In the continuing series of Irish Living in France, Dubliner Karl O’Hanlon talks to Tootlafrance.ie about living the dream with his family in the south-west
There are few men who have the opportunity to move their family to the warm climes of South-west France and renovate their very own gleaming white castle set on gently-sloping hilltop amidst fragrant vineyards. This is what 42-year-old Karl O’Hanlon and his wife Anita have managed to do.
The whole scene looks rather like a scene from a Marcel Pagnol novel, but unlike the hapless Jean de Florette, this appears to be a dream that is going very well so far. One wonders if living in the middle of such a pleasant dream ever becomes mundane? The question makes him laugh:
“There’s so much variety in the work we do – architecture, interior design, meeting customers – that it doesn’t get mundane, no.”
What Karl does for a living these days is to find large and beautiful renovation projects, make a plan, gather together the finance and then see it through to a profitable entity.His first project was the Château les Carrasses. It was a 19th-century faux château that was built in the latter end of the 1800s during a period that was a real golden age for French wine. A magnificent and beautiful building in its own right and occupying a site that is pure tranquil picture-postcard perfection, Karl took it on when it was a neglected derelict with a collection of decrepit outbuildings. Today, it is a luxury aparthotel and restaurant with a variety of accommodation and a relaxed atmosphere mixed with a high-class service.
Each project, Karl says, goes through a number of very different phases – the first being to find a suitable place. This, says Karl, can be a very long phase.
“You have to kiss a lot of frogs to find your princess. We estimate that you have to look at a hundred to find one. Then when you’ve found the one, you need to work out whether or not the project will fly. Key to that part of it is looking at all the possibilities and the planning permission authorities; asking questions such as Can I get water in? Can I get electricity in? Can I put a finance deal together that works?
“Then you start on the development proper, as it were. You’ve got all the architecture, the customer planning – i.e. what is that we’re going to build here and for whom? Then, when you work that out, you’ve got to actually build it. During all of that, you have to look after the whole finance side, getting the finance in place.“Then, coming up to the opening, you’ve all of that excitement and getting everything in place – you have all the interior designing and multiple details, the opening and then you’ve got to run the place.”
Financing any project these days invariably involves multiple sources and many different meetings with investors. Karl has good contacts in this area from his previous life working in banking and management consultancy in Dublin and London.
One phase runs into the other out of necessity and the whole thing moves on the energy of those involved.
The area where they live is close to Béziers, near the Mediterranean coast in the Languedoc region. This is the heart of rugby country and an area full of Mediaeval architecture, bullfighting traditions (the Béziers bullfighting Feria attracts a million revellers every August), vineyards (it’s officially the largest wine-growing region in the world) and the warm hospitality that the southern French are famous for.
Karl was born and brought up in Dublin. His parents are from Cork, with his mother hailing from building stock (related to the Bradley Brothers building firm). He started his career as a management consultant in London. After several years in the British capital, he moved home to Dublin where he took up a job with Bank of Ireland. During the boom years from 2000 to 2006, he worked for the bank; not in lending but in a consultancy role.
Karl had told his employers all along that he had an idea that he wanted to develop in the South of France. It was a part of the world that Karl had become familiar with over the years. His parents has passed on a love of France to their son and he had made many trips to the country since his childhood.
“My father had been involved somewhat in the wine business. He specialised in this area and he had a lot of contacts down here. I recognised the business opportunity and I came down here several times looking to see if I could find deals and investments that would work.”
