Johnny Ronan is having dinner with his girlfriend Mary. The venue is Le Jardin, and the year is 1979. The restaurant is based in the Goulding Summer House, an iconic and arresting building overhanging the River Dargle in Enniskerry, Co Wicklow. 

The building was named after its owner, Sir Basil Goulding, and designed by architect Ronnie Tallon of Scott Tallon Walker. A businessman, art collector and a gardener, Sir Basil had played both international cricket and squash for Ireland while also fighting in World War II as a wing commander with the Royal Air Force. 

He had spent years creating a unique estate in Wicklow; homes were sited on either side of a valley, separated by the rushing waters of the River Dargle. During the late 1970s, the aristocrat turned one of those properties, Goulding House, into a high-end fine dining restaurant.

One would almost have to see it to believe it: an extraordinary rectangular building clad with a mix of cedar and glass secured on a rocky outcrop in the valley that allows it cantilever vertiginously out from the riverbank over the Dargle.

Built in 1972, the house was unlike anything else in Ireland. Decades later, it was included in The Iconic House, Architectural Masterworks since 1900 by Thames and Hudson, who described it as a “bold and confident precursor to an age of highly engineered pieces of tectonic theatre”.

Ronan was just 26 years of age. But he and Mary, dark haired and strikingly beautiful, loved the ambition and setting of the building, which was reached by a rope bridge to Dargle Cottage, Sir Basil Goulding and his wife Valerie’s other home in the valley. 

Ronan turns his head away from the view to Mary. “Someday we are going to own this place,” he tells her. “This is paradise.” Later that night, he proposed to her, and she accepted.

Part 1: A need to go up

Johnny Ronan is standing in the oak-lined Cellar Bar located in the original 18th-century wine vaults of Dublin’s five-star Merrion Hotel. When I arrive, he is deep in conversation with Kevin O’Sullivan, an Irish American businessman.

O’Sullivan’s company, Tower Group Holdings, has worked on everything in New York from renovating Grand Central Station to Apple’s iconic glass cube flagship store. 

Rory Williams, the former general counsel with Ronan’s old business, Treasury Holdings, is also there. Williams has just been appointed chief executive of Ronan’s new business, Ronan Group Real Estate (RGRE).  He was previously chief legal officer at Ervia, a commercial semi-state responsible for gas and water.

The three men are immersed in conversation. It is impossible to tell if it is a random meeting or if a plan is being hatched. Given the clientele of the Cellar Bar, it could be either, or indeed both.

Ronan spots me. The conversation halts as he calls me over. He is wearing his standard attire: dark suit, white shirt. His trademark neat black beard is streaked with white. He looks fit, which is unsurprising given he is a regular cyclist across Wicklow, the Pyrenees, the Alps, even Majorca. 

He is serious about the pursuit, scaling the highest mountain peaks from the Tour de France. Sometimes, he rides with his sons; on other occasions with his friend, Sean Kelly, the cycling champion who ranks easily as one of the finest classics riders of all time.

Our meeting was pre-arranged, and the plan was to discuss building heights in Dublin and why Ronan has felt compelled to take out newspaper advertisements comparing the Irish capital’s low rise building heights with that of New York, London, San Francisco and Paris. 

Ronan has a folder of papers and documents with him. Clearly, he has prepared for our interview, one of the very few he has given throughout a career at the coalface of Irish business for decades. 

Yet, he rarely looks at his notes, other than to check some quotes from others. As is his wont, and indeed his way, the interview is both on and off piste.

We begin by talking about heights, densities and the Irish economy.

TOM LYONS (TL): What does Dublin need to do to remain competitive internationally?

JOHNNY RONAN (JR): The issues Dublin is grappling with as a city, including the endemic housing crisis, are partly the symptoms of rapid growth and redevelopment. And they are problems that other high-profile metropolises, San Francisco and London for example, also have to deal with. They are the problems of success but they can become the causes of failure if we don’t act to resolve them. 

We need to fix the housing crisis, retain our corporation tax rate and continue to invest in education. We need the vision to realise more efficient use of spare space. We must embrace height. We need greater heights, greater densities and lower car parking ratios in appropriate locations – particularly those well served by public transport – the most suitable of which are  unquestionably Spencer Place and Waterfront South Central [where RGRE has land]. We need the courage to deliver better infrastructure. We need to build the Dart underground interconnector and expand the Luas. We need to move Dublin Port out of the city and regenerate its land as a new city quarter. 

Waterfront South Central
Computer-generated image of the Waterfront South Central development. Photo: Ronan Group

Be it in twenty, fifty or one hundred years, I see the latter as an inevitability. We need to set a grand ambition for what our city, and our country, has the potential to become. We built the world’s first carbon neutral convention centre right here in Dublin, and, in their wisdom, Dublin City Council saw to it that we’re the only convention centre in the world without a dedicated hotel attached. Our docklands are an arbitrary six stories of low density mediocrity. Why do we constrain our potential with small thinking? That is our single biggest risk to remaining competitive internationally. We need to wake up and embrace the golden opportunity that we will have as the only English-speaking country left in the EU post Brexit. We will not get there by small thinking.

“What is stopping it is inflexible, outdated planning policies which are out of sync with prevailing government policy”

TL: What would you say to people who think Dublin risks losing its unique character if it allows buildings go too far upwards?

JR: The city’s historic Georgian core should be protected and celebrated, no question. Locating well-designed taller buildings in appropriate locations however does nothing to compromise the city’s character – quite the opposite. Cities are dynamic. They are living, breathing things that over time, must evolve. Locating tall buildings in Dublin’s docklands – without a doubt the most suitable location, and following the lead of virtually every other progressive European and world city – will give rise to a 21st century Dublin to complement the city core. 

There is a once-in-a-generation opportunity in Dublin’s docklands to realise a bold vision for the future of our capital, to create something of real architectural integrity, and to promote Dublin as an international city. I think the greater risk is to Dublin’s future if we don’t allow buildings go upwards. As the new urban development and building heights guidelines introduced by minister Eoghan Murphy state: “Our cities and towns must grow upwards, not just outwards if we are to meet the many challenges ahead.”

TL: Ronan Group Real Estate has campaigned for the Salesforce tower to be allowed go two storeys higher. Why does this make sense and what is stopping it?

JR: It makes sense because greater heights in docklands makes sense – DCC [Dublin City Council] have themselves reached that conclusion in their own SDZ [Strategic Development Zone] review; yet they have twice rejected an additional two floors on our buildings. I can’t see any sense in that. Particularly when it’s at such a modest scale, in the area of the city best served by public transport, on the river, without any impact on the historic character of the city core and when it is to fulfil the needs of a major contributor to the Irish economy. What is stopping it is inflexible, outdated planning policies which are out of sync with prevailing government policy, contrary to best practice urban development principles, and against the will of the city’s most important stakeholders – its people. Eighty-seven per cent of respondents in our Red C poll support taller buildings. Other competitor cities do all they can to encourage and facilitate employment. Dublin City Council have presided over the precise opposite at Spencer Place.

