Three interviews spanning fifteen years, each one rooted in its own time and its own place. Combined, they tell not just the story of a man, but the inverted economic arch of the country.

I first interviewed Frankie Whelehan in August 2005 for The Sunday Business Post. We met in the lobby of the Clarion Hotel next to the River Liffey, one of 21 properties that his buccaneering Choice Hotel group was operating throughout Ireland at the time.

Developers were keen to avail of tax breaks to build hotels. Whelehan, an ambitious hotelier, was keen to run them and take a slice of equity. Together, they rode the crest of Irelands’ surging economic wave, rolling out hotel after hotel with breakneck speed.

When we met, Whelehan had just been shortlisted for Ireland’s Entrepreneur of the Year award, and he was bristling with both industry and ambition. Plans were being finalised to open 25 hotels in Britain, with further growth anticipated in the US and continental Europe.

Whelehan extolled the virtue of the partnership model. “I know a developer is going to build it correctly, and he knows I will run it to the best possible standard,” he told me. “Both of us will lose if we don’t. That is a great safeguard.”

The world had changed entirely when we next spoke in 2012. The industry was in crisis. Room rates were on the floor and the industry was crippled by debt. One in six Irish hotel rooms was under the direct control of a bank. Things were so bad that even Nama, mandated to sell toxic assets, had not bothered to put hotels on the market due to lack of demand.

By then, Whelehan’s partnership model had come unstuck. His landlords, he told me, had been “vaporised” by the crash. He was managing a chain of seven Clarion Hotels, but his new paymaster was Nama – the agency had absorbed both his corporate and personal debt.

He took a chainsaw to costs, scrapped the international expansion, and set his sights on mere survival. “We have to make a profit from these hotels,” he said at the time. “If we don’t, we cannot pay our rents. And if that happens, we will be out on our ear.”

Interview number three took place just two months ago. The location is The Wilder, Whelehan’s fashionable Dublin townhouse that recently became a new addition to the exclusive Blue Book. Both the man and the business model have changed in the intervening years.

Across the 15 years, Whelehan has always remained upbeat in person, and polite to a fault. However, as we talk, it is clear that his journey in that period has forced him to reassess his priorities and his definition of success.

He is, he admits, both scarred by, and scared of, debt. There is a lingering ambition to expand within him, but it is tempered by the experiences of dealing with vulture funds, Nama, receivers, and certain business partners. He has two properties – The Wilder and the Montenotte Hotel in Cork – and he has no plans to go back to his expansionary past.

Where he once referred to “we” as a collection of business partners, developers and bankers, he now is at pains to point out that “we” is his family – his wife Josephine and his three daughters. Whelehan, perpetually smiling, permanently positive, has always come across as happy.

But, sitting in the Wilder eight weeks ago, he seemed genuinely at peace.

And then, days after we met, the whole world changed yet again. The Wilder is shuttered. So too the Montenotte. Amid the Covid-19 lockdown, will Whelehan’s peace hold?


To understand where Frankie Whelehan is now, you must understand what he went through to get there. The year is 2013 and Whelehan is sitting in the lobby of the Gibson Hotel in Dublin’s docklands. Just hours before, Nama had installed receivers over the freehold to the hotel as well as the adjacent Point Theatre. The word on the street was that they were coming for the operator next. So, along with a colleague, he sat in the lobby all night to stop a receiver entering the building and taking control of the property. They took shifts and held on long enough for Whelehan to strike a deal with Nama.

Another example? There was the time his nine-year-old answered the door in his Cork home at 8am in the morning, only to be greeted by a representative of a vulture fund with a letter demanding €20 million to be paid back immediately.

I ask Whelehan if he could sleep during that period. “It was like a never-ending Grand National. You have a big eight-foot fence ahead of you, you climb over that, jump over the edge or whatever, three fellas fall behind you, two refuse. But you jump and you’re on to the next one. You’re onto Beecher’s Brook and you’ve another line of ten fences. But you just keep at it.”


“There are a lot of snakes, but you have to climb the ladder and keep ahead of them.”

The Wilder townhouse in Dublin.

The Wilder is located on Adelaide Road in the city centre, a prosperous and quiet street with a mix of houses, law firms, and subtle offices. The property was a former home for retired governesses and in need of repair. On the market for €5.5 million, Whelehan went in low and scooped it up for €4.6 million.

