The Irish Times - Tuesday, October 5, 2010Taking a risk that paid off
'I had no experience whatsoever, but you learn as you go along, and I delegate a lot. I think I was never cut out to be a chartered accountant,' says Kieran Rooney.In this section »
Putting a price on our healthMake the most of your chemistDoes it work? Can butterbur help relieve migraine?A call to actionNo need to get in a panic, it's only a breastHow Kieran Rooney ignored the roar of the the Celtic Tiger era to establish a business in a country that was on the brink of financial ruin, writes ISABEL CONWAY
PICTURE THIS. Ireland’s Celtic Tiger is roaring for all it’s worth. Jobs for chartered accountants and other young professionals are there for the picking. As colleagues rush to acquire overpriced luxury apartments and top-of-the-range cars, financed with whopping loans and fat pay increases, Kieran Rooney is taking off to a place where the economy is on the verge of collapse. By the time he settles into Buenos Aires, Argentina is in chaos: unemployment is spiralling, there’s a nationwide strike, the banking system has all but shut down and the middle classes are rioting.
Back in Dublin in 2001, while working on contract for the HJ Heinz Company, Rooney could have had it all, and he was to be later recruited to work for Kerry Group in Brazil. But the lure of Buenos Aires and, significantly, love – a year earlier he had met his future partner, a law graduate, in an Irish bar – changed his life.
Abandoning the security of chartered accountancy to the astonishment of family and friends, he set out to make good in a city where people were taking to the streets, banging pots and pans in protest amid the economic ruins, having lost all their bank account savings, and without any prospects for the future.
There were no jobs, and inflation was running at nearly 30 per cent. But he took his Belfast father’s advice: “Whatever you do, do something.” Rooney, one of six born and bred in Andersonstown, by now teaching English in Buenos Aires for wages that did not even pay his rent, and barely fed him, saw a niche abroad for Argentine-crafted ladies’ designer shoes.
“My friends and brothers christened me Al Bundy” – after the hard-luck shoe salesman in the TV series Married with Children – “and some people, especially accountant friends, thought I was completely mad. There was an element of snobbishness too, people turning up their noses at what I was doing: selling shoes.”
Over the next four years Rooney spent months at a time footslogging across Ireland and England, visiting upscale boutiques. Once back in Buenos Aires he would rush out to the shoe design shop and factory with his orders.
His glamorous line in shoes was called Gabriela Castro (Gabriela is his wife’s name), remembered by Irish shoe lovers as the Jimmy Choos of the provinces, sure head-turners at a wedding, the races or a big night out.
“Not having a regular salary makes people fall back on their entrepreneurial side. Having had good jobs in Australia and Ireland in chartered accountancy, and plenty of job offers then, I was brought back to basics,” he says. “People can be too proud and believe jobs are below them, and limit themselves by thinking that.”
With the profits from the shoe business, Rooney hatched a plan “to do something in tourism”, as Buenos Aires was becoming a popular long-haul destination. He began hunting for a building to start a hostel or small hotel, but prices were high in the right locations. As luck would have it, the property he identified as a perfect potential boutique hotel – a large chunk of a turn-of-the-century building in an up-and-coming part of the city centre – was going cheap.
Gabriela takes up the story: “It was full of potential, but it was also full of squatters. The owner could not get them out, and the place was completely dilapidated; it was in a terrible condition.”
Close to Avenue Corrientes, Buenos Aires theatre and a bookshop precinct on the corner with Avenue Callao, the 18-room third floor on Sarmiento 1775 was once a well-known boarding house for bachelor writers and musicians, including Leopoldo Lugones, a famous 19th-century poet.
Today the building again echoes that era of elegance and refinement, with restored granite and marble floors, lead-glass windows and art-nouveau furniture, as well as photographic copies from the national archives of Buenos Aires’s life and times and its love affair with tango. A couple of times a week tango classes are held for guests, along with bespoke tours of the city and cultural outings.
In the early days the project was “mega-stressful”, say the couple. No bank credit was available in Argentina, and Irish banks did not want to know either, so they had to borrow from family and friends. Rooney even had to sell his car to pay bills and become project manager because he could not afford to pay the architect.
Now the business has broken even at last and loans have been repaid, so “that pressure is off”.
But first there was the difficulty of removing squatters, red tape and supervision of a huge renovation project before Rooney’s boutique hotel could open for business, two and a half years ago.
“We paid and bribed some squatters to leave, relocated a few and took more to court. Being a lawyer, Gabriela knew the ropes. As a last resort I turned off the hot water and took some doors off the hinges,” he says.
“At that stage my office was in the former drawing room; I was like a dog marking its territory, surrounded by squatters.
“I remember having palpitations – it felt like a heart attack – going to the city council offices almost daily. In the end attrition won out.”
Bribes were never requested, possibly because he was a foreigner. Officials, used to the “brown envelope” culture to move things along, may have been embarrassed or afraid to ask.
The couple have two sons, Ignacio (three) and Ruairi (one), and Rooney says he loves being a father and a hotelier with a relatively short working day, from 10am to 4pm.
“I had no experience whatsoever, but you learn as you go along, and I delegate a lot. I think I was never cut out to be a chartered accountant,” he says.
“I don’t miss Ireland, except for contact with my large family and friends. Buenos Aires is a friendly city; the people are big survivors. Like us Irish, they don’t take themselves too seriously and enjoy life no matter what.”