(Ireland) — ONE of Ireland’s richest men, Tom Roche Snr was the subject of bankruptcy proceedings prior to his death by the Ulster Investment Bank. At the time of his death, Mr Roche – who founded the hugely profitable National Tolls Roads with his son, Tom Roche Jnr – was being chased for ?11.9m by Northern Bank Finance Corporation Limited. The executors of Mr Roche’s will disputed this amount. He also owed a further ?5.3m to AIB and the Ulster Investment Bank Limited. These huge sums arose from personal guarantees he had given from 1978 to 1982 on behalf of Bula Limited, the Navan-based zinc mine in which he was involved at the time. Both banks and Allied Irish Bank were also seeking ?3m for his share of the legal costs arising from more than 20 years of litigation involving the banks and Mr Roche over his guarantees. According to a document filed by the Dublin legal firm of Arthur Cox on behalf of Mr Roche, it was necessary, after Tom Roche Snr died, to sell his home, Chesterfield, at Cross Avenue, Blackrock, Co Dublin, to discharge the debt. But the documents also revealed that the Ulster Investment Bank agreed to write off more than ?1m for Mr Roche – even though when he died he was considered one of the richest men in the country. “Negotiations with the bank have been ongoing and the bank has agreed to settle their claim with the Executors of the deceased’s estate and with Thomas J Roche (his son) for the sum of ?1,400,000,” said Arthur Cox in relation to a High Court judgement dated 1985 for ?2,321,559 (?2.9m). When Mr Roche’s probate was filed in March, 2004, his debts totalled more than ?15m. A legendary figure in Irish business, Tom Roche started off making blocks and selling coal from the back of a truck with a ?250 investment from his mother. He went on to become the driving force behind the conglomerate, CRH. After the Bula debacle, he and his son Thomas Jnr, founded NTR which controls Dublin’s East-Link and West-Link toll bridges. According to Mr Roche’s will, which was lodged in April of 2004, Mr Roche’s house and 8.4 acres in Blackrock was valued at ?1.4m. It was later sold for ?45m to the developer, Myles Crofton. In the last two weeks a lurid red hoarding has gone up around the entrance to the estate as the developer prepares to build houses and apartment on the land. “I was ambitious, even as a youngster. I wanted to build something, no matter what,” Tom Roche Snr told Ivor Kenny in a rare interview. “The trigger for all that was a small business for which my mother paid ?250. It consisted of a yard where we stored coal and a machine with which we made concrete blocks. “My brother Donal, who joined me in the business, left school even earlier than I, at age 15. He’s been the steadying influence when I strayed too far from the sensible path.” From this small yard came a company called Castle Sand and eventually Roadstone and in 1970 he merged it with the much bigger Irish Cement to create Cement Roadstone Holdings, which is now known as CRH. He was involved in various companies with his daughters and their husbands. So when Tom Roche’s son-in-law Michael Wymes, who was married to his daughter Eleanor, came to him with yet another business proposition that would make a fortune, Tom Roche plunged his money on the new venture. On March 18, 1971, they established a company called Bula Limited to establish Bula mines. In a fit of optimism the company was named after an Irish racehorse, Bula, which had just carried off the Champion Hurdle steeplechase at the Cheltenham Races in England on St Patrick’s Day. Unlike other mining operations, the directors of Bula Limited had not borrowed a huge amount of money to get the mine up and running. But there were loans of ?5m, based on personal guarantees – and with delays in getting the mine into production, interest bills were soon running at ?5,000 a day. The Northern Bank Finance Corporation got a judgement against the Bula directors for ?3.9m. Another bank was after them for ?900,000 and the Revenue Commissioners said they were owed ?300,000. Out in the country, Michael Wymes’s opulent estate was under siege, with the Sheriff for Co Meath seizing his herd of pedigree Charolais cattle. “Bula Mines was a mistake,” Tom Roche told Ivor Kenny. Roche refused to allow that interview to be published during his lifetime, “because there are too many bits in it that would hurt people.” The tycoon continued: “I was tempted by the piratical aspects and the romance of it. There were a few times when I could have got out, but I hadn’t the final say. All the assets I had were sucked into it.” With the mine in limbo, Tom Roche Snr extracted about ?5m from his share of Bula and the associated oil exploration company – and put the money to very good use. Along with his son, they founded National Toll Roads – and began planning the East-Link bridge to cross the Liffey at Ringsend. It was an idea Roche had first entertained in the late Seventies but it had to wait until one bright October day in 1984 to be realised when the then Taoiseach, Garret FitzGerald, officially opened the first toll bridge in Ireland. The new bridge was like owning a bank. Tom Roche and his son Tom Jnr would do more than simply revive the family fortunes. National Toll Roads would make Tom Roche Jnr one of the wealthiest individuals in the State. Within a few years, the bridge had paid for itself – so he embarked on a second toll bridge spanning the Liffey, this time on the west side of the city in order to link the two ends of the M50 motorway. The West-Link was born. Tom Roche was used to dealing with people who could grease the wheels of commerce. To aid his progress in this venture, Tom Roche Snr paid “consultancy fees” of ?74,000 to the colourful politician, Liam Lawlor TD. He also handed an envelope with ?10,000 in cash to the City Manager in charge of planning, George Redmond, to “hurry things up” on the West-Link project so that the bridge would meet its construction deadline of 1987. The huge profits generated by the two toll bridges have allowed National Toll Roads to diversify into property, waste management, green electricity and other diverse businesses. In 1995 Tom Roche made a present of ?222,204 to each of his three daughters, Eleanor, Maura and Claire. It was his legacy to them and a considerable fortune back then, but nothing to what he would have been able to give them if he had not become embroiled in the Bula saga. Tom Roche Snr died on July 8, 1999. In keeping with his intense privacy, personified by the tall trees behind the walls of Chesterfield, his funeral was a private family affair attended only by close friends invited by the family. It was over before his death was publicly announced. But while his toll roads business was again making multi-millionaires of the Roche family, the feud that began over the Bula mine was far from over. The spectre of the mine continued to haunt the old man, even in his twilight years. When Tom Roche Snr died, he left Chesterfield in his will to his granddaughter Michelle, the daughter of Tom Roche Jnr. When all the figures were totted up by the accountants, Thomas Celestine Roche – who appeared to be one of the richest men in the country and was certainly one of the most adventurous businessmen of his generation – died with debts of ?15,600,000. It was all down to that moment when he had been tempted by the prospect of untold riches by the side of the Boyne. In early 2006 Tom Roche Jnr lodged a multi-million euro suit against his former brother-in-law and business partner to recover a portion of the money he had invested in Bula. It would seem that the feud has some way to go, because Michael Wymes is adamant that the case will be defended. This is an edited extract from ‘Irish Family Feuds’ by Liam Collins, Mentor Books, ?14.99 By: Liam CollinsSOURCE: www.unison.ie
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