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Harcourt's Pat Doherty On Building A Property Empire

By Emily Hourican

Pat Doherty is something of a legend. The founder of Harcourt Developments, he left school at 14, left home in Donegal for London at the age of 19, and started working in construction. From there, he has built an empire. Along the way, he became friends with Andrew Parker Bowles and was painted by Lucian Freud. Here, he talks to Emily Hourican.

It’s a quiet day in March 2020 – barely a week before the world changes – when I go to the outwardly unassuming offices of Harcourt Developments, on Harcourt Street, in Dublin 2. Inside, the walls rival many of the best art galleries, with paintings by Hughie O’Donoghue, Louis le Brocquy, Colin Davidson, Seán McSweeney, John Shinnors, Brian Ballard, Tony O’Malley, Mark O’Neill, and many more.

Harcourt Developments delivers commercial, retail and residential projects, but it is its hotels and visitor attractions that are particularly high profile, including the regeneration of the Titanic Quarter in Belfast and seven hotels spread across Ireland, the UK, and the Caribbean, with a total of 755 rooms, employing (in normal times) 1,010 staff members.

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At the helm of this remarkable operation is Pat Doherty, a Donegal man now in his seventies, who left school at 14, left home at 19, and has built an exceptional property company. Along the way, he has made unlikely friendships at the heart of the British aristocracy, been awarded an OBE, and been painted twice by Lucian Freud.

Doherty is, I find, softly spoken, courteous, understated, and seemingly modest. He says ‘we’ instead of ‘I’, and it strikes me that, rather than any kind of grandiose or royal ‘we’, what he is keen to acknowledge is that his success has always been collaborative – a product of the people around him, as well as his own ingenuity and talent.

So, Pat, where to begin? You were born in Buncrana, Co. Donegal?

“Yes, one of ten children. I’m the third child – four boys and six girls. I left school when I was 14 to do a construction apprenticeship. Uncles of mine were contractors – they built churches, schools, housing estates, council housing estates, and that kind of stuff. At that age, you were making tea for carpenters, you were in the joinery shop working, so I did that until I was 19.”

Did he mind leaving school so young?

“I didn’t mind it at all. I got on quite well. I got in with some really good tradesmen, with whom you were learning without knowing you were learning. I went to London at 19. If you got a job as a tradesman in those days, it was like £5 a week, and in London, it was £16, my brothers and I found out, so we said we’d go over there for six months. We were hungry. We went into the building trade. We started doing brickwork and carpentry, and started from there. By the time I was about 24, I had about 30 or 40 guys working, doing that.”

Does he remember when the shift happened, when he went from being the kind of person who turns up to work every day to being the person who set up his own business to take others on?

“No. I think, at a young age, you’re always trying to make some money – putting it bluntly – and when we went there first, we were looking for 12 hours a day, almost seven days a week, to build up, and it just sort of happened. You grew into it. We started doing small jobs, renovations in places, and it took us a while to realise that we actually knew what we were doing. We thought everybody knew. Then we realised, hang on, they haven’t got a clue, and we built up from there. We knew the building trade. It’s just easy to do a job right, and all that requires is having the right men.”

Is there any particular secret to managing a team of workers, I wonder?

“No. The only secret in any work is treating people with respect. Most people, you can find out what their capabilities are by just knowing them. You get ones who can’t do it, and you just let them go. Most of the people we were getting in those early days, we knew where they came from, we knew where they did their apprenticeship. It was mostly Irish for the first few years, but then we go into different people, as long as they were good at what they were doing.”

How much did he miss Ireland? Had the plan been to come home?

“We only thought we were going to be there for six months, and it sort of grew. We were never sure for the first four or five years where we were going, but then we got sort of tied in there and started building up a business, and enjoyed it.”

In 1969, Doherty bought a five-storey house and converted that into five flats.