Like many things in a marriage, it was a compromise. Both he and his wife, also a hotelier, wanted a Dublin property to compliment the Montenotte. Whelehan wanted a sprawling hotel of old, while his wife wanted a form of New England ivy-covered guesthouse. The Wilder was a compromise.

To aid planning, he invited all of the locals to come in and see his plans in advance. Sixteen people turned up – of those, five were residents, while the rest were architects and planners hired by residents. He had barely started before he was interrupted with one resident comparing him to Trump. Another pointed out that the street, with its Regency architecture, was a long way from Whelehan’s home in Cork. He brought the meeting to a swift end.

“As one guy put it to me, he said I was on a very dangerous street – many people there have time and money,” he said.

He got his planning, and the result is a stylish 42-bedroom property aimed at frequent stayers who want a different type of service. The bar and restaurant are residents only, something that Whelehan, as the son of a midlands publican, took a while to get his head around.

We carry out the interview around a coffee table in one of the larger bedrooms.

Ian Kehoe (IK): You paid €4.6 million for the property, and probably the same again bringing it up to spec. Given the past, how did you feel about taking debt?

Franke Whelehan (FW): We didn’t take any.

IK: You managed to do it without any debt?

FW: Without any.

IK: How did you manage that?

FW: Well that’s something we’re very proud of.

IK: I imagine you are proud, but given where you were a few years ago, how did you manage that?

FW: As a family, we managed the trade sale with Dalata and we were the beneficiary of that. Instead of diversifying and gearing up, we used what we had. And when I say we, I mean the family.

IK: “We” has meant a lot of different things over the years.

FW: Yes. But now it is family. And it will stay that way.  

IK: You had no motivation to go big again, bring in partners, and scale it up?

FW: I am 50 now and having been through a horrendous 12, 14 years, I just want a change in my world. Yes, I have been blessed with some fantastic partners. But I have also been beset with others who were not so fantastic. You hear a thousand times that a person’s true persona comes out in the bad times. I went through the bad times, and that is 100 per cent correct – you see the best and the worst of human behaviour.

IK: Who are you talking about?

FW: Snakes and ladders, Ian. There are a lot of snakes, but you have to climb the ladder and keep ahead of them. Who are they? Some are internal, some external.  It was a true education in how people perform. So, hence when I saw “we” now, I mean family.

IK: As a result of the last “we” – developers – you ended up in Nama.

FW: Yes, but I was always kind of a bit player. Coming from my background, I didn’t come from money. I came from a typical Irish household where we’d a family business, but I didn’t come from money. So, I had to rely on debt to get my foot on the property ladder – getting parts and small percentages of large projects because that’s the only way I could do it.  There is a great phrase when you borrow with someone, “joint and several”. When the deals were being signed, you say, ‘Well, if they ever get round to me, they’re really in trouble.’ But they did, you know.  And when all the titans fell, you’re the last man standing. 

Covid-19, hotels and the economic lockdown

Frankie Whelehan is up a ladder when I call. It is just weeks after our interview, but the world has changed utterly. The economy has collapsed into shutdown, with policymakers and businesses scrambling to deal with the full impact of Covid-19.

With his hotels closed, Whelehan is getting around to some home repair. His three children have moved back into the family home. He acknowledges the huge effect on so many people and so many businesses, but believes the government was faced with little choice but to shut down the economy.  

The majority of his own 150 staff had been laid off temporarily or put on income support. He admits that he is lucky, buffered by the fact that he is carrying no debt and has the capacity to quietly hibernate his businesses.

He has another business, First Choice Purchasing, a supply chain group and purchasing business that supplies hotels, healthcare operators, and around two thirds of the nursing homes in the country. It has revenues of €150 million and is headed by Muiris Murphy, the former CEO of Snap Printing. He says this business is performing well.

“It is a funny time to be in business,” he says. “Luckily, we are under-borrowed, so we can get through this.”

How does he view the impact on the rest of the hotel industry? “Many will be ok while they are shut once they have a deal with the banks. But the real problem will be when they open and are operating at half capacity,” he says.

“But if hotels cannot get people back in rooms quickly, it will cause a lot of damage. The critical period for the industry is the first three months. That will be the dangerous period. We will have to see how quickly the economy comes back when it starts to reopen.”