Part 2: Not exactly St Stephen’s Green

The 1980s were a bleak time for Ireland. The economy was weak, emigration was rife, and unemployment blighted large parts of the country, never dropping out of double digits. Living standards fell and Dublin was marked by swathes of derelict buildings and endemic poverty.  In The Destruction of Dublin, Frank McDonald’s seminal 1985 book, he quotes former Lord Mayor of Dublin, Jim Mitchell, as saying the city had “about as much character as a second-rate knacker’s yard”. Regardless of the metrics, Dublin lagged far behind most western European capitals. It was in this austere milieu that Ronan, along with other ambitious developers, was forced to operate in.  

In the mid-1980s Johnny Ronan bought the old Boland’s Bakery on Grand Canal Street in Dublin 2. The building had played an important part in the 1916 Rising as it was occupied by Eamon de Valera who went on to become president of Ireland.  

The cost for a historic building? A mere IR£400,000. Now it was in the hands of Ronan, and he quickly stripped it back to its concrete frame before transforming it into an office building.

He had various business partners in the venture at varying times: AIB Investment Managers, Prudential Life and Paddy McKillen. Each played their part, but it was the indefatigable Ronan who really drove the deal.

“The big problem was what to do with this massive structure,” Ronan tells me. “At one stage it was to be the home for the National Archives but eventually we decided on offices. It was the largest building of its type at the time.” 

The difficulty for Ronan was how to attract premium tenants to his building. Forget the Dublin of today. Back in the eighties, it was the edge of a run-down industrialised area. At weekends, when Ronan would take his children on a cycle from their home in Foxrock to look at the construction, they would take their bikes onto the site to ensure they were not stolen. 

Yet, despite the location, Ronan was convinced he could make the building work. He built a 120-feet tall atrium inside the building, comprised of polished marble and accompanied by an indoor waterfall. The Irish Times described it as “Dublin’s most spectacular new office block”.

Treasury Building atrium.
The 120-feet atrium inside Treasury Building. Photo: Ronan Group

Ronan modelled the atrium, which cost £3 million to build, on Trump Tower in Manhattan. Ronan had visited Trump Tower after it opened in 1983 as well as other buildings in New York as he tried to learn what the new wave of American banks setting up their European operations in Dublin expected.

Ronan put in a high-end air-conditioning system to keep the 130,000 sq ft building cool in all seasons and laid out its floor plans to facilitate trading.    

He pre-let 30 per cent of the building to the newly merged UDT / First Southern Bank after agreeing to acquire their old headquarters in Temple Bar (Ronan will return to this subject later in more detail), but an even bigger coup was convincing the National Treasury Asset Management Agency (NTMA) to locate there. 

The NTMA was set up by then Taoiseach Charlie Haughey in 1990, tasked with borrowing for the exchequer and managing the national debt. Along with the IDA, it was one of the state’s key agencies that brought the economy out of a prolonged period of gloom. 

Michael Somers, a shrewd and well respected former senior official in the Department of Finance, was its boss.

“I brought Michael Somers up to the floor in 1990 and we looked out the window,” Ronan recalls.

“I said: ‘Michael, this is the future best location in Dublin. See that water body – it’s the Grand Canal docks and we have bought some of the warehouses.’” 

“Michael said: ‘We can’t have a naked woman climbing up the wall into our building. What will the public think?’”

Ronan gave his pitch to Somers; how he already owned some of the buildings, and would redevelop others in a joint venture with IAWS and CIE (which was later reneged on by Philip Lynch, the chief executive of IAWS). 

Michael Somers, Ronan recalls, was sceptical of his vision for the area. 

“Michael said: ‘What’s that noise? Is it sheep ba ba baing away? Jesus, Johnny what is that?’ I said: ‘That’s the future Michael. It is a meat factory now – International Meat Packers – but we’ll buy that too and put a big scheme on it and call it Grand Canal Docks!’” 

Somers replied: “It’s a long way in the future Johnny. This is not exactly St Stephen’s Green!” 

Despite his concerns, Somers decided to locate the NTMA in the former mill. 

Johnny Ronan still felt his building wasn’t quite complete. In 1995, he commissioned the artist Rowan Gillespie to create a spectacular work of art to adorn the outside of the building. Called Aspiration, the fibre-glass sculpture was created in Gillespie’s Blackrock studio and was intended to scale a high wall of the building just below the window of Ronan’s own office. The artwork required however some moderations before Ronan was happy with it.

“Rowan brought me the maquette to look at and it was a fella!” Ronan laughs. “I said ‘You’re kidding me! Can you get an angle grinder and chop the bollox off it?’”

Gillespie was silent as he contemplated his patron’s request. “Rowan looked at me,” Ronan recalled. “Then he said: ‘I don’t see why that wouldn’t work!’”

There was still a problem, however. Michael Somers objected, refusing to allow Aspiration to adorn the NTMA building. “Michael said: ‘We can’t have a naked woman climbing up the wall into our building. What will the public think?’ So, for years we couldn’t put it up.” 

Ronan however did not give up. After he let part of Treasury Buildings to investment bank Merrill Lynch, he raised the sculpture with its female chief executive.

“I told her I have this amazing statute in storage, I’d like to put up. It is 21 foot tall. I showed her a picture of it and she loved it and said it was beautiful. So, I asked her to bring it up at the next tenant’s meeting and to say it would be a good idea to stick it up!” 

The American investment banker did as requested, and this time Somers did not object. Ronan had got what he wanted. He remains fond of Somers, who went on to become deputy chairman of AIB.

“Michael had the vision and the balls to put the NTMA into the old Bolands Mill so we decided to rename the building The Treasury Building in honour of it.”

Nama, the state’s bad bank, would end up headquartered inside Ronan’s beloved Treasury Building. Nama is a subject Ronan’s conversation will return to later but he mentions it first in relation to Somers.

“Michael is a great guy. Smart. He warned the government repeatedly that Nama would be an unmitigated disaster. How right he was! And then Nama ends up based in our bakery robbing our dough!” Ronan laughs. 

Part 3: Becoming Treasury Holdings

In the early 1990s Johnny Ronan first started doing business with Richard Barrett, a double graduate in economics and law. Unlike Ronan, he was not a natural dealmaker but he was smart and aggressive in business. Ronan and Barrett knew each other from Castleknock College, a private school in North Dublin, where they both boarded. Their first deal? A modest investment in a chain of chip shops. 

Ronan was a shareholder in Beshoff Bros fish and chip shops along with Jerry Beshoff, Paddy McKillen and the McGlades. The Beshoff family had founded their first chip shop in Dublin in 1939 but had taken in outside investors to help them expand. “We sold a quarter of this business to Barrett for £250,000. It was a lot of money at the time. Barrett wanted to take the business into the UK and run it there so we let him buy in,” Ronan recalls. 

At the time, he was also looking at an opportunity in Temple Bar. It was run down and derelict, but the government, under Haughey, was determined it should be renovated. An American bank, UDT, had an office in Temple Bar which it wanted to move out of. 

The bank’s problem was it had valued its offices at £5 million on its books which was more than it was worth in the market. Selling the building would mean crystallising a multimillion loss. Ronan told UDT that he would buy its Temple Bar office for £5 million provided it took two floors in the office he was building in Boland’s Mills. 

