THE driving force behind the State’s largest residential landlord is Donegal woman Margaret Sweeney.
A chartered accountant, Ms Sweeney manages a property portfolio valued at more than €1.5bn at Ires Reit, a company that houses more than 8,000 tenants.
While many homebuyers are shut out of the market, Ms Sweeney’s company spent €285m on 815 apartments across 15 developments in Dublin and one in Cork in 2019. With up to 500 apartments in the planning stage, the number of homes in Ires Reit’s ownership is expected to grow to 4,500.
Although it froze rental increases for existing tenants near the start of the pandemic, its rental income increased by 45pc between 2018 and 2020.
To their critics, Ires Reit and other investment funds are responsible for pricing ordinary homebuyers out of the market by buying entire apartment schemes from developers. Their defenders argue that they are providing the essential capital to build homes.
“Corporate ownership of residential property is a relatively new concept in Ireland. It’s more common in New Zealand, Australia and North America where younger people expect a full-service model. If they have a problem in the morning they want it resolved by the time they get home from work in the evening. It’s not just renting out a property anymore. It’s about providing a service,” Ms Sweeney explained.
“We look for locations in good residential areas with good public transport access near schools. We employ teams of plumbers, electricians and maintenance teams to try and make sure that each apartment is kept up to the required standard.
“Younger people, in particular, who have travelled a lot have that level of expectation and we’re striving to replicate that here at home. We’re still a small part of the market – all institutional landlords together represent about five per cent of market share,” she said.
“A lot of Donegal people come to Dublin to work and live. I was in rental accommodation for the best part of nine years when I was younger but things have moved on,” she added.
Ms Sweeney grew up near Kilcar. She attended the Vocational School in Carrick before studying commerce in NUI Galway. She joined a graduate programme at the accountants Stokes Kennedy Crowley, now part of KPMG.
“I was with them for fifteen years. It was a time when multi-nationals were starting to come into Ireland and I used to audit the books of a number of pharmaceutical companies as well as some big Irish companies. It gave me great exposure to business,” she said.
One of those clients, Aer Rianta, was setting up duty-free shops in Moscow at that time. It was the 1980s, perestroika and Mikhail Gorbachev.
“I used to go over to Russia to help them negotiate joint ventures with the Russians. They were one of the first western companies in Russia. I remember going to Moscow at that time and it was a grey, industrial city with no advertising and little to no retail. It was a great experience,” she said.
Ms Sweeney also worked with GPA and Tony Ryan before joining Aer Rianta as company secretary, rising through the management ranks to become chief executive in December 2003.
By the time she took over as head of the semi-state, the company was being restructured into the Dublin Airport Authority.
She became chief executive of Postbank, a joint venture between An Post and the Belgian bank Fortis and continues to hold positions on the boards of a variety of companies and organisations, including Dublin City University where she is adjunct professor in the Business School.
She is married to Páraic Lavelle and the couple have two grown-up sons.
“We have a small bungalow in Kilcar and I try to get up there as often as I can. Donegal helps to keep you grounded. Everyone treats each other with respect. They don’t see a difference in people and I like to bring that with me into business – to be respectful to everyone,” she said.
Doesn’t believe in retirement
She doesn’t believe in retirement and hopes to move into other projects when she no longer has to walk into Ires Reit’s Dublin docklands offices each morning.
“I’ve been on various boards for twenty years and I’ll keep doing that. I’m chair of the advisory board for the Business School in DCU. Education is one of my passions as it has given us all wonderful opportunities in life.
“I also work with a charity connected with the Mater Hospital and I’ll continue to do that while I’ll get back into sea swimming in Kilcar as often as I can.
“During the first lockdown I spent a lot of time in Kilcar. The broadband was better than it is in Dublin and I think that flexible working for both employees and employers is the way forward. It will no longer be nine to five as location doesn’t really matter.
“Ireland is a great country with a young, vibrant population which is growing. We have a fantastic education system which is one of our real strengths. It’s a great place to live and work and being part of Europe is key too.
“Donegal is a great county and I feel that Irish people only found out about us during Covid. Most of Europe was already aware of our existence but the rest of the country now knows of its beauty. It has quite a lot to offer.
“All in all, we’re all living in a great country and we’ve very lucky,” she said.