“The size of my debts were irrelevant and I don’t say that lightly, because it was at a level that was just totally bizarre.”

“The company had no debts. But I did. Yes. Personally, I was right in the eye of the storm.”

It is August 2007, and Frankie Whelehan has just pulled off the deal of his career. For a princely €42 million, Pat McCann, the founder of Dalata and a doyen of the Irish hotel industry, has snapped up 11 of Whelehan’s mid-market hotels. The deal makes Whelehan millions, and still leaves him with the more premium Clarion chain.

Just days later, however, BNPO announced it was closing off three gated investment funds amid an “evaporation of liquidity”. No one knew it at the time, but the global economy was about to fall about at its debt-inflated seams.

By October, revenues at its hotel in Limerick were starting to fall. By June 2008, group-wide revenues had collapsed 20 per cent. To combat the problems, Whelehan cut overheads from €4 million to €1.7 million within six weeks.

The problem, however, was not with the group’s trading performance, although this was falling week by week. No, the real problem lay with the developers Whelehan had teamed up with to build the hotels. Overstretched, undercapitalised, many, although not all, were staring into the financial abyss.

IK: The market is crashing. You have issues with shareholders, issues with landlords, and issues, presumably, with debt?

FW:  Well, the funny situation was – and believe me, funny was not a word that we used around that time – but we had none of the debt because we were the operator. But what we did have was large leases and they were commitments we had to honour.

IK: But were you not personally exposed? You had skin in the game?

FW: The company had no debts. But I did. Yes. Personally, I was right in the eye of the storm.  And the one saving grace I had was that I actually was a hotelier. That might sound odd but a lot of my partners in the businesses weren’t hoteliers, so at least I had some operational function during that period between ’08 and ’14/15. 

And if ever we get to see the records in 30 years’ time or whatever, it will show that we survived during that time because we were straight shooters. I pulled together a team of five within the internal management team. We had, if you like, an omertà together where no matter how bad things get, we would always tell each other exactly where we were at. And that management team survived. We stayed alive, we couldn’t pay all of our leases. But eventually, the market comes round, trade picks up again, we’re able to deal with the accruals and we actually got to a point where we brought the Clarion Hotel Group out.

IK: I will come back to the Nama exit in a minute. But essentially you were lucky that you had a utility to Nama?

FW: Pragmatic decisions are reached where you’d say, ‘Okay, do you shoot the operator?’ that’s counterproductive, so they didn’t, thankfully.

IK: How much did you owe Nama?

FW: You know, there’s no actually clear answer to that, Ian.

IK: That is why I am asking. I can’t find a figure anywhere – not a clear cut one anyway.

FW: That says a lot, if you can’t. But even from my point of view, because you could really get into racy numbers because of joint and several liabilities.

IK: Where you are on the hook for debts of partners?

FW: It almost became irrelevant and I don’t say that lightly, because it was at a level that was just totally bizarre, you know. We had ongoing negotiations in terms of sitting down as the operator and saying, look, one thing that Nama could be assured of was that there was not one red cent – and I say this without fear or favour – going adrift.  We took our wages, that was it and we ran those hotels for six, seven years, which allowed Nama to get the best return they could at the time.

IK: And what was that relationship like with Nama?

FW: I found Nama honourable in the end.  Obviously, you’re dealing with a succession of portfolio managers and that causes problems. It was further complicated by the fact that it wasn’t our portfolio manager, it was the borrower who would have owned the hotel. And they changed. So, we would have been dealing with ten to twelve borrowers and over the period of time probably three to four connections or portfolio managers at the time. So, there were very few people we didn’t know in the end. Look, you could sit here and bang your head off a wall. They had a job to do. 

IK: A lot of those people went to England and declared bankruptcy there. Did you consider that?

FW: No, and we had that opportunity.  I remember we had the Croydon Park Hotel in London. Even though it was one hotel, it was actually 50 per cent of our profit at one stage, right? And it was the hotel that kept us afloat, and I was over and back to the hotel. You’re registered as a director over there, so I can’t remember which, it was a journalist anyway who came up a story that Frankie registers as a director in London and this whole story emerged around a potential bankruptcy.

So I’d to make phone calls into my dear friends in Nama and explain that I’m a director over there because we’re a business over there and that I did not have any intention of going bankrupt. I said: “Listen, lads, if you want to take me down, take me down, there’s no issue but I’m not going anywhere.”

