This article is all about Liam Carroll who was a successful property developer in Ireland in the ‘nineties’. His legacy at the moment (in 2022) is still a little tarnished but with time from his passing in 2021 his achievements as a property developer will come to be celebrated. Remember, this is a man who was not born into any particular fortune, who started building one off houses and ended up building multiple apartment blocks. Yes, there are black marks over his health and safety record and he did lose most of his fortune but come on, he did well.
Liam Carroll was a very famous (but reclusive) and successful property developer in Dublin, Ireland in the nineteen nineties. As Oasis and Blur competed for precious Radio air time, Carroll was building small, but affordable flats all around Dublin.
He particularly wanted to build apartments in areas that no one else did (that’s code for North Dublin in the nineties!). That was mostly because the land was cheaper compared to other parts of Dublin and other people balked at the idea of investing there.
Without a doubt, he was a very talented, prolific property developer in Dublin in the 1990’s and he definitely shaped Dublin’s landscape for better or worse. The qualified engineer became one of Dublin’s biggest property developers between 1990 and 2010.
From humble beginnings with small one off houses, he eventually bought sites in Dublin’s inner city and built hundreds of apartments on them. Carroll took full advantage of the tax breaks available to boost urban regeneration.
The son of Dundalk had a reputation as someone who built small uninspiring apartments with narrow corridors and small windows. For example, a typical block would be 300 units of one- and two-bedroomed apartments along narrow corridors, over three or four floors.
He was criticised for this and disparaged as the ‘shoe-box king’ because of these small flats. But it could be argued this criticism was built-in snobbery. Do single mothers or young couples not deserve a basic, affordable flat to start on the property ladder?
Anyway, while he created a huge amount of wealth during his career he lost most of it in the 2009 financial crash. Below, we are going to look at the life and times of Liam Carroll with a view from learning from him.
William Carroll was born in Ireland on the first of September nineteen hundred and fifty to Christina and Lowry Carroll. His father, Lowry Carroll was a bookmaker. Lowry senior operated a shop in Dundalk, Ireland and also at Dundalk greyhound race track. He had two brothers, Colman and Lance and one sister Geraldine.
He was schooled in Dundalk and studied Electrical engineering in University College Dublin. Upon graduating from University he worked as a mechanical and electrical engineer for Jacobs International.
His work in Jacobs included a project in Jordan to turn water from the Dead Sea into Fertiliser. Carroll probably could have stay with Jacobs for his whole career and become a successful engineer as part of that business.
He built his first property in the 1980s in Ireland — it was a small development of just three townhouses and he decided he wanted to do this full time.
Carroll kept building his burgeoning property empire through the 1980s. The entrepreneur concentrated on small developments of townhouses whilst saving his profits and building up his experience.
He started a company called Zoe Developments which specialised in building blocks of apartments in the inner city of Dublin.
Around this time, the Irish Government introduced tax breaks to wealthy, high income individuals who invested in property development projects in Dublin.
He ended up building almost 10,000 residential units in Dublin alone.
His Net Worth was estimated to be reach over a billion pounds at one stage. However, net worth’s are only paper worth’s as we will see a little later.
Carroll became known for avoiding using Architects to design his schemes. He was an engineer and perhaps confident in his abilities to direct the design of a building. Whether he disliked Architecture is unclear. He probably just wanted to avoid spending huge fees on Architects for works he could get cheaper elsewhere.
Instead, he used his own in-house design teams to design apartments with very tight spaces. He must have figured he was building investment opportunities for investors that would not be living there so design was not an issue.
He even sold a lot of the units in-house eschewing the services of Real estate agents so that he could save the fees and plough that money back into the business.
The developer became known in certain circles as ‘the shoebox king’ due to the modest size of the apartments.
However, as competition heated up in the city, he was forced to hire Architects to ensure his schemes completed against other new rival schemes.
So, what was Liam Carroll the man actually like ? From all reports, he was a very private person who was rarely seen at public events or courting publicity.
In fact, the only public photographs of him are those taken during some court appearances about health and safety and financial issues.
He was very careful with his money and rarely (there is a limit to what we know) spent money on expensive cars, mansions, helicopters, private planes and so on. This made him very unlike a lot of his property development peers who seemed to love public displays of wealth.
After his death, a lot of close friends and business rivals had nothing but good things to say about him. He seemed to be a quiet man who liked to develop properties. In a world of Instagram players, there is simply nothing wrong with that.
Carroll had a very hands-on, direct management style.
This included managing the design, construction and sale of his properties himself avoiding fees to Architects, Interior Designers and Estate agents.
Although, as above, when he got wealthier and his target market more discerning, he began hiring Architects and Estate agents.
It is important to note that while Carroll was known for his small apartments he was admired even by his bitter rivals.
You do not become a successful property developer in any city without skill and financial intelligence.
Zoe Developments had a poor reputation for safety.
