Tuesday, December 5, 2023

John Burns: Altada’s Beechinor advising State on tech sector challenges

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When junior minister Robert Troy announced the line-up for an Enterprise Digital Advisory Forum last May, the first name on his list was Allan Beechinor, chief executive of Altada Technology Solutions. The forum was set up to give the Government “feedback” on the “various challenges and opportunities they identify in relation to digitalisation”.

As his Cork-based artificial-intelligence company malfunctioned last autumn, Beechinor was certainly well placed to provide feedback on the challenges facing the sector. Altada’s deficit to its creditors at the end of last year may “substantially exceed” €10 million, a liquidator has told the High Court.

Sitting alongside Beechinor at the forum have been representatives from Google, Microsoft, Ibec and several Government departments. Now Louise O’Reilly, Sinn Féin’s enterprise spokeswoman, has asked in the Dáil if the Altada boss is still a member. In reply, junior minister Dara Calleary said there has been no change in the line-up, but as the forum approaches its first birthday, “membership will be reviewed in the coming months”. Will Beechinor survive?

O’Reilly also asked what due diligence was carried out by Enterprise Ireland before it invested in Altada. In 2020, the State agency put in €250,000 and last March it threw in another €550,000. Junior minister Neale Richmond replied that the Department of Enterprise “has been in contact with Enterprise Ireland in relation to the company in question”.

In a separate reply, he said Enterprise Ireland had written off more than €47 million in investments made to 257 companies over the last five years. The fate of its stake in Altada will be decided by the High Court.

Green ire at Looney’s BP pay

Environmental groups have reacted angrily to the doubling of Bernard Looney’s pay package as CEO of BP. The Kenmare native, who joined the company as a drill engineer in 1991 after graduating from UCD, earned over £10 million last year after BP’s profits soared due to higher energy prices. Looney was paid £1.37 million in salary, a bonus of £2.37 million, a shares bonus of £6 million, and the cost of “professional advice provided to him in the course of his duties”. All told, it’s more than double the £4.5 million he got in 2021.

Greenpeace criticised the package, while Global Witness, an international NGO, described it as “a kick in the teeth to all hard-working people being faced with a cost-of-living crisis”.

But Looney, who took charge in February 2020, could have been paid even more. BP’s remuneration committee shaved £667,497 off his shares bonus and £78,329 off his annual bonus, partly due to the deaths of four workers in a fire at the Toledo refinery in Ohio last September. This year, though, he could earn even more – his salary is increasing by 4 per cent in 2023.

Financial big-hitters score at Cheltenham

Another UCD graduate winning big this week is Colm Donlon, a managing director at Morgan Stanley who was once dubbed “the Harry Potter of mergers and acquisitions”. He also has a magic touch when it comes to horses, and led in Langer Dan after it won the Coral Cup Handicap Hurdle at Cheltenham on Wednesday.

Twenty-four hours earlier, former NCB stockbroker Barry Connell trained the winner of the opening race of the festival with Marine Nationale. Back in 1999, Connell was among a group of seven senior executives who left NCB to set up Merrion Capital. He then managed a hedge fund for high net worth individuals. It’s hedges of a different variety that occupy him these days.

Will Dunnes put Crumlin SC out of its pain?

Crumlin Shopping Centre is so run-down that Dublin City Council’s derelict sites section said last month it had plans to inspect the building. The centre’s iconic Texas Fried Chicken outlet closed in 2020. Last weekend Better Value Ltd, owned by Dunnes Stores, applied for planning permission to develop the 3.3-hectare site. The existing buildings will be demolished, to be replaced by a new shopping centre complete with food market, seven kitchens and an associated food court, a library with an exhibition space, and a gym.

Great, but where will this leave @OfficCrumlinSC, the spoof Twitter account with almost 20,000 followers which specialises in hilarious gags about the naffness of the centre? If it gets knocked down, isn’t the joke over? “Yes, I can’t be associated with this,” the operator of @OfficCrumlinSC said of the new plans. “It looks like a college campus.”

Two previous planning permissions granted for Crumlin’s renovation eventually expired, however. So perhaps it will continue to be a running joke.

Talking down the property market

Betteridge’s Law states that any newspaper headline ending with a question mark can be answered by the word “No”. So let’s apply this rule to the recent Daily Telegraph article headlined: “Is Ireland’s property boom about to burst again?”

The gist of it was that there are “growing concerns that Ireland’s housing crisis will damage the country’s economic model”, and the Torygraph happily listed off every ill besetting the Irish economy, from tech giants laying off workers to Irish Life stopping withdrawals from its property fund.

“As the economy creaks, housing affordability is only getting worse,” the Telegraph intoned, adding that in fact the pace of growth in house prices is cooling. It concluded: “The Irish housing market does not face a downturn akin to that hitting the UK. The SCSI [Society of Chartered Surveyors] has forecast growth will slump to 2pc across 2023 – but it does not anticipate house price falls.”

So, no property boom about to burst, then. Betteridge’s Law still stands.

An Ireland Day wipeout on Wall Street

Last Monday was the 11th annual ‘Ireland Day’ at the New York Stock Exchange, featuring a “leadership breakfast” and the ceremonial ringing of its bell, performed by publisher Ian Hyland. His enthusiastic tolling was watched by Minister for Education Norma Foley, the special economic envoy to Northern Ireland Joe Kennedy, and others.

The ensuing day’s trading was hardly auspicious, however. By the time the closing bell sounded, investors had reacted to recent bank failures by dumping more financial shares, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average had fallen by more than 90 points.

U2 still stuck in a moment

Between launching a new album and embarking on a residency in Las Vegas this autumn, it’s hard to see how U2 will find the time to work on their visitor centre in Grand Canal Dock. It’s now four years since their firm MHEC Ltd got planning permission for the project at Hanover Quay, but not a sod has since been turned, and the permission expires in March 2024.

We asked neighbour Harry Crosbie if he had any inside information. “I really and truly don’t know,” he said. “They live beside me, and I know them for 20 or 30 years, but you might as well be looking at the Sphinx in the desert – you wouldn’t know what they are going to do next.

“At the moment, they are practicing to go to Vegas, and I don’t think they give a feck about [the visitor centre], but I have no empirical knowledge, except that’s just what I think.”

Sounds like the project is stuck in a moment . . .

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