Why would Denis O’Brien want Brian Cowen to join the board at Topaz?

denis O brien

Part of the answer came on the same day as the announcement that the former Taoiseach was appointed as a non-executive director of the petrol retailer.

Denis O’Brien recently took control of the Topaz having earlier held a 28% stake in the company.

Topaz had borrowed heavily from Anglo Irish Bank. When the bank was put into liquidation last year it began a process of asking borrowers to pay back their borrowings or selling the loans.

In recent months Mr O’Brien secured new finance from another lender to pay off the original borrowings. He refinanced €205m of Topaz’s borrowings in a deal that saw €55m written off the company’s debts.

Effectively he secured a discount of 27%.

Mr O’Brien was by no means the only investor to get a discount in the IBRC liquidation – but any haircut on an Anglo loan is at the expense of the taxpayer.

As Denis O’Brien took over the company, a new board with seven new directors – including Brian Cowen –

Many might have considered the former Taoiseach’s reputation badly tarnished by the country’s economic collapse – few forget his involvement in the night of the bank guarantee.

But it was his stewardship of the economy which is the biggest black mark on his CV.

Central Bank Governor Patrick Honohan illustrated how the then Government, when Mr Cowen was Finance Minister, let expenditure get out of control just before the banks collapsed.

He wrote: “In a final twist, real expenditure rose by over 11 per cent in both 2007 and 2008, an unfortunate late burst of spending which boosted the underlying deficit at almost the worst possible time.”

But clearly his experience as a former Taoiseach, who knows intricate workings of the State, is something which is attractive to Denis O’Brien.

Topaz sees the State as a big customer.


Last week it revealed it had inked a €20m agreement to supply fuel charge cards to the Gardaí, the Irish Prison Service and the Office of Public Works.

It is a valuable contract won after a public tender and means these State organisations and several local authorities will buy fuel at Topaz.

Mr Cowen is a clever man and could be a valuable asset to any board. But his appointment might run contrary to the public mood right now, which is close boiling point following the outcome of the Anglo Trial.

Another big name to join Topaz is Colm Doherty, who resigned as CEO of AIB in 2010.

Ironically, it was an announcement made by Brian Cowen’s administration – that AIB would need more public money than originally thought – which prompted Mr Doherty’s resignation.

In fairness to Mr Doherty, he was not running the bank during the boom and bust; unlike other bankers subject to public opprobrium.

But it is the move to appoint Mr Cowen and Mr Doherty which sends an interesting message.

Perhaps it says that those whose reputations have been tarnished over recent years should not be defined by those events.

No doubt it’s a message which chimes with Denis O’Brien, who feels harshly treated by adverse findings in the Moriarty Tribunal about his winning of the second mobile phone licence.