“I let him buy 50 per cent for £1. We then bought a few more buildings and eventually we built that hotel.”

“So that’s how I ended up in Temple Bar,” Ronan said. “I met Barrett to discuss what to do.” 

Ronan knew that the Haughey government had brought in tax reliefs to encourage investment in Temple Bar and he wanted to know exactly how this would work. He asked Barrett to read all the paperwork and tell him if it stacked up. 

“Barrett said this is worth doing,” Ronan recalls of the meeting. He allowed Barrett buy into the UDT deal, and along with Paddy McKillen, they redeveloped the Temple Bar property into the Temple Bar Hotel. 

Ronan then asked Barrett would he be interested in helping him develop the five-star Westin Hotel on a site he was assembling on Westmoreland Street, Dublin 2. “I let him buy 50 per cent for £1. We then bought a few more buildings and eventually we built that hotel.” 

Ronan and Barrett found that they worked well together and thought it was time to formalise things.  “I had just let the (former Boland’s Mills) building to the NTMA so we said why not call ourselves Treasury Holdings,” Ronan said. 


Treasury would become the most ambitious developer in Irish corporate history. It was a partnership that would propel both Ronan and Barrett into the super-rich – for a time they were paper billionaires – with vast interests in Ireland, Europe, Russia and China.

The ambition was striking; in 2001 Treasury Holdings made a £125 million bid to take over the Millennium Dome in London. The Dome was intended to be a kind of World Fair exhibition that would demonstrate Britain’s brilliance to the world. Instead it had become a loss-making white elephant that was eventually sold off. Treasury planned to turn the site into a high-tech business park, but their bid was unsuccessful. Yet it laid a marker. 

In 2006, Real Estate Opportunities, a listed vehicle set up by Treasury, acquired London’s Battersea Power Station. Treasury rapidly developed a plan to invest billions in Battersea, in an innovative scheme that would create a new quarter housing tens of thousands of people. This would have been the biggest ever project by Treasury, if it had been let go ahead. 

Not every deal, however, landed as planned during these years. 

In the month I meet Johnny Ronan, the office landlord Green Reit, which was founded by Stephen Vernon, was sold for €1.34 billion to British fund Henderson Park. Ronan does not think the sale is a sign that the broader commercial property market in Dublin is looking shaky but that a sale made sense for Green shareholders for internal reasons. 

“It made sense for Green to sell [because of the way it was structured],” Ronan said. “Look at who the buyers are. Henderson Park are no fools.” 

Henderson, a London-based private equity real estate manager, has invested over €5.4 billion in its European property portfolio since being founded in 2016 by former Goldman Sachs and Mount Kellett partner Nicholas Weber. 

Ronan reflects that he came very close at one point in 2002 to taking a previous incarnation of Green from Vernon. Green Property was then listed on the stock exchange but trading at a market value significantly less than its €1.85 billion property portfolio, a stock that included the Blanchardstown shopping centre and interests in Britain. 

If Ronan had acquired Green, and sold it off quickly, it could have made him enough cash to survive the looming crash.

With its share price lagging, a decision was taken to put Green on the market. 

“We put together an offer of €1.95 billion with Lehman Brothers,” Ronan said. “The deal was we were fifty-fifty partners.” Treasury was putting up €80 million in cash along with its expertise while Lehman were putting in €120 million. The remaining money was coming from debt. 

“Lehman reneged on the deal and decided to switch it to 60 to 40 in their favour at the last minute,” Ronan recalled ruefully. “We weren’t prepared to do that and pulled out of the deal and that allowed Vernon do an MBO after our deal fell out of bed. The rest is history.”

Vernon led a highly geared €1.05 billion management buyout which required him to break up the company and sell off many of its assets. He did so at the perfect time.

As the Celtic Tiger entered its final years, Vernon was a seller ensuring he was sitting on a mountain of cash when the Irish economy later fell apart. This put him in the perfect position to snap up prize assets using Green Reit while rival developers battled to survive. Ronan’s 2002 failure was, for Vernon, the trigger that led to him becoming close to a billionaire. 

If Ronan had acquired Green, and sold it off quickly, it could have made him enough cash to survive the looming crash. It is impossible to know what might have been, but one man’s miss can be another’s fortune.

Part 4: The financial crash and after

After the financial crash of 2008, loans relating to Battersea were transferred to Nama, the state’s newly constituted bad bank.  The agency, housed in the Treasury Building, was initially supportive of the site’s development.

The site was iconic, once appearing on the cover of a Pink Floyd album. Stretching out over five hectares on the south bank of the Thames, it was among the last swathe of prime brownfield regeneration.

Ronan believed that the site would generate billions in profits once it secured the right planning permission – and this would be more than enough to allow Treasury get the rest of its empire out of Nama. 

Nama, in turn, said it would support Treasury in its bid to develop the site. Thousands of hours were put into progressing the site. And then…

“Nama misled us. They told us to funnel all our cash into Battersea so we could get it done and get planning permission – which we did,” Ronan said. “We got that permission against all the odds. I thought we had their word that after we got the biggest planning permission ever in central London, eight million square feet, but they wouldn’t support us. 

“I remember even Nama couldn’t believe it that we could get that planning permission. We took them at their word. We felt that they had told us that if we got planning then they would let us develop it out but instead they pulled the plug.”

“Why did Nama pick us (to put into liquidation)? We were good. We were smart developers. To me it is clear as day what happened.”

Ronan continued: “There is an illusion that we were difficult. We were not. We were cooperating with Nama. We got on well with them but…They didn’t want to work with us. They just wanted to sell all our good assets quickly rather than make the most from them. Look at Grand Canal Docks which they are selling to Google – that was our site – and they are going to make a profit of €150 million. That took them to ten years to do. Why didn’t they leave it to us to build it out? We would have had it finished long ago.

“Why did Nama pick us [to put into liquidation]? We were good. We were smart developers. To me it is clear as day what happened. In Battersea we got an incredible planning permission but Nama wouldn’t let us build it out. They sold the loans and got all their money back and then they took us out (by putting Treasury into liquidation). You couldn’t make it up!”

How do you think NAMA treated you? “Badly. I think people will expect me to say that, but I’ll direct them to the findings of Ms Justice Mary Finlay Geoghegan who found we had not been treated fairly.”

Ronan has a note of what Justice Finlay Geoghegan said in her judgement: “I am satisfied, therefore, that NAMA acted in breach of its obligation to act fairly and reasonably in the taking of the decision to enforce (against Treasury Holdings) on December 8, 2011.”

Ronan said Morgan Stanley, Macquarie and Hines were each interested in acquiring Treasury’s business. He believes that their offers should have been fully considered before the decision was taken to liquidate its business. 

“If that deal had been allowed to go through, Treasury’s Irish, UK and Chinese businesses would still exist and we would have finished Battersea, and in doing so – together with the cyclical recovery in asset values – cleared 100 per cent of Treasury’s debts.  So the big question is, why?” 

“The vast majority of our portfolio comprised prime income-producing assets developed by us and leased to blue chip occupiers such as Google, Vodafone, KPMG, PwC.” 