“That was when the turning point was. We started realising if you can do that, you can make a lot more money. Then we bought another one and built up from there. At that time, we were still doing outside contracting work as well – mostly in renovations of old houses, listed buildings, and we stayed in that until the mid-1980s, maybe late 1980s. Then we stopped doing outside work. We only worked for ourselves, just on our own work, because doing contracting outside – no matter how good you are – almost one in ten times, you get knocked, or somebody won’t pay you, or they’ll go bankrupt. That brings you back to where you started, and it takes a lot of time to learn that.”

In the early 1970s, Doherty met Andrew Parker Bowles, at the time married to Camilla, who is now, of course, married to Prince Charles. It’s a relationship that has lasted and become a lifelong friendship. Parker Bowles is still a director of Harcourt Developments.

“They had a small development company. They didn’t know much about building at all – in fact, they knew nothing about building – so I approached them and I said, ‘Look, we’ll do the work at cost for 25% of the profit,’ which they agreed. We built a relationship up with them.”

Did the partnership with Parker Bowles move him into a different league, in terms of the work they were doing?

“Not really, but we did quite a bit of work with him, and we’ve been friends since.”

Doherty then began working for Chrysalis Records, one of the top record companies in the country, managing its property portfolio and developments on a 50/50 basis.

“They had properties, and they asked us to look at them because they saw some of the work we’d done. It worked out quite well, and we built up a relationship with them for 17 years.”

What were these relationships based on?

“Results,” is the succinct answer. It wasn’t just construction that Pat did for Chrysalis Records. He also appears in the video of ‘Hey Jude’. “At the recording of ‘Hey Jude’,” he recalls, “the scouts came in, and they were looking for three builders. We didn’t know what it was, but we knew it was for the Beatles, so we thought, this will be interesting … and it was a bit of fun, you know.”

Along the way, Pat began what has grown to become an astonishing art collection.

“That started in 1972 or ’73,” he says. The way he tells it, it almost started accidentally. “We were doing work with Paul Cornwall Jones, who started Petersburg Press, who were the publishers for most of the artists – Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg. We did his house for him, then went on to do some of his offices. Then he asked me to do David Hockney’s studio.”

During this time, in exchange for knocking something off the final bill – “maybe £250 or so,” – Pat was offered to choose a painting.

“I picked Hockney for some reason – only because we’d done his studio, I think, because we didn’t know who Hockney was or where he was going – but I met him quite a few times in those days. So, we started collecting that way, and we realised he was getting more famous, and what we had thought was a favour was, in fact, an investment, if you call it that!”

Even before that, Pat had shown an understanding of, and interest in, beautiful things.

“We got involved, even slightly before that, with an interior designer who used to do [British film director] Ken Russell’s house and big houses for the stars. We learned a lot, and he liked us because I told him anything that he wants made, just tell us what it is, and we’ll get it done. Even cast-iron stuff – we used to get fireplaces made – and that kind of stuff, so we got on well.”

When and where did he meet Lucian Freud?

“When he was painting Andrew Parker Bowles,” – Freud’s painting of Parker Bowles is a full-length piece called The Brigadier – “we were going out to have dinner. I went to pick Andrew up at [Freud’s] studio, which is just around the corner from where I lived in London, and one evening, Andrew said to me, ‘Come in, and I’ll introduce you, and have a glass of champagne,’ so I went in and met him. I found him very interesting. I remember I said to him after about the third or fourth time going in to pick Andrew up, ‘I’ve got a very good wine cellar. Are you coming around for dinner one day?’ He said, ‘I’d love to, Pat,’ and that relationship – we were there the night he died, Andrew and I – and we were friends from then on. For some reason, we got on well.”

What were the connections between them?

“Nothing. I think just chatting because he spent two thirds of the time talking, and I’m a good listener, and history from him – he said when he was in Germany before he came over, his parents were like strangers to him. He said he might see them two or three times a week, when they were going out. They’d say good night to you, but if he fell and cut himself, it was his nanny who looked after him, and he said he had more in common with his nanny than his mother. He was interesting, but none of his friendships lasted. If he took a dislike to you, that was it. I’m lucky, actually – I can’t hold a grudge against anybody – but what I’d usually say is forgiven, but not forgotten. It was very simple. We got on well, and I found him very interesting.”

