In this interview, Kieran Wallace, head of restructuring and insolvency with KPMG, talks about:

  • Agreeing a settlement with the Quinn family
  • Liquidating IBRC and selling loans of €24 billion
  • Restructuring CityJet and the future of aviation
  • Why regional hotels are outperforming those in Dublin
  • The state’s response to the crisis
  • The future of retail
  • The need to restore consumer and business confidence
  • The sectors most at risk in the crisis
  • Why he is more concerned for 2021 than 2020
  • The resilience of Irish businesses
  • Why not making decisions can kill companies
  • The importance of accurate financial information
  • The future of examinerships


The view may be picturesque, but Kieran Wallace is increasingly concerned when he looks out the window of his third-floor office in KPMG’s industrial style Dublin headquarters. The view encompasses St Stephen’s Green and the top of Grafton Street, and for much of the six years since Wallace moved in, it has been one of the busiest areas in the city.

Now, however, it is largely deserted. Wallace may have returned to his office, but most workers in the area have not. Many offices are shuttered, and the footfall in the area has collapsed. Retailers have reported a massive decline in revenue, and many restaurants in the area are down by more than 65 per cent.

“I have never seen so few people walk up and down that part of the street as I have over the last couple of months,” he tells me.

“There are still about a thousand people in KPMG who are still not back in the office. A lot of auxiliary businesses nearby are pretty badly impacted by the fact we have not got all of our people back in the office.”

During the last crisis, when Wallace made his reputation as one of the country’s leading insolvency practitioners, the overriding issue was excess debt. This time around, Wallace believes it is about confidence – or given the empty streets, the lack of confidence.

He believes that the swift government response to the global pandemic has insulated many businesses from the full effect of Covid-19. However, when those supports begin to unwind, he is worried that the lack of confidence among business owners and consumers will have a detrimental effect on any prospective recovery.

“It is just not busy from an insolvency practitioner perspective – and I am not asking anybody to feel sad about that.”

Despite the shutdown, there have been relatively few corporate failures in recent months, and Wallace says that he does not expect that to change for many months yet. However, if confidence does not begin to improve, Wallace says 2021 could be a troubling year for business.

“What happens when the stimulus packages end?” he asks. “Then the question will be whether or not we are going to see a spate of companies starting to get into financial difficulties. At that point, we could see a really negative impact on the Irish economy. That is my concern. It is actually not 2020. My real concern is 2021.”

Boom. Bust. Recovery. What next?

There may have been relatively few formal insolvencies in recent months, but Wallace and his team at KPMG have been involved in many of the major cases that have materialised.

In recent weeks, Wallace finalised a scheme to save the Irish airline CityJet from collapse following a complex scheme of arrangement. Along with his colleague Andrew O’Leary, he was also installed as liquidator of the Irish operation of Debenhams, the British retail chain.

Wallace and O’Leary were also installed as liquidator of the USIT travel and education group. Meanwhile, KPMG partner Shane McCarthy successfully restructured Maximum Media, which was behind the Joe media brand, through an examinership and sale process.

The cases add to a long list of high-profile work on Wallace’s resume. A native of Castlebellingham, a village in Co Louth, Wallace studied at University College Dublin before training as an accountant. He joined KPMG, quickly working his way up the corporate ladder to head of insolvency and restructuring.

He gained a national profile for his work during the financial crash. As the economy slid, he picked up receiverships from most of the banks, taking over the assets and businesses of collapsed builders such as Howard Holdings, Ellen Construction and the Conway Partnership. He also managed insolvencies at the Hughes & Hughes book chain, Superquinn, the Jackie Skelly gym business, and Futura Gael, a Dublin-based charter airline. Along with O’Leary, he was even a receiver to a private island off the coast of Mayo.

He was also appointed as receiver to more than 60 hotels during the crash – most in Ireland, but some scattered abroad also.

As the crisis escalated, he was centrally involved in two of the biggest insolvencies in the history of the state – the receivership of the Quinn Group and the liquidation of the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation (IBRC), the vehicle established to manage the carcass of Anglo Irish bank and Irish Nationwide.

The latter insolvency is still ongoing, and is due to be completed over the next two years. The former, the Quinn Group, resulted in a global asset chase across dozens of countries and a tangled maze of international litigation. Indeed, it was only last year when Wallace signed off on a final agreement with members of the Quinn family that saw both sides end the legal marathon.

Over the course of our interview, Wallace discusses these cases, and also the cases that gave him the most satisfaction.

However, we begin with the impact of Covid-19 on Irish business.

