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Heroic Victim is a Sure Bet

Posted on: January 9th, 2011

IVAN Yates should pick up the phone this chilly Sunday morning and ring Denis O’Brien. Ivan, the presenter of Newstalk’s Breakfast Show, should tell the radio station’s boss that he wants a rise.

If Denis says “No”, Ivan should head for RTE.

Ivan Yates does not deserve a hike in pay simply as an act of charity because he has suddenly hit hard times. He merits recognition because he is of more value to the station today than he was this time last week, just before his company, Celtic Bookmakers, hit the deck.

The Yates experience is not unusual. Businesses are going belly-up by the day; but as a public figure, commentator and business guru, Ivan’s downfall provokes a special interest. Today, from his perilous perch, he can suddenly see first-hand the tragedy facing employees countrywide; his family is now enduring the hardship already endured by others; he too has suffered bruises at the hands of the banks, a common plight for an Irish business in distress. He is sharing the nation’s pain.

And he has taken a personal battering. His bubbly self- confidence must be shattered, his business skills challenged and his financial future clouded in uncertainty.

Yet the disaster makes Ivan a more valuable commodity. He is a victim of Ireland’s business insanities, a man who made mistakes, who was too ambitious and borrowed too much. Initially a celebrity bookie, he is now a fallen Irish entrepreneur, another of the walking wounded, mauled by the Celtic Tiger. We can all identify with Ivan.

If Ivan is made a bankrupt, there should be no shame attached. He will be able to bounce back, broadcast as normal, sporting the scars inflicted during his struggle to keep Celtic Bookmakers alive. He will be able to tell the tale of Ireland’s business jungle with the full authority of one who has had lumps knocked out of him on the battlefield.

Ivan Yates has bottle by the bucketful. He abandoned a safe Dail seat in Wexford and the certainty of a future senior Cabinet post (with its increased pension) in favour of becoming a bookie. Indeed, it is convincingly speculated that if Ivan had retained his interest in politics he would today be on the brink of becoming Taoiseach. If he had stuck to his original vocation, Ivan would probably have taken over the Fine Gael leadership from Michael Noonan in 2002. Instead, he took the road of risk.

Politics is the loser.

It is a poor reflection on the sterility of Irish politics that a young man of 43 should have abandoned a prospect of reaching the pinnacle of his profession in favour of becoming a bookie. Ivan must have been wary of a different form of bankruptcy, the bankruptcy of a political system that attracts tribal careerists, that discourages real entrepreneurs, that is infested with cronyism and that has fuelled the appetite of financial insiders for preferment and riches.

The former Minister for Agriculture is exceptionally gifted. He became a TD at the age of 21, destined for greatness. His 2002 departure from the warm womb of Leinster House was a shock to insiders at the time. Cynics wondered whether the young minister had been promised a soft landing in quangoland?

Quite the opposite. Yates was not opting for potentially rich pickings handed down from the State’s tables of patronage or from the clubby social partnership industry. Not for him the board of Anglo, like another former Fine Gael elder, Alan Dukes. Not for him the Bank of Ireland board, now adorned by another former Minister for Agriculture Joe Walsh. Not for him a comfy semi-state appointment, a political gift often grabbed by departed politicians, nor even a sinecure in Europe. No, Ivan took the hard road. He decided to build a business himself, to create employment instead of waiting for it to be created for him. The young ex-minister took a walk into the commercial wilderness.

At first it worked. Even before he left politics, he already owned 10 bookie shops. But he was impatient, ambitious and anxious to challenge the big players — the Paddy Powers, the William Hills, the Boylesports.

After three modestly successful years he caught the Celtic Tiger bug: he borrowed and bought. In 2005 he paid close to €5m for the Joe Molloy chain of bookmakers. In 2006 he spent another €2.5m on Ubet of Limerick. He was funded by none other than AIB, whose vultures are rumoured to have offered to lend him multiples of the €6m he now owes them. He multiplied the original 10 outlets into 63 bookie shops, including two in the UK, altogether employing 300 staff.

Last week, with disarming frankness, Ivan refused to blame AIB for his misfortunes. But he is a victim of a banking culture that lent money first and asked questions later.

His energy was extraordinary. Not content to run a chain of 63 shops with a peak turnover of €189m, he turned his hand to being a media star. And he was brilliant at it.

His background in politics, his knowledge of business and agriculture and his laid-back style made him an overnight success at presenting radio programmes. His Breakfast Show at Denis O’Brien’s Newstalk, his business slot at TV3 and his column in the Examiner were testaments to one of the liveliest talents ever to desert politics.

Ivan was even in demand on the after-dinner speaking circuit, commanding healthy fees for speeches to selected audiences.

Perhaps he spread himself too thinly? It is difficult to fathom how a Wexford-based family man managed to nurse a troubled business while simultaneously presenting a live, daily, three-and-a-half hour programme from Dublin so superbly. Add the weekly column, the speaking engagements, the outside company directorships and other media appearances and it would be fair to ask if the candle was being burnt at both ends.

Like all true entrepreneurs, he found it impossible to refuse a challenge. He must have suffered from an acute adrenaline deficit that needed constant topping up.

The main day job has been vaporised. The peripheral activities will not just survive, they will flourish. His after-dinner speeches will now be electrifying. Far from being feted as a paragon of commercial success, he will now be saluted as an heroic failure.

And if Ivan the bookie declares bankruptcy, Ivan the media man will be even better equipped to inform his listeners of the dangers of overambitious business plans.

No one will have more authority than the scrupulously honest entrepreneur who took his fall from grace with such dignity last week. When he returns to the airwaves on Monday week, he will be hotter property.

He might even be able to write a book about how a young Irish Protestant defied his patrician background to become a bookie, a politician, a journalist and a bankrupt. About how he deserted the safe, stale world of tribal politics in Ireland to tackle the hazards of the turf. Those, like Ivan, who have tried hard and temporarily failed in business should be hailed as honest heroes.

That is why Ivan Yates should ring Denis O’Brien and demand a pay rise.