Bank of Ireland were, he says, very understanding about this aspect of Karl’s employment and they allowed him to work on developing this idea on the side. Eventually, the project grew into something that became big enough to warrant a full-time move
“Over time, what happened was I started helping developers down here to structure their stuff for the Irish and British markets. That sort-of advisory work led to me selling some houses for them. Then one of the guys that I did work for asked me to come and work with him full-time, so I did that and then I set up my own company here in 2008.”Next month, construction is due to start on a new project that Karl and his team have been working on for some time. The Château St Pierre de Serjac will be similar to the Château les Carrasses as an upmarket accommodation centre in splendid surroundings. Opening is planned for September 2015
Most of his operation in terms of financing is French-based with a French bank being the main organiser on the money side of the operation but he also travels abroad regularly raising finance and going to investors’ meetings. Karl finds that the rural isolation of where he lives is balanced somewhat by the international, more cosmopolitan element of the work that he does.
From the perspective of someone who has done business in both Ireland and the UK, one wonders if doing business in France was as difficult or as overladen with paperwork (la paperasse, as the French call it) and taxation that many commentators lead us to believe?
“What I would say to that question is that the challenges are different. It is a bit more bureaucratic for sure – there’s no doubt about that. Corporate tax is relatively high and there’s quite a lot of tax on inputs such as social security tax on the payroll, for example, which is about 55%. It’s very high compared to other countries and when you’re competing internationally as we are, it’s a disadvantage.
“On the other hand, there are some real advantages too. France is like a very complicated maze but you’re given a map at the entrance. In Ireland, it’s a much less complicated maze but there’s no map!
“Take the planning process in France, for example. It’s really very rigid, but as long as you follow the complicated process, you will eventually get there… Whereas in other markets, the planning process is much more subjective. So in France, as long as you comply with all the regulations that apply to every commune and every department in the country and so long as you can prove it to the 900 government departments that it affects, then you’ve got your planning permission.”
Karl says that France is fundamentally different to the way in which other countries operate and think in this regard.
“I think that if you engage with it (the French system) and understand it, it’s easier than one might first think. I think that one of the big mistakes that a lot of foreign people make is that they come over here and they only half-engage with the system.”
Nobody likes paying high taxes, but as Karl points out, “if you have somebody off on sick leave, the government pays their salary. You have somebody on maternity leave, the government pays their salary. All the training costs that you invest in your staff can be reclaimed from the government… A lot of people only see the one side of it and they don’t engage in it and understand how the system works and realise that you actually get quite a lot of that tax outlay back in one form or another.”
Is France a great place to bring up children?
“Yes. The weather makes a big difference,” he says. “You’re also so much closer to continental Europe so we go down to Spain a few times a year.
“A lot of people talk in disparaging ways about France’s ‘socialist leanings’ but there are some great aspects of that. Horse-riding for example, is not the elite sport that it is in Ireland, where you have to be wealthy to do it. It’s not the case here. We have three kids all doing horse-riding.
“Great food and drink, obviously and the people down here are very friendly. In Ireland, I think that the day-to-day interactions are very pleasant… but people in Ireland are sometimes not as nice to one another.”The O’Hanlon clan are well immersed in local life in the area. He and his wife Anita were fortunate, Karl says, that the first people they met when they moved here were French people who had also moved to the area and were also starting their children off in the local school. This meant that they “fell in” with a French crowd very quickly and didn’t fall into the common trap of socialising with the large contingent of other English-speaking immigrants. Their children all go to the local school and their son plays rugby at under-8 level for local legends Béziers.
“It’s funny also to watch our children becoming, in some ways, quite French – particularly our 13-year-old girl. She’s becoming very French!”
What do you like most and what do you like least about France?
“That’s almost impossible to answer but I guess, what I like most about France is the opportunities that it’s given me and my family. As for what I like least, it’s that my old friends aren’t here.
“There’s no doubt that we love what we do. We really love it. But it didn’t happen immediately: I was working for the best part of 15 years before I managed to get myself into this position. But it is brilliant to find yourself exactly where you wanted to be… doing something that you really love and that’s very interesting.
“I think that that’s the most important thing you can have in a job. And that’s something that we say to our kids now – whatever you do, just try to work out what is that you love and there’s a chance that you’ll be good at it and a chance that you’ll enjoy it.