So why didn’t Treasury win? “We won initially in the High Court, where Ms Justice Finlay Geoghegan, probably the most respected of all High Court judges at the time, found that NAMA had acted unfairly and without due process towards Treasury. But in the full hearing several months later she found that a document written by a staff member – without the knowledge of me, Richard Barrett or Rory Williams  meant that this effectively prevented us from challenging NAMA’s appointment of receivers. We didn’t appeal as this was a finding of fact that was highly unlikely to be overturned on appeal, especially given the stature of the judge.”

To go back to Battersea, in your evidence to the Banking Inquiry you said that NAMA looked for a €10m up front payment from your proposed Battersea JV partners, SP Setia, a Malyasian fund. How do you know that?

Ronan said: “As inconceivable and incomprehensible as that sounds, yes.  Even though their offer price would have paid off 100 per cent of the loan, and delivered multi-million euro management fees and profit share to the taxpayer on top – at no risk!” Ronan produced an internal note from Nama to support this claim, which he obtained during Treasury’s legal challenge.  

Nama has briefed since that it was fortunate to sell out because of Brexit and the fact that the new owners of Battersea have not made a big success of it. It has also been reported that Nama loaned €100 million to Treasury to keep it going, before it lost patience. 

“Boris Johnson is no fool and he is a dealer. He was very helpful to us in London, unlike Dublin City Council and Co’s handling of Spencer Dock and Salesforce.”

Ronan doesn’t buy this argument. He believes that Treasury would have delivered a great scheme and that if it had been supported, it would have made Nama billions and allowed Treasury repay all its debts in full. 

“Nama’s problem was that it just didn’t have the vision to see what could have been done there,” Ronan said.  

Obtaining planning permission for Battersea brought Ronan into contact with London’s then mayor, now Britain’s Prime Minister, Boris Johnson.

Ronan said he was hopeful that Britain’s new prime minister Boris Johnson would be able to come up with a solution to Brexit. 

“We should try to find a way out. Perhaps a fudge. Boris Johnson is no fool and he is a dealer. He was very helpful to us in London, unlike Dublin City Council and Co’s handling of Spencer Dock and Salesforce,” he said.

“Boris supported us getting planning to develop Battersea power station, which remains the largest planning ever achieved in central London,” Ronan said. “He was pragmatic and very interested in getting a reasonable solution to what was a very complex situation.” 

Ronan said he believed that it was possible to negotiate a deal with Britain that would help both Ireland and Northern Ireland but to do so would require shrewd deal-making on all sides.

“Battersea? Larry Goodman after he got in trouble made it his business to buy everything back that had been taken from him by his banks. Nothing is impossible.”

TL: What is RGRE doing to prepare for Brexit?

JR: Building best in class office and residential space in prime Dublin city centre and suburban Dublin locations! Our building regulations, fire safety legislation, specifications and materials certification are all typically parallel to those of our nearest neighbour. So many of the building products used here are tagged to technical standards and accreditation from the British Standards Institution which may no longer satisfy EU standards after Brexit. In that regard, along with our consultants, contracting partners and supply chain, RGRE have for some time now been assessing alternative (equal or superior) materials and components sourced from elsewhere in the EU. We also see some potential opportunities for Ireland and RGRE of course coming with increased demand for real estate; and the impact of a weaker sterling needs to be tracked to see if that might offset the cost of some potential additional duties or tariffs for goods sourced in the UK. 

TL: Do you ever see yourself going back to London again as a developer in a significant way?

JR: Yes. After Brexit, when land should be better value. Who knows, maybe we might go back to Battersea.

TL: What do you mean?

JR: We haven’t bid or anything like that. But we are trying to figure out what went wrong with it. They seem to have made an absolute mess of it in terms of construction costs. Larry Goodman, after he got in trouble, made it his business to buy everything back that had been taken from him by his banks. Nothing is impossible.

TL: Would you ever return to the stock market either in Dublin or London?

JR: Not likely, but never say never. Listed property vehicles have been supplanted in most real estate markets by fund managers running private unlisted vehicles as the main source of risk capital, but there are certain types of asset where listed vehicles work.

TL: Were you ever tempted to go to the United States to build or would you go back to China?

JR: We were just outbid for the freehold of the Empire State building in the 1980s but it wasn’t to be. We gave the Chrysler Building (a famous art-deco skyscraper in Manhattan built in 1930)  the once-over last year, and had multiple funding offers on the table to back us in the acquisition. But, after detailed due diligence, we decided not to bid. We may go back to China if Rory Williams, our new CEO, is on for it. He was instrumental in founding and scaling our China business which listed on the Singapore Stock Exchange before being sold to the Nan Fung Group. Rory likes and knows the system very well, so why not?

Part 5: Solving the problems today

Johnny Ronan has been repeatedly critical of the government and state bodies for concentrating too much on wiping out developers rather than anticipating that not building anything for years would eventually lead to a crisis. At first, the criticism was private, before it eventually seeped out. 

In February 2016, along with the journalist Gavin Sheridan, I had used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain one of Ronan’s letters to the then Minister for Finance Michael Noonan on November 3, 2015. The letters states that Ronan had written to Noonan, the Taoiseach and Nama on “many occasions warning of the dramatic shortage of office space and residential units in Dublin. Regrettably, our concerns seemingly fell on deaf ears.” Ronan was right, and he was determined to do something about it, once he was free to do so. 

Today RGRE has a build-to-rent pipeline of 5,000 units in Dublin. To put that number in context, IRES REIT, the state’s largest private landlord, has a portfolio of 3,884 units. RGRE is rumoured to have received offers to acquire its entire portfolio, as well as being linked to setting up its own standalone business to develop, own and manage the properties. The developer is keeping his plans close to his chest for the moment.

Our conversation instead moves to the housing crisis and the impact that large multinationals can have on cities like Dublin.  

TL: Who is to blame for the housing crisis and what could be done to solve it?

JR: Government, Nama, Dublin City Council. It is a complete failure of policy and an irresponsible mismanagement of scarce resources. It is impossible to solve intelligently without height – building higher in appropriate locations, particularly in the inner city and docklands. This would increase the availability of housing stock and improve affordability. The alternative comes at a very high social cost – increased commute times, traffic congestion, unaffordable city centre rents, higher pollution and urban sprawl. Urban sprawl costs cities. 

Edward Glaeser, Professor of Economics at Harvard, is perhaps the world’s most pre-eminent urban economist. We would do well to sit up and take notice of what he says. He says first opposing greater heights from a preservation point of view is misguided. Smarter preservation would push new buildings to be taller, not shorter. Building taller, new structures would reduce the pressure to pull down other, older monuments. He says secondly, if you require more land per home, you get fewer homes and higher prices. 

Third, he says, building upwards rather than outwards is much greener as it reduces the distance people travel to work – by car in particular. It also ensures a more efficient use of living space per capita as apartments are smaller than houses, and allows efficiency in the provision of services such as water. Those who stop development in the city centre ensure development in the suburbs with negative environmental consequences. To summarise what Glaser is saying: Cities are green. Living at higher densities and walking is more environmentally friendly than living in a low density suburb and driving everywhere. 

