State monopolies are on the run.
It is here, in the new Ireland, that we have bred fresh business heroes such as Sean Quinn.
Last week, Sean Quinn bought Bupa in a lightning deal. He thus dealt the would-be state monopoly VHI a series of blows:
The semi-state had seen paradise regained, then snatched from its jaws by an interloper at the 11th hour.
Being under attack from competition at home was bad enough, but offstage VHI was fighting a rearguard action. While the VHI’s domestic domination was weakening by the hour, it was under siege from another hero of Irish business out in Europe. Charlie McCreevy is threatening court action against Ireland for allowing the VHI to trade under more favourable rules than the competition.
The VHI is privileged. It is not forced to keep as much money in its reserves as Vivas or Bupa. Indeed, it is subject to no solvency demands. McCreevy believes this is unfair to its competitors. So if Bupa and Vivas gain an edge because they do not insure as many older customers, they lose out because they are forced to keep huge sums in reserves. VHI suffers no such albatross; its antics are state-guaranteed. It cannot go bust.
The market is distorted in both directions. The semi-state wins on the swings what it loses on the roundabouts. But it wins by a mile as the biggest whinger about the practices of its private sector opponents.
Sean makes business buzz. He challenged the CRH monopoly – and succeeded.
Sean was fed up with paying excessive insurance on his lorries, so he founded Quinn Direct and built the most successful insurance business in Ireland.
Sean bought 20 per cent of Conor O’Kelly’s live-wire stockbrokers, NCB (once owned by Dermot Desmond, but where the enterprise culture still survives), and has since seen them challenge stuffy establishment brokers Davy and Goodbody.
Two weeks ago Sean bought 5 per cent of an Irish bank. Not blue-chip BoI or AIB. Sean targeted the anti-establishment Anglo Irish Bank – and spent €570m buying its shares.
This genius, who started his business life selling sand and gravel from his family’s Fermanagh back garden, has combined being a champion of the customer with making a mint.
A logical step for a man with heretical instincts, a healthy force for revolution in Irish business.
This week we should salute a businessman who managed to rescue 300 Bupa staff from the dole, 450,000 customers from the clutches of the VHI – and the Government from an embarrassing lack of competition.