The northside's messiah

  • 27 September 2006
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Richard Nesbitt, the messiah of the Arnotts empire, is planning a billion-euro development for Dublin's Abbey St. But with half-a-dozen Arnotts executives recently having jumped ship and frustration growing among those who are left, the finger of blame is moving towards the company's impulsive impresario. By Justine McCarthy.


The day before Arnotts unveiled its master plan to reconfigure Dublin city centre, the department store held its annual knees-up for the staff in the Mansion House. Traditionally, the event has been a convivial and well-attended affair but, this year, a paltry 130 of the company's 800 workers bothered to show up. The embarrassing epidemic of apathy was attributed to "an atmosphere of tension" on the shop floor and even in the executive offices.

On the surface, Arnotts is the happening retailer du jour, reinventing itself with Burberry-style chutzpah on the hitherto dingy northern bank of the Liffey. Once a haunt of nurses stocking up on starched uniforms and bargain-hunters browsing in the basement, it has morphed into a glossy, youth-fashion Mecca-with-frills-on. The casual-style brand leader Gap is the latest to open within the store, the multinational's first self-contained outlet in the Irish Republic. Behind the bubbly façade, however, simmers nervous discontent and the finger of accusation is pointing at Arnotts' messiah, executive chairman Richard Law Nesbitt.

The proposed Northern Quarter is his baby. A billion-euro re-drawing of the capital's northern consumer heart redolent of New York's Columbus Circle, it will house 47 new shops, 17 cafes, restaurants and bars, 189 apartments and a four-star 152-bedroom hotel. A giant square of retail therapy outlets bounded by Henry Street, Middle Abbey Street and Liffey Street will cover more than a million square feet of downtown Dublin.

"The Northern Quarter will write the next chapter in the evolving history of Dublin city," predicts Nesbitt, one of the country's top-earning lawyers. Three years ago, he led a €255 million buy-out of Arnotts Plc, returning it to a private company, and immediately began accumulating a massive bank of neighbouring premises for the planned expansion. He bought Independent Newspapers' historic Independent House for €26 million in 2003, followed by Chapters book shop in Middle Abbey Street for another €11 million.

Though atypical of the photofit Arnotts customer – "He might buy his basics there but that'd be it," agrees an acquaintance – Nesbitt's enthusiasm for the shop's rejuvenation has been boundless since his near full-time return to the family drapery business where "he still has uncles and cousins involved". And that, for some of his senior managers, has been the problem. About half-a-dozen of the company's top executives have departed in recent times, including the human resources director, the business development director, the merchandising and marketing director and the chief executive, Michael Mason, who had been head-hunted away from Musgraves. The new chief executive, an English-born former manager with Selfridges who is currently based in Hong Kong, will not take up the job until November.

"Look, Richard's a lovely fellow to sit down and have a pint with," says someone who knows him through business, "and there's even a certain shyness about him but, once the take-over was complete, his ego seemed to take off. A bit of an atmosphere has developed in the store. Senior executives have become frustrated because he makes a major decision on something one day and, the next day, he overturns that decision. He changes his mind more often than he changes his shirt. The managers work long hours and they're well paid for it but some of them are tearing their hair out in frustration because projects that they've worked really hard on are arbitrarily dumped."

After private-school in St Columba's, the young Nesbitt opted for a career as a barrister because, he has said, "it was one of the things you could do being self-employed – that or third assistant secretary in the Department of Foreign Affairs". He qualified in 1975 and became a senior counsel in 1993, with the cushion of his father's reassurance that, if the law did not work out, he could always have a job in Arnotts. Now, aged 55, he has what one person describes as "a boutique practise of blue-chip monied, quality clients" specialising in the lucrative area of commercial law where his fruity elocution and impeccable manners seldom fail to impress those paying his fees. He has acted for Ryanair, Dunnes Stores, businessmen Ken O'Reilly-Hyland and Mark Kavanagh as well as the Irish Times.

"He would take no prisoners in his commercial dealings," says another lawyer. "He's surgical in his thought process. He can be aloof and arrogant. I doubt, for instance, that he ever worked behind the counter in Arnotts. He wouldn't have what you might call a salesman's personality."

A woman who knows him from the courts describes Nesbitt as, "well-groomed, terribly discreet and rather attractive. He's extremely polite. He would never engage in a joke or a bit of gossip. He doesn't hang around the law library or in the restaurant having coffee. He isn't into that type of collegiate activity. He drives a soft-top Mercedes (a racing green CLK 200) which suggests there just might be a risque bone in his body."

Home is a period red-brick on Wellington Road in Ballsbridge, where his neighbours include other luminaries of the bar such as Paul Gallagher, Eoin McGonigal and Inge Clissman. His hobbies are cycling and cooking and he describes himself as "a shopaholic".

"He's an old-world guy, but not in a lah-di-dah way," attests an employee.

He has his critics too, both in the law and in business. "He's not a team player," says one of them, "and he's over-stretched between working down in the courts and working practically full-time as Arnotts' executive chairman. It wasn't very reassuring to see the announcement being made about the Northern Quarter development before they had even applied for planning permission or secured a strategic partner. I wouldn't say Richard has a retail vision and I wouldn't be at all surprised if he floated off the retail arm of the company and turned it into a property development company."

Richard Nesbitt was not available for interview as he was away on holidays, but a spokesman for Arnotts confirmed that an "international and domestic" search for a partner will begin next month. (Property developer Paddy Kelly of Redquartz Limited is already involved with Arnotts since it acquired Independent House. The new partner is expected to put up 20 per cent of the capital investment and to spearhead the building of the envisaged development.)

The Northern Quarter is being promoted as something of a crossroads for Dublin and as a personal mission for Richard Nesbitt. "He has a great affinity with that part of the city and he really wants to do something with the area," says his spokesman, Gerry O'Sullivan of the Q4 public relations firm.

For a store that many of its customers associate with its sponsorship of Dublin GAA, it is an extravagant, even grandiose plan. Noting that Arnotts declared a loss for the first time last year, one of the non-converts warns: "The one person who's being forgotten in all of this is the customer."p