Ian Kehoe (IK): You were obviously very active during the last crisis. How do you think what we are going through now compares to what occurred ten years ago?

Kieran Wallace (KW): I think it is quite different on a number of fronts. Firstly, the previous crisis we had in 2008 and 2009 impacted a number of particular sectors and industries. Covid-19 is something that is affecting all of the economy.

Secondly, we saw the previous crisis coming for a period of time, albeit a short one. This came very quickly.

The other critical difference is that this government, and governments in other countries, have moved very quickly to support businesses in the short to medium terms, which we did not have in the previous crisis. So I do think they are quite different.

IK: Lots of people lost their jobs and lots of businesses went under during the last crisis. And it took five or six years for the economy to recover. How do you see the recovery trajectory for the Covid-19 crisis?

KW: I personally think the recovery should be much quicker this time. But the bigger question is just how deep the crisis goes first. I think everything is pointing to a very simple theme, which is confidence. The more confidence people have, the more things they do, the more decisions they make and the more money they spend. If their confidence is strong, they will make big decisions, and they will make those kind of decisions quicker. 

IK: Ten years ago, it was about debt. This time, this crisis is about confidence and supressed supply.

KW: Yes, and consumer spending.

IK: And, given that, what do you think the impact of this crisis will be on the economy?

KW: Lots of people say to me that I must be incredibly busy. I am kept going but I am not any busier than I would have been 12 or 18 months ago. People think we should be ‘out the door’ busy, due to this very significant economic shock – one that has affected lots of people and businesses. But we are not and neither are our competitors. It is just not busy from an insolvency practitioner perspective – and I am not asking anybody to feel sad about that.

“I know people have subsequently criticised the sale of loans to private equity firms. But we needed to create that market in order to deliver a return for the Exchequer.”

Kieran Wallace on liquidating IBRC

IK: We have had very few insolvencies, mostly British retailers shuttering their Irish operations or we had a few companies in the aviation sector. Why is that?

KW: We have had, in my view, an extremely low level of businesses that have got into trouble because of Covid-19. In the main the businesses that have gone through an insolvency process are businesses that already had issues, Covid-19 simply expeditated their problems and made them materialise more quickly.

In terms of businesses that have gone into insolvency because of Covid-19, it is actually very, very few.

Businesses are managing or surviving through this particular crisis, and many are doing so because government has provided such an extensive stimulus package allowing them not to have to immediately react to the issues facing their business.

Generally, in our world, the insolvency world, you tend to see problems about three months in advance. There is no indication of widescale insolvency issues appearing on the horizon at this point. It is just not there. Which is great. But my concern is what happens when the stimulus packages end. Then the question will be whether or not we are going to see a spate of companies starting to get into financial difficulties. At that point, we could see a really negative impact on the Irish economy. That is my concern. It is actually not 2020. My real concern is 2021.

Restaurants, hotels, commercial property, and aviation

IK: What sectors are you concerned for? The restaurant sector, for example, was already in trouble prior to the crisis, and is now feeling more pain. Is this an area at risk? You did a lot of hotels and shops during the last crisis. What about those sectors?

KW: We still have a small number of hotels in Ireland and abroad under our control and a few pubs in Ireland which are in Dublin city centre. I think that Dublin, ironically, has been a lot worse affected than the rest of the country.

I was concerned about hotels – people had paid very big prices and large multiples for hotels over the last few years. But a lot of the hotels outside of Dublin appear to be doing well. Occupancy in Dublin hotels appears to be very low with no visitors or business travellers

With regard to pubs, certainly the ones that we have, the trade is significantly down and there is a lot of additional costs in running the businesses that you would not have had heretofore. So, people will be dealing with additional costs, less capacity and a potential lack of people coming back into the city.

Look at my own office. My office looks over the side of St Stephen’s Green towards Grafton Street. I have been in the same office for over nine years. I have never seen so few people walk up and down that part of the street as I have over the last couple of months. There are over a thousand people in KPMG who have yet to come back to the office. A lot of auxiliary businesses nearby are pretty badly impacted by the fact we have not got everybody back in the office yet.

“I don’t think Zoom or Teams is the answer to everything.”

IK: The Irish airline CityJet was among the first to go into a formal process. You just did the CityJet examinership and you managed to restructure it. Is aviation in for a rough period? Ireland has a really big exposure in this sector – not just in terms of airlines, but also in terms of aviation leasing.

KW: It is going to go through a tough period? There is no question about that. And it is going to take time to get back anywhere close to where it was pre-Covid.

