Mystery of man behind £850m plan for Europe's tallest residential tower

The post is piling up at Ryan House, a smart, four-storey Georgian townhouse in the heart of Dublin's office district.

An employee of the solicitor's firm which moved in three months ago explains they don't have a forwarding address for Tom Ryan or the businesses he once ran from this address. "It's been a bit of a problem. We've had a lot of mail piling up, though it's started to become less lately."

Almost unknown in the close-knit Irish business world, Ryan shot to attention 10 days ago when it was reported that he had paid £100m for a site on Canary Wharf's north-west corner to build a 75-storey tower of luxury flats to be called Hertsmere House.

His plan, it is said, is to knock down a 1980s office block, currently occupied by Barclays bank, and erect in its place Europe's tallest residential tower, an £850m development designed to cater to the insatiable appetite for prime London addresses among the world's super-rich. Penthouse residents would enjoy unparalleled views from a vantage point seven metres higher than the pyramid-topped One Canada Square landmark.

The news set the property world in London and Dublin abuzz with one question: who is Tom Ryan? "We have no idea," said Jill O'Neill at Sherry Fitzgerald, one of Ireland's largest estate agents. "Ireland is such a small place and people tend to know everyone, so it is unusual."

The news had broken on the front page of the Financial Times and was repeated by news outlets around the world. But there is scant information on the Ryan Corporation UK Limited, Ryan's investment vehicle for the Canary Wharf project.

A Guardian investigation into the mysterious Ryan reveals a man with a history of mixed business success, the subject of three tax judgments secured by the Revenue since 2011. His business partners have included a convicted fraudster, the owner of a lap-dancing club and an ex-adviser to former taoiseach Bertie Ahern.

Official company and gazette filings have variously described Ryan's occupation as "management consultant", "company director" and "gentleman". He has been ordered to pay €2.9m (£2.4m) in late taxes and bad debts by Irish courts since 2009. Last month alone, a court ordered Ryan to pay €1.6m to the Irish Revenue.

In January Ryan was ordered to pay Lombard Ireland, part of the Royal Bank of Scotland, almost €770,000 after failure to repay a debt. A smaller sum of just over €7,000 was owed to Blackrock Clinic in 2009.

The Irish tax authorities have also fined Ryan for failure to file income tax and VAT returns on several occasions. In fact, so common have Ryan's tax judgments and late fees been that his exotic business activities have become a regular fixture in Ireland's irreverent satirical news magazine, the Phoenix.

The businessman's reputation in the US, meanwhile, is much closer to what might be expected of a wealthy property tycoon. David O'Sullivan, executive director of the Ireland-US Council, said Ryan had been a member of the non-profit business group for around 15 years, but went to events only occasionally. He said Ryan had "inherited his wealth" and was "doing different things in aviation and real estate".

On St Patrick's Day 2007 Ryan was reportedly invested into the Ancient Order of Hibernians, an exclusive Irish-American club, at an event witnessed by the Clintons, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and his predecessor, Rudy Giuliani.

Meanwhile, on this side of the Atlantic, prominent figures in the upmarket property industry contacted by the Guardian in the UK and Ireland were unfamiliar with Ryan. The British-Irish Chamber of Commerce said: "He has not crossed our radar screen." Frank McDonald, a Dublin-based journalist on the Irish Times who has taken a particular interest in property development and written a bestselling book on the sector, The Builders, said: "I have never heard of him."

Neighbours of Ryan, who lives close to the Lansdowne Road stadium in the desirable Dublin seaside village of Sandy-mount, also expressed surprise at the businessman's latest venture. "Tom? Really?" said one neighbour, visibly taken aback by the news of the near-£1bn project. "I didn't know he was involved in anything like that. He comes and goes a lot. I haven't seen him for a while."

Another neighbour said she was also surprised. "I didn't know he was involved in anything like that large. I didn't think he was into that sort of deal. I just knew he was a businessman."

She would not say any more about her famous neighbour, other than that he "comes and goes, he travels abroad a lot", and that he drives a BMW. A brand-new top-end BMW five series, apparently leased from Avis, was parked on the curb outside the house.

Back at Ryan House, his former Dublin office address, a brass intercom plate by the door still reads: "Ryan House, Ryan International Corporation, Corporate Headquarters". However, the office is now leased to the firm of solicitors who say they have no connection with Ryan, who they believed to be the previous tenant. "We only kept the plaque because it has the buzzer in it," said an employee.

In the UK he is equally hard to pin down. His Ryan Corporation UK, based in Shaftesbury Avenue, London, according to Companies House and believed to be the company behind the residential tower, is listed as inactive. Company records show Ryan had been a director of five companies in Ireland, all but one of which was dissolved before filing accounts. Among them were a helicopter company, which folded with debts outstanding to Lombard Ireland. Several were jointly owned by Ryan and Paddy Duffy, a former spindoctor for Ahern. A little more is known of Ryan International Corporation (Liqueur) Ltd, a business set up to market a Bailey's-style liqueur called Ryan's Irish Cream.

A fundraising brochure described Ryan as having "a range and level of experience which includes corporate life, public affairs, public relations, television, government services, international investment, property development, and the drinks manufacturing/marketing industry". Ryan International Corporation was set up with "operating offices in Dublin, Paris, New York and Los Angeles", it says.

Ryan was "appointed to develop current affairs departments for the new government-legalised radio stations" and "headhunted by the BBC" before returning to PR, with clients such as Apple, GPA, Aer Lingus and British Airways, it adds. In the end, the liqueur project never went into production.

Ryan's partners in the liqueur venture turned out to be Chris Kelly, well known for his lap-dancing clubs in Ireland, and Ron Wiesz, who runs a controversial lending business. In 1995, Wiesz was reportedly convicted in New York of fraudulently acquiring a bank loan.

Ryan Corporation and Commercial Estates Group, which sold the Hertsmere House site, declined to comment.

Powered by article was written by Simon Bowers, Jennifer Rankin and Ed O'Loughlin in Dublin, for The Guardian on Friday 22nd November 2013 21.33 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


image: © Keith Laverack

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