“I would say that people have short memories, and they are misdiagnosing the problem. It was a little over seven years ago when the unemployment rate peaked at more than 15 per cent.”

TL: What one thing could be done?

JR: If there was one thing the government could do to help solve the housing crisis it would be to reduce VAT to zero as it is in Northern Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales. It would radically increase supply and affordability. But they won’t do it for political reasons as they believe the electorate would view it as a handout to developers. The answer? Give it directly to the buyers – the electorate might like that!

TL: Is there anything that could be done for first-time buyers?

JR: For first time buyers we could increase the mortgage amount available to over 3.5 times earnings. But only if their interest rate is fixed for 10 to 15 years and the monthly mortgage payment is less than the current rent being paid by the borrower (say 90 per cent of rent) so it is clear they can afford to pay their mortgage. 

TL: What would you say to critics who complain that US multinationals are driving ordinary Dubliners to the outskirts of the city?

JR: I would say that people have short memories, and they are misdiagnosing the problem. It was a little over seven years ago when the unemployment rate peaked at more than 15 per cent. Today, the economy is at virtually full employment, with the jobs created by US multinationals key to this turnaround. If we want a prosperous and successful Dublin, we must be able to provide the conditions that facilitate the city’s commercial advancement, while having a public policy backdrop that responds to infrastructural bottlenecks in a dynamic fashion. 

The success of US multinationals in Ireland is not the issue, but rather the failure of government policy to realise density in the inner city through planning policies promoting height in appropriate areas. That is where criticism should lie. The problem is compounded by Dublin’s natural long-run population boom, which is the real driver for residential stock, unrelated to the activities of US multinationals, and which needs appropriate long run solutions. One of these solutions, by necessity, involves building upwards. 

TL: Do you think it is possible for tech giants and home-grown businesses to exist side-by-side?

JR: Yes and they do already. Dublin has fought hard to establish itself as a tech hub of global standing. This creates huge opportunities for home-grown businesses to create and scale global businesses from here in Dublin. These opportunities wouldn’t have been possible in the absence of the tech sector. In addition, these tech companies create demand for home-grown professional services firms as well as growing consumer spending power through wages which creates opportunities for those in the retail sector. It is a virtuous circle. 

TL: Are there too many problems with the residential market to make it a worthwhile investment opportunity?

JR: Who knows where the world will be in 25 to 50 years time with robotics, artificial intelligence and increased human longevity? But one thing that is for sure is that people will fall in love, make babies and all will need a bed to put their bums upon every night. So residential will always be needed and therefore is a great long-term investment.

Part 6: Ronan in Namaland

Johnny Ronan and Richard Barrett went into the National Asset Management Agency through the one door, but exited separately. Their combined endeavours had reshaped Dublin’s skyline with the Convention Centre Dublin, designed by architect Kevin Roche, and they had housed thousands of highly paid Google workers in the Montevetro building along Barrow Street. 

They had built hotels, apartment blocks and offices. Against the odds, they had built the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Powerscourt, Co Wicklow despite it being located on what Ronan admits was the “most sensitive site imaginable”. 

Treasury listed a business on the stock exchange in London called Real Estate Opportunities, before moving to China and listing another company in Singapore. Even now, they rank among a small number of Irish tycoons to float businesses in two continents. Their ambition did not end there – at one stage, Treasury had plans to build a €2 billion eco-city on an island off Shanghai. Treasury was even beginning to push into Russia. 

And then, in 2012 Nama put Treasury into liquidation. It had advanced the business €100 million to keep the firm going, but had now decided to crush the business in a rapid fire sale. Assets that had taken Ronan and Barrett a career to amass were sold off to international funds. The taxpayer incurred losses on these sales, but Ronan feels the state could have made money on Treasury if it had been more patient. 

Overseas funds which acquired Treasury’s assets have certainly made money as properties’ prices rebounded. 

In 2013, Barrett and Ronan reached a settlement with Nama when they sold their shares in TCT, a Chinese property venture spun out of Treasury. Neither Ronan nor Barrett ever signed personal guarantees in relation to Treasury loans. So, once everything was sold, that was it. Barrett was free to start again, with a new business called Bartra. Ronan and Barrett still shared a few business interests in forestry and renewables, but it was minor compared to what had gone before.

Ronan, however, was still caught inside Nama: outside of Treasury, he had a private property portfolio and it had substantial debts. He had given a personal guarantee in relation to a small part of this, meaning he was personally exposed. However, his real concern was that among this personal portfolio were some of the assets closest to his heart, including properties he had worked on with his father. There was no way he was going to walk away from them. 

“I’m sure you would like me to say that Nama were useless, dumb, inexperienced, vindictive dopes but as I am trying to buy the Irish Glass Bottle site and get into bed with them, I’ll pass on saying anything for the moment. Business is business.”

Johnny Ronan went into Nama with debts of €366 million, related to his personal portfolio. His wealth was primarily in property, but he also had investments in shares and businesses. Ronan had a €9.7 million investment in ISTC, a lender of capital to banks set up by ex-Anglo Irish Bank banker Tiernan O’Mahony. In the crash, this was valued at zero.

A €6 million investment in an Irish banks fund went to zero, also. A €1 million investment in a UK bank fund fell to as low as €30,000. Other investments fell in value also – a fund set up by financier JC Flowers; a Japanese equities fund; and a fund set up by stockpicker Chris Reilly called Newgrange. 

He had millions on deposit, which his banks went after. Like almost every high net worth person in Ireland, Ronan, saw swathes of his liquid fortune wiped out in 2008 and 2009. 

Nama was placing huge pressure on developers to sell everything. Its focus for the first number of the years after the crash was Treasury and the listed property plcs, and not Ronan’s personal loans. Ronan did however sell assets worth tens of millions, including a significant portfolio of fine wines held in a bonded warehouse. Ronan had the use of a private jet, but this went by the wayside. A Ronan-related trust owned a yacht called Ulysses, which had to be rented out at €250,000 a week rather than being used. Ulysses was over 150-feet long, and built in the renowned Benetti shipyard. But, in time, this yacht too was sold. 

Ronan became fixated on getting out of Nama. He had prime Dublin assets, like the building that housed Bewley’s on Grafton Street. He had Connaught House too, where IBRC was located, and he had unique assets like a boutique office block in Paris called Rue Cimarosa which was the home of BNP Paribas Wealth Management, as well as the former Goulding estate on the Dargle. 

These assets were generating good rents, and Ronan set about trying to find a partner to help him refinance them out of Nama. An article in The Irish Times criticising Ronan caused one refinancing deal to collapse, and then another. By the time the paper published a clarification, it was too late. 

It wasn’t easy, but Ronan kept going.   

On April 1, 2015, Ronan refinanced at par his entire personal debt of €250 million with Nama, allowing him to become perhaps the first major Irish developer to exit through the front door of the agency having paid back everything – no write-downs, no forgiveness, nothing.

Ronan did the deal with the backing of US investment fund Colony, which was founded by billionaire Tom Barrack. The alliance allowed Ronan hold onto some of his most treasured assets in Dublin including office blocks, apartments and houses primarily in Dublin 2, and Dublin 4. 