IK: It just shows how things can snowball at that period. But was it not something you considered?

FW: No. It wasn’t. I remember being asked a question, how do you keep going in such a dark environment, or whatever. And I said you just have to.

“There are very few buildings around this town I haven’t been in. It was painful, bloody painful.”

IK: But it’s not just a year, you see, Frankie, you can take a year or two years. You were in it for a decade. 

FW: I put it down to human nature actually because we’re an amazing species for acclimatising and what is dark one year becomes the norm the following year. And it becomes the norm and life goes on and after a while, you get a sense of perspective about it and you see friends around you getting a bad diagnosis or something like that.

You are only put on this Earth for a certain number of decades, productive ones. But if I was to put my finger on, what really held true to me was the family business that had been around since 1819 and it was the motivating factor – the fear of failure.  I didn’t want to be the one who failed. I’m from a family of nine, we have a very proud tradition in terms of owning our own business and if you think of the events that happened from 1819 to whatever, 2019, and all that beset this country – no one ever took that option. 

IK: Let’s get back to leaving Nama. How did you do that in the end?

FW: I’ll answer that two ways. Corporately, it was a case of trading our way out of it, so there was an upturn in 2013, we’d a great year in 2014. Our rents were there, there was a deficit for a few years, but there wasn’t that big a gap before. So, therefore, two good trading years actually was enough to trade ourselves out of it. That was number one. So, corporately we traded our way out of it and I was probably seen as leading the pack in that regard. Then personally, it was sitting down, most of the loans were sold on and then you sit down with a different person, and that person is probably more aggressive and so on.

IK: And this was with funds who bought your debt?

FW: Funds. There are very few buildings around this town I haven’t been in. It was painful, bloody painful and you’re walking a tightrope the whole time and it only takes one bullet, you know.

IK: That must have been different going from Nama into that vultures?

FW: They are different beasts and again if you can keep in your head, I’ve a job to do, they’ve a job to do and we’re both trying to get out of this alive and it’s really not in your interest or my that for either of us to blow this up. Now I think there has to be a degree of honour and integrity.  If Ian Kehoe is known as a messer, you’re gone.  If Ian Kehoe produces a fiver a week and it’s a legitimate situation, they’ll take the fiver a week and they’ll allow you out of Dodge.


Frankie Whelehan on the Irish hotel industry

Back in 2009, the economist Peter Bacon published a report on the Irish hotel industry, detailing how massive over-investment had led to chronic over-capacity. Based on market data, Bacon reckoned that most hotels built since 2005 were seriously insolvent.

Weak demand had turned a bad situation into a crisis. Bacon estimated that between 12,300 and 15,300 hotel rooms should be removed from the system. Some 200 hotels would have to close, bringing the number down to around 700. To facilitate it, the report said the government should allow investors to walk away without losing their tax breaks.

A decade on, the conversation has turned to undersupply – although the impact of Covid-10 may yet derail that chatter. Hotels have enjoyed a boon in profitability, with the sector benefitting from the surge in inward investment and tourism.

Although Whelehan is happily no longer the country’s largest hotelier, he still has an insight into the two main markets – in Dublin through The Wilder and in Cork through the Montenotte. Indeed, he has spent much of his time recently expanding and improving the Cork property, which overlooks the city and sits on acres of land.

Even before Covid-19, Whelehan had concerns about the Cork market. “There’s a lot of capacity about to come into the market, in pure Cork – I’m saying pure Cork but within a five-mile radius of Patrick’s Street, there’s approximately about 1,800 beds there at the moment.  There’s 1,500 new hotel rooms planned.  They are all kind of 200, 250-bed hotels.  Will they all get built? I don’t know. Is the capacity there to absorb that into the marketplace? I don’t know,” he says.  

In relation to Dublin, he says capacity is coming on stream to meet supply. However, he believes the market is under some strain. “Probably some of the existing operators with very solid occupancies and average room rates are seeing a decline in both.  But it’s still feasible to build hotels, so, I think that market is okay.  Around the country, the difficulty would be to get them finance because outside of your funds coming in – and they’re not likely to build in a Galway and Kilkenny, et cetera – they’ll build in Dublin, may do in Cork, and that’s even a ‘may’ and that’s it. I think you will probably see some hotels diversifying away from the classic model of your country hotel doing weddings and into new markets like spa of wellness.”