They were not alone in this reputation with many construction companies in Ireland recording large amounts of accidents onsite.
In 1997, 24-year-old worker, James Masterson, fell to his death on a site at Charlotte Quay in Dublin.
It was as reported, the third such death on one of his sites. High Court Judge Mr Justice Peter Kelly told Carroll that he was a “disgrace to the construction industry”.
Again, while not excusing his poor management of health and safety, it must be pointed out that health and safety in construction is still a huge issue.
The industry is trying hard to reduce deaths and injuries but the fact remains it is a dangerous occupation.
Liam Carroll was well known for a very modest and simple lifestyle. He lived in a modest house and owned a mid-range car and avoided publicity.
In fact, there are several stories about his aversion to spending money but we don’t want to repeat them here – suffice to say he did not like spending money on anything.
This is seen as an admirable trait in many famous businesspeople and some people are lauded for it.
We make a point not talking about anyone’s personal life on this website – the only thing of interest is that he is married a long time and has a couple of kids.
So, he was definitely not ‘a player’ around town.
That is something we always find interesting about successful businesspeople who don’t really spend their money….what is their motivation?
He invested in other companies such as Dunloe Ewart, Aer Lingus, Irish Continental Group, and Greencore to take advantage of their large land banks across the country. This makes sense, the more access to land he had, the more opportunities for development he would have.
But Carroll ran into problems with the Gasworks building in Ringsend in Dublin, the Tallaght Cross and Glashaus hotels in Tallaght and the Parkway shopping centre in Limerick.
This was due to the world economic recession in 2009 which really blew apart Irelands famous ‘Celtic Tiger’. In 2009 he sought the court’s protection from creditors and legal issues so he could keep his business.
The High Court heard Carroll’s assets were €259 million, he owed banks €149 million, his rental income was €9.85 million a-year and he was paying annual interest of €7.9 million.
His companies were later put into liquidation.
It could be said that Carroll was treated badly by the banks and the system.
However, every business person should remember that banks will consistently and reliably not have your back in the bad times.
He must have really frustrated with the whole process as he knew 1) he had access to good land banks 2) the credit crisis would eventually pass and 3) he had the skills to trade out of the recession. But in any case he lost most of his wealth.
Happily, as of 2018 he was back developing and kept an even lower profile.
Carroll passed away on the second of March 2021. The property developer was well remembered by a lot of people. If he had passed closer to the 2009 property crash then maybe a lot of people would have criticised his record as a property mogul.
But 2021 was a long time after the 2009 recession so people focused on the good he did.
When we talk about his legacy, we are talking about it in terms of property development and construction. He left behind family and friends who he left a lot of memories.
His property legacy as it stands is perhaps the construction of property solely for profit and no joy.
We say that because if you build properties that become known as ‘shoeboxes’ then you can’t really claim to be building for the love of great design.
Carroll’s aversion to Architects led to the construction of box like buildings that will exist well after he passes away. (which as we note at the start of our post, was on the 2nd March 2021.)
People live in those apartments and don’t like living there. Small apartments with poor light lead to people living miserable lives.
Of course you can point out that he helped stimulate the regeneration of a run-down Dublin (and Ireland). And you can point to all of the jobs he generated across his career. But who benefited the most ? While he did start selling out affordable flats to local people, he ended up selling mostly to property investors for rental purposes. So he cannot claim to have provided a start on the property ladder for many. Most of his flats went to property investors who rented them out to tenants leading to difficulties for first time buyers getting their foot on the property ladder.
Given his personal modesty, he was most likely addicted to the process of making money or at least developing. All of this work to make more money – which he then went on to lose anyway.
It makes you think about what the point of good property development and investment is if you don’t like good design or providing homes for families.
In real estate, your legacy is the buildings you leave behind.
If you want your property schemes to sell, it is worth hiring an architect to make sure the development looks good. Carroll carried out the design work inhouse when he was growing his business and was short of funds but eventually recognised the utility in hiring a good design consultant.
Liam Carroll used these incentives to buy sites and build apartments in areas that were not fashionable.
Likewise, investors bought these units because there was a shortage of flats being built and because of these same tax advantages,
Tax advantages are a strong motivation for property investors even if the product is not of a good quality.
This leads to regeneration of struggling areas and stimulation of the local economy.
He spent a lot of cash buying stakes in various companies that had existing large land banks. We understand the logic in this move but it tied up all his cash in leveraged assets.
Unfortunately, this meant that when the money supply was turned off in the 2009 recession Carroll was cash poor. And then this meant he was unable to service his debts and was vulnerable to his creditors who moved in.
The banks will be your friend when you don’t need them and will cast you aside when you do need them. Maybe that’s a bit unfair but Carroll had a lot of assets and probably if given time could have traded out of any cash flow difficulty. But banks will cut and run when they need to so never see them as reliable in your times of need.