“It was April Fool’s day! I had been trying to get out for six months but it was only on April 1 that Nama signed their side of the deal,” Ronan tells me now, more than five years on. 

Ronan has refinanced some of these assets since including Embassy House, nicknamed the ‘Pink palace’ during the Celtic Tiger. The Venetian style palazzo on Burlington Road was refinanced with Rietumu Banka, a Latvian bank one third owned by Dermot Desmond, allowing Ronan repay Colony debts related to this property in full. He is continuing to work through dealings with others. But it is a much more cordial relationship than the one he had with Nama. Ronan put everything in the pot to get out. He was itching to get building again, but had relatively little cash. 

Colony and a London-based firm called Development Securities (later renamed U+I) were impressed by his track record. They backed him building the Vertium Building, a 172,000 sq ft building on Burlington Road, which was let to Amazon. 

Ronan’s curriculum vitae kicked in. Tom Morrisroe, a Roscommon tech entrepreneur, was prepared to back Ronan by providing early equity to help Ronan acquire Spencer Place, along with Colony. American investor Jefferies Loancore, then led by Chris Wilson, provided senior debt, and Irish investor Cardinal Capital, founded by Nick Corcoran and Nigel McDermott, put up mezzanine finance to help Ronan acquire the old AIB site in Ballsbridge, along with equity from the wife of an old friend. 

None of this money was cheap. Ronan took incredible risks, but they paid off. He ended up with some of the best sites in Dublin, and gradually Colony became his primary partner, as he signed leases with tech giants, and moved into the construction phase of development. From a standing start in 2015, RGRE now has 7 million sq ft in its development pipeline. From facing the brink under Nama, Ronan was back in the saddle in just five years.    

TL: How do you view Nama today?

JR: Now Tom, I’m sure you would like me to say that they were useless, dumb, inexperienced, vindictive dopes but as I am trying to buy the Irish Glass Bottle site and get into bed with them… I’ll pass on saying anything for the moment. Business is business.

“A lot of bullshit is said about him. This idea that Derek Quinlan pushed certain people under the bus is a complete lie.”

TL: Was it stressful?

JR: Being in Nama? I would like to think I wasn’t stressed but undoubtedly it was stressful. I know that stress did serious damage to a lot of people.

TL: Siobhan Quinlan, the wife of financier Derek Quinlan, gave you seed capital to acquire the old AIB site in Ballsbridge (where RGRE went on to sign a lease with Facebook worth €600 million over 25 years.) How did that come about?

JR: Look, only Siobhan Quinlan was prepared to take the risk at that stage and back us. Remember, we were buying that site completely on spec. We didn’t know how the planning would go. We thought we might get Salesforce or Facebook to go there but we didn’t know that for sure. Every penny she had went into it. It was very high risk with no planning and she did very well out of it in the end, but the risk was enormous.

TL: What do you think about Derek Quinlan, who has been criticised in some quarters?

JR: Derek is the straightest guy I have ever dealt with. A lot of bullshit is said about him. This idea that Derek Quinlan pushed certain people under the bus is a complete lie. Investors did lose money with him but when the entire world comes falling apart blaming him for everything is just wrong. He is one of the straightest guys I ever dealt with. That is the bottom line. 

Part 7: Keeping it in the family

Johnny Ronan hails from a Tipperary business family that goes back generations in farming and the meat industry. His grandfather John Ronan ran a tannery and various meat factories as well as butcher shops through a business called John Ronan & Sons Ltd. Johnny Ronan’s father, also John, did not join the family business. He owned a farm and also started to dabble in property. 

“In the late 1960s and 1970s my father bought some apartments,” Ronan says. “He was obsessed with accountancy too, so I became an accountant.”

Ronan’s first job as a result was not with his father but with Coopers & Lybrand (later renamed PwC) where he trained as an accountant. “My salary was 550 pounds per annum. 11 quid a week.” 

Did Ronan like it? “No, but it was great training and I suppose it helps you do the sums!”

Ronan started to help his father in business, before leaving the professions behind him. 

“We had a few apartments and bedsits. It was cash every Friday. I’d help my father with everything. Then I said to my father we should go into commercial property. It was a lot simpler I felt and you could get people to sign a 35-year lease.” 

The first move into commercial property by the Ronan family was at 6 Lower Fitzwilliam Street in Dublin 2. This was a combination of offices on its lower floors with apartments above. 

“We let it first to a Mrs McRory. My father said we should ask her for a personal guarantee. I didn’t think we would get it but she gave it. My father said this is some business!” 

“I remember I was 22 and we signed a 35-year lease on that building. I thought that’s a lifetime away, but then the years go by and that lease was up a few years ago.” 

The building, Ronan said, was still in his family but owned by his brother-in-law. 

“We then bought the old Pembroke Nursing Home and converted it into offices. Who comes along to take the lease only General Motors. My father said: ‘I’m going to get a personal guarantee from these guys.’” 

Ronan said the General Motors executive was taken aback at this demand. “Their guy comes back and says to my father: ‘Do you know who we are? Our turnover is more than your country’s GDP. We employ one million people. General Motors does not do personal guarantees.’ 

“My father turned away from him and says to me: ‘What do you think Johnny, should we let them off?’” The two sides shook hands and a deal was done with no guarantee.”

Ronan Group Real Estate still owns this building which is at 3-4 Pembroke Street Upper in Dublin 2.

The traits that John Ronan Sr instilled in his son as a dealmaker would stand with him over the coming decades. Family is core to him.

“I remember I was 22 and we signed a 35-year lease on that building. I thought that’s a lifetime away, but then the years go by and that lease was up a few years ago.” 

Ronan recalls another time debating with his father whether to rent a building in Dublin 2 to the Royal Trust (Canada) or Irish agribusiness Masstock, which was owned by the McGuckian family.

“The old fella wouldn’t sign off on Royal Trust even though they were offering a lot of money. I said: ‘But Dad the yield!’ They were paying a lot of money. He said ‘Feck the yield! The McGuckians have amazing land in Antrim. I’ve seen it and it is incredible. They will be around for generations. We are going with them!’” 

As it turned out, Ronan Sr was proven right shortly after. The Royal Trust pulled out of Ireland two years later, while Maastock went from strength to strength, becoming a major player in the Middle East.

When Ronan was only 27, his father died. “I was then on my own throughout the 1980s. I was doing my own thing,” Ronan said. 

The traits that John Ronan Sr instilled in his son as a dealmaker would stand with him over the coming decades. Family is core to him.

TL: Do you hope that Ronan Group Real Estate will be a multigenerational business? 

JR: Well it already is. Two generations of the Ronan family are actively involved in Ronan Group. My sons, John and James, are playing leading roles in the delivery of Fibonacci Square (Facebook) and Spencer Place (Salesforce); and my daughter Jodie has been with me for 11 years, many of them as COO. She was instrumental in navigating our successful exit from Nama in 2015, and without her, there wouldn’t be a business today. 