So how did Freud come to suggest painting him?

“He didn’t ask me at all. He asked Andrew to ask me. Andrew asked if I’d sit for him, and my reply was to tell him to eff off – I’m not sitting for an artist. In those days, you could’ve bet a million to one that I wouldn’t do it, but Andrew kept on – he said, ‘It’s such an honour to be asked by this man.’ I said, ‘Andrew, I’m not a sitter,’ but he kept on, and I said, ‘Oh, for Christ’s sake, okay!’ In my head, I thought sitting for an artist was two or three sittings, and that wasn’t the case. The first painting took 108 sittings, three hours a time, and he did an etching, which took 38 sittings, and he did another painting, which took 85 sittings, so we got to know one another pretty well!”

How did he work?

“He would take a year – more than a year – to do a painting. He’d work on three or four paintings at the same time. He’d get rid of a lot of stuff he started because he didn’t like it, and then he’d start again.”

Where are those paintings?

“They’re on loan to IMMA, but they’re my property. I’ve loaned IMMA the two paintings and an etching he did – and the plate, as well, for the etching – and about 15 or 16 Hockney etchings. They’re on a five-year loan.”

The first hotel that Doherty bought was the Redcastle, in Donegal. Was it a deliberate decision to move into that industry, or was it more kind of chance driven?

“People say to me, ‘You’re a hotelier.’ I say, ‘I’m not a hotelier. I’m a property developer.’ Hotels just happen to be part of what we do. We used let them out to management, but, letting hotels out to management, you won’t make your money – they’ll make the money. You do all the risk to maintain them, so, after a while, we decided we’d do it ourselves.”

Clearly, there’s a significant cultural aspect to what Doherty has done, particularly the Titanic Quarter. Are the decisions that he makes pragmatic and businesslike, or is there an element of his own cultural interests that comes into play?

“Most of the things we do, people say they wouldn’t work, or you’d be mad to take that on, so we’re unusual in that way.” Lough Eske is a perfect example. “That was a ruin, you know. There was no roof – there was a tree growing through the roof – so we take, as I said, unusual things.” The Titanic Quarter is another example. “It was actually a bit ballsy to do because most people said that would never work, that you wouldn’t get the visitors.”

Pat believed otherwise, predicting three quarters of a million visitors in the first year. In fact, the number was over 800,000, and the centre has repeatedly recorded record visitor numbers since.

“Don’t ask me how I knew. It was a gut feeling.” It may be the most high-profile project, but it was far from Doherty’s first foray into construction in Belfast. “We built throughout the Troubles – maybe about 3,000 houses in Northern Ireland, in Catholic areas, in Protestant areas. We built without having any boards up anywhere. We never had a board up at any of our jobs, so nobody knows who’s doing it, no name on it – we’re not into politics – and it worked fine.”

Harcourt Developments owns three-, fourand five-star hotels.

“The whole thing about hotels, or anything, is the standard – giving a good standard, regardless of what star it is – and they’re working out pretty well.”

How did the Carlisle Bay hotel, in the Caribbean, come about?

“I got that by accident as well. I’d never been in the Caribbean before, and someone asked me to go down and have a look” – the hotel had been destroyed by a hurricane – “just to go down and give some advice, and it was just a site in ruin, but the setting was stunning. I thought, this is a magic setting, and the bloke that had it used to be the manager of Ozzy Osbourne – what was the name of the group? Black Sabbath. Anyway, I bought half of it to start with” – and later bought the other half and spent, he says, “£30 or £40 million on the hotel, and it’s doing well.”

There is also a projectin Bellingham, in Washington State – “another port,” Doherty says, and also a regeneration project.

