From a study in his Blackrock, Co. Dublin, home, Tom Roche directs multi-million projects as if it were the most natural thing in the world. There is a traffic problem in Dublin, so Roche decided to build a bridge.
The costs of transporting LPG in small quantities cut the margins for those distributing it, so Roche plans to excavate three large caverns in the limestone under Dublin Bay which can be filled with LPG; from ocean-going tankers. The market for acids and solvents is expanding in the chemical and engineering industries and in agri-business, so Roche proposes to erect a chemicals tank farm on 4 1/2 acres beside the river Boyne in Drogheda. Already, he has challenged the monopolies in petrol and LPG from businesses on neighbouring sites.
Of course, Tom Roche has Justin Keating as well as his entrepreneurial achievements to thank for the possibility of taking on ventures like this. The state's third and final payment of £2.385 million to the shareholders of Bula Ltd. (in return for precisely what is not yet clear) came through just over a year ago. The total paid out on foot of the September 1975 agreement between Bula and Justin Keating, the then Minister for Industry and Commerce, comes to £9.54 million, 80 per cent of it going to Bula Holdings, which represents the interests of Tom Roche's family, the Wood family, with whom he has been associated for thirty years in Roadstone, and his son in-law, Michael Wymes.
In several different permutations, the Tom Roches, senior and junior, Richard Wood and Wymes, have become involved in a wide range of speculative and not-so-speculative investments. Individually and as a group, they have interests in the Chevron/ICI and Aran/BP blocks in the Porcupine Bank offshore exploration area. Their "carried interest" in the former means they do not have to shoulder any of the exploration costs. Their combined stakes in the Aran/BP venture could yield them more than that which would go to Aran Energy if the exploration is successful.
Not all of the Roche investments are quite so clearly gilt-edged. Through Ashgill Ltd., in which the Roche company, Conor Holdings, held over one third of the shares, they attempted unsuccessfully to rescue the ailing Donegal firm, Irish Picture Mouldings. But Murva Manufacturing, the vehicle for that take-over, was put into receivership by the Bank of Ireland in February of last year. The receiver:s accounts filed last month in the Companies Office show little prospect of any return for the group of personal and institutional (Development Capital Corporation) interests who took over the business from the Timony family in 1978.
One of the least well known Roche companies, Hydracyl Engineering, has also run into difficulties, with a receiver being appointed by the Northern Bank on the 18th of last month. Hydracyl was set up in 1978 to fill a gap in the hydraulic cylinders market which had been identified by the IDA. The £ 1/4 million investment was assisted by new industry grants of £75,000.
There is reason, too, to doubt that the chemical storage depot at Drogheda will ever be built. It was first proposed two years ago by Murrough Holdings (three-quarters, Tom Roche; one quarter, Paddy Monahan, the Drogheda merchant with whom he first became associated when Roadstone started shipping road-making aggregate from their Slane quarry through Drogheda), and following refusal of planning permission by Drogheda Corporation, the company's appeal was heard last April. A decision was expected from An Bord Pleanala last month but, as Tom Roche, himself acknowledges, it is unlikely to be in their favour.
That proposal followed what Tom Roche calls "a few tentative inquiries". To make them, he would have had to walk about a hundred yards down the road from his home to that of his son in-law, Dan Tierney. Tierney runs the Cross Chemical Group, which even takes its name from the road where the extended Roche family is concentrated. (Tom, junior, lives in the mews behind his parents' home. Michael Wymes lived across the road in the Hermitage until he bought a baronial estate in Co. Meath.) Tierney has also recently started importing molasses into Dublin port where he has the first custom-built molasses storage facility in the country. The Murrough Holdings proposal for Drogheda included two 1127 cubic metre tanks for molasses.
In the late 1960s, Dan Tierney ran the Arrow petrol business from Arklow - the first venture by Tom Roche in to the energy resource business. In 1970, the American corporation Conoco bought them giving the Roches a handsome gain; a .short-lived tilt at the majors had come to an early end. More recently, Tom Roche, has set up a petrol import and distribution company, Ola, with Paddy Monahan as a partner, and with financial backing from the PMP A. This challenge to the majors looks like lasting longer; having benefited already from the state-to-state oil deal worked out between the Irish National Petroleum Corporation and Iraq. Dan Tierney was among the eight directors appointed by Des O'Malley to the board of INPC last year.
Governments of all hues have been good to Tom Roche, The decision to build the dual carriageway from Dublin to Naas launched his back-yard sand and concrete business into the big time, and brought him into association with John A. Wood of Cork, who also had a quarry in Co, Kildare. Thirty years later, the present government's commitment to encouraging private investment in "infrastructural development" (emphasised again last month in a speech by the Taoiseach) has smoothed the path for the toll bridge across the Liffey which Roche first proposed to the Dublin Port and Docks Board while the Coalition was still in power. Last year, a government bill to allow for tolls to be charged on roads and bridges became law. And in August, the Department of Transport approved the application for a Harbour Works Order to build the bridge. The Bridge Order required from the Department of the Environment is likely to be approved, after a public inquiry, within the next six months.