The closure of the venerable Clerys of O’Connell Street has long been viewed as the most reprehensible chapter, and by some distance, in the whole saga of the corporate greed of the Celtic Tiger era. Still regarded as the most cynical example of heartless corporate chicanery, it left staff, concession holders, trade creditors and the taxpayer carrying all the losses, while the puppet masters made a fortune.
To recap, Clerys had fallen into financial difficulties in 2011 when its owners, the Guiney family, fell victim to massive losses on property speculation. Gordon Brothers, a Boston-based investment company, bought the store out of receivership from the Bank of Ireland for €15 million. Gordon’s first move was to split the company in two – OCS Property, which would own the iconic building, and OCS Operations, responsible for the day-to-day running of the business.
Four years later, Gordon Brothers sold the company for €29 million to a consortium called Natrium, headed by Sligo woman, Deirdre Foley, and it was then that the situation became decidedly murky. Natrium immediately sold off OCS Operations, for a nominal fee of one pound sterling, to a specialist UK insolvency practitioner, retaining OCS Property for itself.
Within 24 hours, a petition was lodged in the High Court to have a provisional liquidator appointed to OCS Operations. This was duly granted, resulting in the locks being put on the doors, the staff of 500 being told their jobs were gone with immediate effect, and 50 concession holders being locked out. The concession holders were self-owned businesses operating on the floor of Clerys, whose takings would be collected each evening by the company and who, at the end of the month, were given back the proceeds less agreed deductions for rent, rates and overheads.
Security staff escorted the workers and concession holders off the premises before the reality began to sink in that their jobs were gone, the business had closed down, and there would be nothing for them except the statutory redundancy the State would be paying them.
Understandably, there was huge public outrage over the treatment of the Clerys workers, most of whom had given their working lives in the service of the company. There were public demonstrations, angry Dáil questions, ostracisation of the new owners, trade union solidarity protests. Eventually, after protracted negotiations brokered by the Lord Mayor, a confidential settlement was reached between Natrium and the workers, and plans were announced for the development of the historic property as a hotel and commercial centre.
Last year, Natrium sold Clerys on to a new investment group, Europa Capital, for €63 million, an ample reward for the hassle it had to endure.
Meanwhile, the concession owners were left to lick their wounds and get on as best they could. Until last week, that is, when out of the blue came an offer from Gordon Brothers to recompense them to the tune of €785,000, after all those years. The only proviso was that the recipients would have to agree to a gagging order not to sue or prosecute, or not to say anything ‘critical or derogatory’ about Gordon Brothers, OCS Operations or two named Clerys directors.
Most interesting of all is that the offer comes just three weeks before a High Court hearing that seeks to restrict the two former Gordon executives as directors over their alleged conduct when they were also members of the Clerys board.