But I am not one of the people who believe it is going to be as bad as some people say it is. Even working on CityJet, it was great to see trading numbers improve over the examinership period – the load factors increased, and people were starting to travel again at a decent level in the Nordic region where Cityjet predominantly operates.

Personally speaking, I can’t wait to be able to travel again – personally and business wise. I think the amount of business travel will reduce but it was coming off a huge high.

I don’t think we will get to the level of business travel that people did before. But if you are doing business with someone for the first time, you will want to meet them certainly at the beginning. If you have a presence abroad or assets abroad, you will have to see it and/or visit the site. I don’t think Zoom or Teams is the answer to everything.

IK: Overall, you seem bullish enough about many sectors but cautious about 2021?

KW: Yes I think that’s fair. A number of businesses in this country that provide a lot of employment, are large, project type companies. One concern I do have, however, is that if we stay in a period of hiatus/uncertainty for too long, people may delay making on a timely basis the big decisions they would have previously made. Therefore, there could be a gap in some of the larger projects getting commissioned. They will get commissioned, but the timing may differ.

Therefore, some of these larger companies could see gaps in their deal flow or contract flow in 2021 and beyond. Having said that, capital expenditure and capital expenditure projects seem to have held up well to date and Covid does not seem to have had any material impact to date.

“A lot of time I end up in troubled businesses not because of decisions they make, but because of decisions they don’t make.”

IK: You are head of private enterprise in KPMG. What is the mood music for indigenous firms right now?

KW: There is a good level of optimism. There is a great sense of resilience. Many businesses have been incredibly innovative in what they have done to react to the Covid-19 issues. I think they are concerned about the future but optimistic that they can deal with it.

IK: You mentioned innovation. Companies have implemented massive changes to their operations almost overnight. What are the learnings from this – how much do you think will be maintained in the longer term?

KW: I hope that much of the agility that Irish businesses have shown is retained, but human nature can be that the things you do when you are up against it, when you get back to normal times, you forget the good changes you have done and revert back to norm. For a lot of businesses, they have had to make decisions very quickly and they have had to implement them in real time. The amount of change that has happened in such a short space of time is incredible. If it was in the normal business cycle, it would have taken a whole lot longer and the implementation of the changes would probably not have been as effective. It does give weight to the phrase “never waste a good crisis”.

A lot of the time I end up in troubled businesses not because of decisions they make, but because of decisions they don’t make. This crisis has really focused business on making decisions and making them at the right time. Some of those decisions are often difficult and hard decisions – laying people off, closing down part of the business, selling off part of the business, getting rid of certain contracts. But in this crisis, they have had to do that, and they have had to do it quickly. And they have been able to do it.

IK: A lot of companies have retrenched. What are the big issues they are now facing – working capital etc?

KW: With all of the stimulus packages and government supports that are out there at the moment, we are probably seeing a lesser need for assistance on working capital. At this point, many businesses are managing their working capital through the cycle, and managing their cash appropriately. It’s next year when the stimulus supports end that will really test working capital within companies.

Businesses need a plan, but they also need accurate information. Times like these emphasise a couple of things – one, it really rewards those businesspeople who fundamentally understand the basics of their business, and secondly, it really does expose those businesses who don’t have accurate and up to date financial information. 

Accurate information is absolutely essential in managing a business properly. That feeds into cashflow, and cashflows are the engine of a business.

You can make losses as much as you want, but you can only run out of cash once. Accurate information is really, really important and I am sometimes very surprised how inaccurate or poor the cashflow information is in certain businesses.

“Well, we have a settlement agreement with the family which is based on full disclosure from the Quinns. I am glad it is over. It was an incredibly long journey.”

IK:  Obviously, we need firms to grow to grow the economy. How do we stimulate that that growth?

KW: We need to get money back fully circulating in the economy and getting confidence back – allowing companies and people to make decisions and progressing what they had planned to do prior to Covid. We had a very strong economy. It was doing incredibly well, and it is trying to get that confidence back quickly is what is badly needed. It will not be easy but it is essential.

IK: How do you rank the state’s response to the crisis in terms of the supports that have been rolled out to date?

KW: I think the Government have been very responsive very quickly and have listened to Irish business and their concerns. They have addressed as best they can the issues within the economy – nothing is perfect, nor can it be perfect. They will have to take an ever-adapting approach over the months ahead.

They have certainly done more in this crisis than I have ever seen before – it has been required and needed and they have delivered.