“I happened to be the fella tied to the mast, you know.  And I suddenly found that the cargo of oil was mine.”

“Don’t make the same mistake twice. That would be unforgivable.”

It is late 2015, and the tentative economic recovery is gaining traction. Nama is finding joy in the markets, with vulture funds and institutional investors prepared to buy into the Irish story. Once regarded as a liability, Whelehan’s operating contracts across the chain of hotels is now seen as an opportunity. So too are the physical buildings, still within Nama, that he occupied.

As Nama prepares to sell the properties, Whelehan gets a call from an old friend, Pat McCann, fresh from raising €265 million from an IPO. McCann wants to know if Whelehan wants to sell the operating business to Dalata. Although some senior management wants to expand and grow, Whelehan looks into his heart and knows it is time to sell.

“Pat McCann is a true gentleman and a true hotelier and both parts came out to play in the deal,” Whelehan says. “And we did two deals together. It is not as if you’re selling physical buildings. You’re selling lots of staff, so therefore potentially lots of issues and you’re selling leases that could have issues as well. So, there has to be a lot of trust in that so we got out. At that stage, I’d a management team who were all set for off again. They wanted to lease more hotels, do more things, get into the UK, et cetera, and at this stage where I’m 50 now. I was in a different place.”

I point out that the old Frankie might have gone back on an expansion mission? “The old Frankie would be on 17 hotels now. And that’s fine and I really enjoyed it and it was the surfboard on what was happening in Ireland at the time and it was fantastic to be part of that. But, you know, don’t make the same mistake twice. That would be unforgivable,” he says.

“I want to be the guy, when I’m gone to the next world or whatever, sitting in the box saying I left nothing behind me.”

IK: A decade ago, there was an opportunity for bankruptcy. Now you have this hotel without debt. It’s quite the comeback.

FW: It is I suppose, but I don’t think of it that way.

IK: But it is an achievement.

FW: There have been an awful lot of twists and turns and all the rest, but getting the original company out of debt, that was the key thing really. We had no debt in the company because no one would give it to us, you know, so you’re coming out clean. If we could have got debt, we would have taken it. We didn’t.  And it is then kind of almost cashing in your chips at half eleven at night and going home – don’t be the fool to stay until one o’clock in the morning and say why didn’t I leave at half eleven. And that’s really it, it’s just getting off that racetrack completely and being happy on the one that you’re on.

IK: Looking back through the boom years though, you mentioned a surfboard. That was quite the thrill?

FW: You have to experience these things. Like God Almighty, I want to be the guy, when I’m gone to the next world or whatever, sitting in the box saying I left nothing behind me. And that’s not being bravado. I took the opportunities. Like there was a lot of opportunities in putting a hotel group together. We took them. We managed them. We put a structure together. We did a great sale in 2007, we did a great sale in 2016, what happened in between wasn’t pretty. And it has been a journey – coming from a family business into being in partnership with anyone who had a heartbeat, to having a couple of key partners, to having no partners in the end because they weren’t allowed to be partners, and then you get to a trade sale. It is a little like that ship that washed up on the Cork coast, you know. 

IK: The ‘ghost ship’ which washed up on the Cork coast at the height of Storm Dennis?

FW: Absolutely.  But I happened to be the fella tied to the mast, you know.  And I suddenly found that the cargo of oil was mine. But you deal with it.


When we first met in 2005, Frankie Whelehan told me a story. Having served his time with the Great Southern and Holiday Inn groups, he took a job as manager of Morrisons Island hotel in Cork. A year into the job, the hotel went on the market. Paddy Kelly, then one of Ireland’s most successful developers, was eyeing up the premises and approached Whelehan about a partnership. Whelehan said he was interested, but that he lacked the cash to buy into the deal.

“A few days later, I got a cheque from Paddy for £80,000. No strings attached.

“That was my equity. I was 27 at the time,” Whelehan told me in 2005. That was the start of the transformation of a hotelier into a businessman, a bridge between the industry and developers.

Fifteen years on, I remind Whelehan of the story, and ask, with everything that has flowed under the bridge since, would he have cashed the cheque?

“Absolutely. Absolutely because, you know, would I have had the balls to buy the Wilder if I didn’t cash that cheque? No.”