Aug. 31 (Bloomberg) -- The torching of a BMW car on a driveway in a quiet Irish housing estate this month marked the moment the battle over the empire of the country’s former richest man turned more violent.
The vehicle belonged to Paul O’Brien, appointed in April to run Quinn Group after the ouster of Sean Quinn, the entrepreneur who built the company into one of the country’s biggest employers. The Aug. 8 attack in County Meath, condemned by Quinn and his supporters, followed more minor incidents such as severing power lines and blocking office entrances.
“When it’s petty stuff, it’s wrong but harmless enough, it happens in many similar situations,” said John Maguire, spokesman for the Concerned Irish Business Group, a lobby group set up to support Quinn after he was removed by creditor Anglo Irish Bank Corp. “But when it gets to personal threats, arson, it’s on a different level.”
The rise and fall of Quinn mirrors that of Ireland, once western Europe’s most dynamic economy and now forced to rely on financial aid from its euro partners.
Quinn, 63, lost control of his business group, spanning building materials to insurance and real estate. Quinn has said he lost more than 1 billion euros ($1.45 billion) investing in Anglo Irish, once among Ireland’s biggest banks and now being wound-down after a 29.3 billion-euro bailout by the government.
“Certain people want the new management out and the original management restored,” O’Brien told Dublin-based broadcaster RTE after his car was torched. Through spokesmen, O’Brien and Quinn declined to be interviewed for this story.
Nobody has claimed responsibility for the incident and a police spokesman said by telephone on Aug. 26 that officers are still investigating.
In 2008, Quinn and his family were estimated by Forbes magazine to be worth about $6 billion. At its peak, Quinn Group had 8,000 workers Europe-wide and the company was the biggest employer in the region where Ireland borders Northern Ireland.
“I’ve been driving up and down to this area for the last 30 years and it would be empty and desolate,” said Maguire, who had a reinsurance business with Quinn for the last eight years. “Now, there are traffic jams, houses, and restaurants, and that’s thanks to Quinn. He invested in one of the most impoverished areas in Europe when no-one else wanted to.”
Born in Derrylin, County Fermanagh, in Northern Ireland, Quinn started out by selling gravel and sand from his father’s farm near the border with the south, according to “The FitzPatrick Tapes: The Rise and Fall of One Man, One Bank and One Country,” by Tom Lyons and Brian Carey, a book on the collapse of Anglo Irish that details the links with Quinn.
The one-street village remains the center of the group. The cement and glass manufacturing factories he once controlled are nearby, as is his insurance business, which is close to being sold to Liberty Mutual Group Inc.
“The man was badly treated,” said James Lowther, a 63-year-old semi-retired businessman in the village. “He has a great reputation around here. Ask any of the workers and they’ll tell you he was a great man to work for.” Lowther called the vandalism “just crazy.”
Since the ousting of Quinn, electricity poles have been damaged, five company vehicles set alight and the entrance of the company’s headquarters blocked with a large dumper truck, the Irish Times reported. A spokesman for the company said the list was accurate.
“He took an awful big gamble,” said John Travers, 55, an electrical engineer, speaking in Derrylin. “Sometimes gambles don’t pay off. But he has provided so much for this place, it was a dead area.”
Quinn said in an Aug. 11 e-mailed statement from his spokesman that he “reiterates his unequivocal condemnation of the ongoing sabotage.” In an earlier statement, Quinn said he had “no knowledge” of who was behind the attacks.
Meanwhile, the battle for control of the business empire continues in the Irish courts.
Quinn’s wife Patricia and his five children lodged a High Court action in May seeking damages against Anglo Irish over alleged negligence and breach of duty. The Quinns also are challenging the appointment of the receiver.
Anglo Irish, which reported last week that its first-half loss narrowed to 105 million euros from 8.2 billion euros, has said it will defend the cases “vigorously.”
“Our view is that the most productive path that can be taken is to have everyone focus on making these strong-performing businesses stronger because that’s the best path to protecting employment in the region,” Mike Aynsley, chief executive officer of the bank, told reporters on Aug. 26.
For now, the estate in Meath has returned to normality, after the charred remains of the BMW were removed. The new executives at Quinn have vowed not to give up.
“The personal nature of this cowardly attack represents a serious crossing of the line,” the company said in a statement on its website on Aug. 9. “We will not be intimidated by the actions of a small group of thugs.”
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