My aim is to develop an enduring and sustainable business, with a mix of investment and development properties, which my children (and their children should they so wish) can grow just as I have grown Ronan Group to its current position. We’ve got over 7 million square feet in our development pipeline as I sit here today. I’m not done yet.  

TL: Do you ever worry about working with family members?

JR: All the family get on really well. It is really important to me that they do. Jodie came in to work for me 11 years ago. It was supposed to be for only one year to help me with Nama. She had started studying medicine but decided to come back and work with me. John was working on Battersea, then China. James was working with estate agent Knight Frank and then came here. 

John [Savage, his son-in-law] is working with me. I was against that at first. It wasn’t that I didn’t think he was good, I was just worried we might fall out. He wrote me a 15 page letter explaining what he could bring to the business. I read it and said OK. He is getting on really well. I had planned it the other way, that they’d all do their own thing. But it is great to be working with them.  

Part 8: Mapping out the future

In September 2018, Ronan Group Real Estate acquired the last remaining waterfront site in Dublin’s north docklands. RGRE, flanked by partner Colony Capital, paid €180 million for the 4.6 acre site. Ronan plans to turn a series of dilapidated warehouses into interlocking blocks with roof terraces and vertical gardens that will be 155 metres tall at its highest point. More than 1,000 homes, offices, shops, hotels, roof gardens and a “sky garden” are planned. Called Waterfront South Central, it will be the most ambitious project ever taken on by an Irish developer in modern times. It was the latest in a series of mega-developments by RGRE, which since exiting Nama, has become with its partner Colony the biggest developer in Dublin.  

TL: Tell me about Waterfront South Central – what will make it special?

JR: Setting and scale. It is the last premium undeveloped site on the river Liffey with river frontage equivalent to the length of Fitzwilliam Square. It is located at a point where the river widens substantially, and close to major transport hubs, providing the opportunity to create a gateway to Dublin with landmark buildings giving rise to a new and distinctive cityscape of international significance. Everything that the wider docklands could – and should – have been. 

This is our chance, as a city, to get it right this time. Waterfront South Central will be the greenest and most sustainable development ever undertaken in Ireland. It will be a new community for Dublin, a place where people can live, work and play with a full mix of social housing, affordable housing, residential units for rent and residential units for sale. It will be characterised by the extensive use of planting, including vertical living green walls, winter garden balconies and roof gardens throughout.

Waterfront South Central
Computer-generated image of the Waterfront South Central development. Photo: Ronan Group

TL: How will you fund it?

JR: Much the same way as we funded Spencer Place and Fibonacci Square. Our partners, Colony, provided the initial acquisition capital. We then secured planning for great schemes which enabled us to pre-let to blue-chip occupiers like Amazon, Facebook and Salesforce. We then put in place syndicated construction finance with Bank of Ireland, AIB and Ulster Bank. 

“Yields are still attractive and with cash now earning virtually no returns, properties leased to international blue chip companies in Dublin will continue to be attractive to these investors.”

TL: In April you got planning permission from An Bord Pleanala to build a 22-storey tower on Tara Street after four attempts. What can Dubliners expect from the Tara tower which you’ve just begun building?

JR: A beautiful building to be proud of. A major catalyst for the regeneration of the wider Tara Street area. A classical landmark building of the highest quality that will deliver new public spaces linking Tara Street and the city core into Tara Street station, an enhanced rail concourse and approaches for commuters. There will be a rooftop facility for visitors and the people of Dublin, many of whom will be able to see the whole of the city, at height, for the first time.

Tara Tower
Computer-generated image of the Tara Tower development. Photo: Ronan Group

TL: What is Colony like as a partner on all these projects?

JR: They are a great partner. Professional, reliable, and they share our ambitions at scale.  We have a great relationship with Stefan [Jaeger, Colony’s head of Europe]. Stefan says: “Always under promise and over deliver.” We do that. 

TL: Are you worried about the commercial property market in Dublin at the moment?

JR: I think it is strong as we sit here today. Take-up looks likely to finish north of 3.5 million square feet, well ahead of the long-term average. Brexit is a potential opportunity. On the investment side we still attract serious interest from the overseas funds, German and Korean but also the US. We are starting to see significant interest, now, from the Far East. Yields are still attractive and with cash now earning virtually no returns, properties leased to international blue chip companies in Dublin will continue to be attractive to these investors. 

TL: Cork has some plans for some very tall buildings which seem to be progressing easily. Is Dublin falling behind?

JR: Yes, without doubt. There seems to be a complete reluctance on the part of Dublin City Council to facilitate taller buildings – even in the most appropriate locations, and even when their own planning policies support it. In the case of Tara Street, DCC’s own planning policies called for a building of up to 22 storeys. They went on to twice reject our proposals for a 22-storey building on the grounds that it was too tall. That defies all common sense and logic. An Bord Pleanala have, fortunately, taken a much more progressive stance, one that aligns with prevailing government policy on height. Europe is growing up and most European cities, not just the capital city, see the merit of tall buildings. Cork is one such example, and their planners don’t impose the same oppressive restrictions in their planning policies as we suffer at the hands of DCC. Dublin does not seem to have moved on with regards to building higher and putting a halt to unsustainable suburban sprawl.

Tara Tower
Computer-generated image of the Tara Tower development. Photo: Ronan Group

TL: What do you think of Dublin City Council overall? Does it have the vision to do what needs to be done?

JR: We have big ambitions as a company, and we hold ourselves to the highest standards. We want to build great buildings and we want the best for Dublin, for the people who live here and the businesses which are located here. I imagine DCC would say it has similar ambitions for the city. It is a capable manager of the city’s day-to-day business, but you have to wonder whether the people in charge there have the vision and the courage to do what needs to be done to make Dublin a leading European city of the 21st century. 

We have found ourselves frustrated recently over our Spencer Place scheme, and our proposals for two extra floors on the Salesforce building in particular. DCC was the source of that frustration. Something is not right there. We have a development which ticks every box in terms of what the city needs: massive job creation, a world class building which will be the most environmentally friendly and sustainable ever delivered in Ireland and located in the most suitable location in the country for height. And yet we can’t build it to the height which the strategic development zone for the area itself envisaged, which DCC’s own building height review allows, which the minister for housing’s guidelines looked to facilitate, and which an overwhelming majority of the people who live here have said they support. How can that be allowed to happen? 

TL: What are your views on sustainability and how the Climate Action Plan will impact the construction sector?

JR: We are long term investors in forestry and offshore wind; the Ritz-Carlton in Enniskerry was fuelled by wood-pellet boilers, and the Convention Centre Dublin was the first carbon neutral centre in the world; so, sustainability has always been to the forefront. I see sustainability and the Climate Action Plan as opportunities to add value in both the short term, attracting the best tenants, and in the longer term, by future-proofing the value of the asset. 

We haven’t waited for legislation to drive sustainability in our developments. RGRE strives to achieve LEED Platinum for all of our commercial buildings. There are the obvious overlaps with NZEB and BER (Building Energy Ratings) and Wired Score. The big tech companies don’t just look for these but demand them. RGRE has been ahead of the curve, to some degree, in meeting those demands. The construction sector also needs to adapt and look towards lean construction and modern methods of construction with more efficient on-site construction and prefabrication. Unitised curtain walling and cladding systems made under factory conditions will reduce carbon footprint and improve quality.  