“We’re putting a hotel there as well. It’ll be a Titanic hotel also.” Is the regeneration aspect of what they do important to him? “It’s not, but it’s something we grew up in. A lot of people worry about listed buildings. Listed buildings are like – you treat them as they are, and you’ve got to respect what’s there. If you look at what we’ve done in Liverpool, [the Titanic Hotel Liverpool] is the number-one hotel in Liverpool now, by far. The occupancy is in the nineties’ per cent. It’s 160 rooms, and the building next to it was … even the mayor said, ‘For 50 years, people have been coming and looking at this building and running a mile!’ When I saw it, a way back, somebody said, ‘Why are you buying it?’ I said, ‘I’m not sure, but I love the site and the building,’ and part of the building had fallen down as well. It’s now doing very good business.”

Looking back, are you consciously proud of what you’ve achieved?

“Yeah, I’m pleased with what we’ve done, but – and that’s mostly just through hard work, there’s no magic about – it’s just, you put the effort in, and you get the results, and getting a good team around you. You’re only as good as the team you’ve around you.” What was the most challenging time? “I suppose the crash. Before the crash, I thought we were untouchable, and then … well, it was firefighting for almost ten years.”

Was that very stressful?

“I don’t get stressed!”

How did he find dealing with NAMA?

“We did get out, but it took a lot of fighting, and there were lots of people talking about NAMA. NAMA had a job to do, whether you like it or not. As I said to our guys, ‘If you’re asked a question, answer it very factually, or don’t answer it at all, but don’t say something which is not factual. If you do that, that’ll be found out.’ So, we’re not here trying to hide anything, but it worked in the end. It worked out fine.”

Is he done with NAMA now?

“We’re out of NAMA, yeah, and we’re building up good, strong business now. It would take another eight or nine months before we’re completely happy with what we’re doing.”

What are his hobbies?

“Work, I suppose! Well, I call myself a ‘broad-brush man’ now. I know what’s going on everywhere, but if you want the details, the guys will give you the details. I suppose, since I was a kid, shooting, I do – used to do 15 or 16 days a year of that, shooting birds. Mostly just doing what we like doing. I suppose now, half the time I do what I want to do, and the other half, I keep travelling, keeping an eye on the businesses.”

Does he plan to retire any time soon?

“I usually say I retired 20 years ago. It’s a hobby now!”

NOTE

This interview was conducted in March 2020, pre-pandemic. In response to a request for a quote to bring the piece up to date, Harcourt Developments’ head-of-hotels department sent the following.

Like many businesses we were forced to close our doors in March of this year. We made the difficult decision to place many of our staff on furlough and those that remained worked in the background to deal with cancellations, rebookings and to try and safeguard future business. We also carried out a series of refurbishments across the properties. We were delighted to be able to open our doors again at the end of June and to welcome back our team and guests. We experienced a strong period of trading with occupancies exceeding 90% in all properties over the July – September period.

It certainly was a further blow when it was announced that we would enter lockdown again in October in Ireland and UK, forcing us to close ROI and UK hotels once again, Carlisle Bay in the Caribbean had just reopened. We have had to be strategic in our planning and we have placed a renewed focus on new markets and new opportunities in the US, Canada and UK. We welcome the news of the possible developments of a vaccine and hope that this offers the solution people to move freely and for International flights to resume. With the Brexit deadline also fast approaching there is still uncertainty surrounding the potential impact on the hospitality sector. We are optimistic about the future of our industry and with the scheduled reopening of many of our businesses already happening in December we are encouraged by the business on the books with many of the hotels booked out for Christmas.

We look forward to a busy 2021, with over 400 weddings booked across the group, strong leisure bookings and welcoming back all our International guests in the summer.

Enjoy a FREE Digital Subscription
Enjoy full access to Hospitality Ireland, our weekly email news digest, all website and app content, and every digital issue.
Enjoy a FREE Digital Subscription
Enjoy a FREE Digital Subscription
Enjoy full access to Hospitality Ireland, our weekly email news digest, all website and app content, and every digital issue.
Enjoy a FREE Digital Subscription