Hey Jude video.
Something that won’t surprise you: His friends include Dermot Desmond and Michael Smurfit.