TL: Having secured the TC3 site at Cherrywood, South Dublin, are we likely, now, to see RGRE involved in more residential construction?

JR: We have a strong track-record in mixed use and residential property development. Spencer Dock is the largest mixed-use regeneration project ever undertaken in Ireland, and we have delivered 600 apartments to date there with a further 500 to come in Spencer Place, in addition to 1,000 residential units in Waterfront South Central. Our residential development pipeline today compromises close to 5,000 units in prime locations and we are in active discussions with prospective partners to bring these to fruition. Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council has created a stellar Strategic Development Zone Framework at Cherrywood, and we look forward to creating both living and working opportunities mixed with exceptional leisure and social spaces in a beautiful environment, underpinned by superb access, both the Luas and M50, at TC3. 

“Those risks to growth have been called out by the Central Bank and others. So, we’re seeing both potential risks to growth from outside Ireland and potential risks to growth from inside.”

TL: You are building or have built headquarters for Salesforce, Google, Amazon and Facebook – what have you learned from dealing with such large tech companies?

JR: They love their people, are very straight to deal with, and they want world-class, beautifully designed buildings to the highest levels of sustainability where their people can enjoy a healthy, safe and interesting work environment. No expense is spared in looking after their people. From the development perspective, these guys value relationships, and deliverability certainty is key to securing these mega pre-lets. They obviously need to know that a world-class building will be delivered on time, within budget, and to the specification agreed. I hope that we can go on to do more business together – in Ireland, and overseas. 

TL: Concern has been expressed by the Central Bank, the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council and others that after a period of rapid growth the Irish economy is at risk of overheating. Do you see a downturn or recession in the near future?

JR: Growth has been strong, thankfully in recent years. From our perspective we are seeing pent-up demand from occupiers for prime office space. Occupiers such as Amazon, Google, Facebook and Salesforce are globally diversified businesses serving markets other than Ireland from here so we are not relying purely on the domestic economy. Clearly there is also an unmet demand here for residential units and a need to build rapidly and at scale. That said, there are obvious risks out there. Brexit and all of the uncertainty which goes with it is one of them. The global economy also appears to be slowing and, of course, Ireland will not be immune to that. 

Domestically, it is also the case that we have infrastructure challenges, full employment, with the pressures that can bring, and an endemic housing crisis caused partly by the surge in growth we’ve seen here over the past couple of years. Those risks to growth have been called out by the Central Bank and others. So, we’re seeing both potential risks to growth from outside Ireland and potential risks to growth from inside.  

Part 9: Being Johnny Ronan

To understand Johnny Ronan, you need to understand that he is a serious endurance cyclist. He has an ability to keep going; that ensures that he is not just able to finish his buildings on time, but that he could survive the financial crash also. 

I ask Ronan what cycling means to him? “It is very important. It gets rid of the anger, definitely, definitely. There is no point in sitting in a room all day brooding about what might have been. Get back on the bike.” 

Does it take his mind off things? “Listen, descend the big Alps at 90 to 100 kilometres per hour behind Sean Kelly. That’s living on the edge. You think about nothing else. Sean was clocked once in a race once at 130 kilometres – and wearing no helmet – but he won.”

TL: What would you like your legacy as a developer in Dublin to be?

JR: I’m not planning on going anywhere for a long time yet. I hope I can leave behind a legacy in terms of the built environment that people will appreciate and remember in the future. The Dublin skyline could be as striking and memorable as any of the great cities of the world. I hope that I could have played my small part in bringing that vision to life and in helping to attract world-class companies and international brands to Dublin. That’s what keeps me going. 

TL: Would you ever retire?

JR: Sure, when I am in the box assuming I’m right about the hereafter. But if I’m wrong then the opportunities may be infinite. 

TL: Do you have a favourite book?

JR: I like Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead [a novel about an individualistic architect who refuses to compromise with the establishment] and Atlas Shrugged [a novel set in the United States about business owners battling looters]. I also like Anna Karenina [Leo Tolstoy’s 800-page Russian novel]. More recently I’ve read Yuval Noah Hari’s books [Sapiens, Homo Deus, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century]. He is a great writer who takes a pop at lots of politically correct sacred cows. 

TL: Having lost a fortune and regained some of it – are you ever tempted to slow down?

JR: Money has never been a motivating factor for me. It’s about the next project, not the next euro. I want to deliver buildings that will stand comparison, with anything, anywhere in the world. World-class architecture. The best materials, building methods, energy usage and sustainability. Buildings that exceed the highest expectations of the people who live and work in them. 

How do I keep going? Have you seen the movie Mule with Clint Eastwood? There is a great line in it where he says “Don’t let the old man in!” Keep fit. Keep active. Never give up.


In the 1980s Dargle Cottage and the Goulding House came up for sale. Ronan decided to try and acquire the estate he had first fallen in love with in 1979. His bid wasn’t in the running as a much wealthier tycoon was determined to acquire it. “It was Tony Ryan. He had GPA (an aviation leasing company) at the time and I couldn’t afford to outbid him!” Ronan says. 

In 1990, however, he got a phone call from the estate agent John Hamilton to see was he still interested. “I said Dargle doesn’t suit me right now. It was 1990 and I had done a deal to let the whole of Boland’s to AIB but the bank pulled the plug after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait,” Ronan said. “I said ‘I just can’t do it. It would have suited me two years ago but I can’t do it now.’” Hamilton said that Ryan was “only” looking for £1.3 million. 

To put this in context, the then record price for a home on Shrewsbury Road in 1990 was £700,000. Ronan said he couldn’t afford £1.3 million, so he was asked would he buy it for £1 million. Ronan again said no. He was then asked could he stretch to £650,000. “I said: ‘Yes’ but I wouldn’t insult Tony by offering so little,” Ronan recalled. Two minutes later Hamilton rang him back to say that Ryan was prepared to accept £650,000.  “I didn’t know at the time but Tony was having his own issues. He needed the cash,” Ronan said. There was one catch: Ronan had to deliver £100,000 to Ryan’s solicitor by that afternoon. 

“No contracts had been exchanged. All my advisors said don’t do it. I said ‘Do I have to?’ and I was told ‘Tony is a man of his word and expects you to do it.’” 

Ronan ignored his advisors. He scrambled the money together and the deal was done. 

Many years later, Ronan was having dinner at the Village at Lyons, a restaurant that Ryan owned beside his mansion on the Lyons Estate.  

“I was friendly with Tony by then. Tony said I must give you the file on Dargle. So he went and got it. It was full of letters from his various PAs, Denis O’Brien and Michael O’Leary, offering to give Dargle to the state for nothing. Tony had a vision to create a sculpture park along the river that would have been wonderful. But the civil servants just kept writing back saying they couldn’t afford it. They didn’t have his vision.”

Dargle was one of the assets that Nama tried to force Ronan to sell. He came within a whisker of losing it, but held on. 

Having almost lost it, Ronan’s paradise is regained.

Treasury opening
Newpaper clipping from the opening of Treasury Building in 1989.