Extending examinerships to 150 days

“I was on the group that looked at those issues and I am a big supporter of extending it out to 150 days. There is a lot of uncertainty around at the moment, people need extra time. It is hard to get people in the one room, to get decisions made and to get through a process like examinership which can be very complicated at times.

“I am a big fan of examinerships generally, and I am surprised it has not been used more in recent times. It will probably be used more going forward. But I don’t think the 150 days will change the number of examinerships or increase the use of examinerships.

“I do believe we need another process alongside examinership to help businesses deal with the financial and non-financial issues they may face in the months and years ahead. With or without Covid issues I would have had the same view. An adapted scheme of arrangement, one of the core elements of an examinership, is required. For a lot of small businesses, examinership is prohibitively expensive for the quantum of the issues they want to resolve. They need another option with less Court involvement and allowing them more to get hands-on in solving their own problems with their own suppliers and creditors.


Battling billionaires and liquidating a bank

IK: You have had so many high-profile cases. What are the ones that gave you the most satisfaction?

KW: I was very satisfied that we got Superquinn successfully away to Musgraves. It protected a huge amount of jobs at the time and it continues to trade strongly. It helped Musgraves to develop their own SuperValu brand, which is great to see.

I was also very happy to see the CityJet examinership get across the line a few weeks ago. An awful lot of hard work went into the process from everybody including the company and its management under Pat Byrne – it was a tricky time given where the aviation sector was at to make it all work. There were definitely a few bumps. It is a real privilege to work with different management teams and find solutions to problems to protect jobs and save companies and working with Pat and his management team was no exception.

Saving jobs and seeing companies prosper is very satisfying.

IK: The liquidation of IBRC is nearing completion. It has been pushed back a year due to Covid-19, but it is near there. How big a job was that and what did it entail?

KW: In retrospect it was an incredibly massive task to take on. At the time, I don’t think myself or Eamon [Richardson, the joint special liquidator to IBRC] had any real sense of the size of the task we were taking on.

Given the confidential nature of the liquidation itself, we were not able to pre-plan anything or talk to management in advance (which would be the norm is most insolvencies). We had no insight. We hit the ground running on day one faced with more than 1,000 employees in numerous locations in Ireland and abroad and a loan book of €24 billion. It was a massive operation to get our hands around and get control of.

It was a unique professional experience, and something I don’t think I will ever get to do in my career again. I learned an incredible amount from it.

“People generally only hear about the insolvency practitioners themselves, and they don’t hear about the incredible teams behind them. It is not one person.”

At the peak of the liquidation, we had 300 to 400 KPMG people working on it including eight fellow KPMG partners. There were multiple aspects to it. It was a job which did necessitate the support of quite a number of the IBRC employees who were in shock when we arrived, which was understandable. The support they gave us during the liquidation in what was very difficult circumstances for them (the legislation had terminated their employment) was brilliant.

They rolled up their sleeves and worked with us in very difficult circumstances. We certainly could not have done the job without the support and help we got from the IBRC employees who worked with us.

IK: You mentioned the €24 billion loan book. At the time it was expected that you would struggle to sell the majority of it. But you sold all if it, and it really reset the market in Ireland.

KW: I know people have subsequently criticised the sale of loans to private equity firms. But we needed to create that market in order to deliver a return for the Exchequer in respect of the liquidation. And if we had not have done that, we would not have been able to pay all the creditors of the bank 100 cent in the euro. That would not have been possible if we had not created the market at that time to encourage private equity firms into Ireland.

IK: You agreed a deal with the Quinn family. Are you glad that it has been closed out and it that it was the best available for the taxpayer? Is the Quinn liquidation now over?

KW: Well, we have a settlement agreement with the family which is based on full disclosure from the Quinns. I am glad it is over. It was an incredibly long journey. I was involved in the original Quinn enforcement nine years ago.

We still have Quinn-related assets to realise in Ireland, UK, Czech Republic, Ukraine, Russia and India

IK: When you are on these jobs, it must be immensely consuming. How do you manage the portfolio of jobs you work on?

KW: People generally only hear about the insolvency practitioners themselves, and they don’t hear about the incredible teams behind them. It is not one person. It is a team of people who work alongside you and who are the backbone of delivering what you do. It is because legislation profiles generally only one or two individuals – the actual appointment takers – you don’t normally hear about anyone else. But if you take our team at KPMG, we have eleven people, each of whom I have worked with for ten years or more. You could not do this kind of work without an experienced and great team.

Kieran Wallace is participating in the Ireland INC Leadership Series: No Line on the Horizon Webinar, which takes place at 3pm on August 18. For further information, see