Alleged Gangster Sends Bungalow Billionaire Into Insolvency Spat

Robert Bull, the majority owner of British bungalow giant RoyaleLife, saw his public profile reach new heights this year when he entered The Sunday Times Rich List for the first time.

(Bloomberg) — Robert Bull, the majority owner of British bungalow giant RoyaleLife, saw his public profile reach new heights this year when he entered The Sunday Times Rich List for the first time.

In a piece to accompany his entry, Bull, 46, told of how he had become bankrupt in 2016, but had since recovered to build a £4-billion ($5.1 billion) business that specializes in selling pre-fabricated dwellings to over-45s. His net worth was estimated by The Sunday Times at around £1.9 billion.

The actions of an alleged gangster could threaten all of that.

A couple of weeks before the rich list was published, a company called Sines Parks Holdings Limited applied to put several RoyaleLife units into administration. Sines Parks is ultimately majority owned by a man called Fred Doe, who recently changed his name from Maurice Sines, according to a 2022 filing. An Irish police officer testifying on behalf of the country’s Criminal Assets Bureau named Doe as part of the British arm of a crime group affiliated with the notorious Irish Kinahan gang, according to a High Court judgment in 2018.

The action of Doe has triggered a series of events that leave the future of RoyaleLife uncertain. The application of Sines Parks to place some of Bull’s firms into administration, a form of insolvency, set off a rush for its lenders to do the same. Investment firm Intermediate Capital Group Plc, which is claiming around £500 million, appointed administrators to some entities and other lenders have since followed suit.

“More than 200+ legal entities comprise the RoyaleGroup and these remain unaffected,” Bull said in a statement to Bloomberg News. “I therefore want to reassure our funders, suppliers, residents, and employees that it is very much business as usual.”

A lawyer for Doe declined to comment when approached by Bloomberg News.

Bungalow Riches

The caravan and leisure park industry has drawn interest from institutional investors with deep pockets. Funds managed by Blackstone Inc. purchased Bourne Leisure, which owns holiday caravan operator Haven, in 2021. CVC Capital Partners bought Away Resorts in June of the same year, and merged it with competitor Aria Resorts a few months later.

RoyaleLife has leisure assets, but also offers a service where customers can sell their homes to the group, and use the proceeds to buy a bungalow in one of their parks. Anything left over is free for the customer to keep. RoyaleLife is currently building 64 bungalow communities, while 40 more are in planning and development, according to an emailed statement.

The service is advertised on the company’s website as a way for UK residents to release equity from their homes without resorting to borrowing. Buyers can trade out of houses, where much of the wealth of older Britons is tied up, and into luxury bungalows set on parks with people of a similar age. For investors, that offers a way to play the broader demographic of an aging British population. 

RoyaleLife has at least £1.3 billion of debt provided from a number of different institutions, including US real estate investment trust Sun Communities Inc. and credit fund Cross Ocean Partners, according to public filings and people familiar with the matter who declined to be named discussing private transactions. Neither of those firms responded to requests for comment.

Late last year Oaktree Capital Management, one of the biggest names in distressed-debt investing, was in discussions to refinance the whole RoyaleLife business. But Oaktree changed the terms of the deal, leaving the transaction in doubt, people familiar with the proposed deal said, asking not to be identified discussing a private transaction. The investment firm is now in talks to buy some of the debts from lenders at a discounted price. A spokesperson for Oaktree declined to comment, while RoyaleLife, through spokesperson Lee Peck, said the company is “working with a syndicate of financial institutions to complete a significant transaction this year.”

While the pandemic negatively impacted the business, slowing sales and holding up planning permission, lenders remained broadly supportive of the firm as a whole. That changed with the intervention of Sines Parks and Fred Doe.

Doe AKA Sines

Early this year Sines Parks registered a charge, a document confirming security over company assets for a loan, against some RoyaleLife entities. This charge was satisfied in March but another was delivered on May 2, a few days before Sines Parks applied for the entities to be put into administration. 

RoyaleLife’s spokesman said the action related to the aborted purchase of assets from Sines Parks in 2022, which operates in a similar sector, and that it was “a very difficult episode for Royale” without elaborating further.

A court judgment, handed down on Friday, offers more insights into the relationship between Doe and RoyaleLife. In a witness statement Bull told a court that he had agreed on behalf of a RoyaleLife entity on April 4 to borrow more than £2 million. The debt related to transactions with Doe and James Crickmore, who has had business dealings with Doe, and was not repaid on time, according to the judgment.

Crickmore visited the home of RoyaleLife executive Jason Williams on the evening of May 8, saying he had “business” with him, according to statements submitted to the court as part of the case. 

“Mr Williams’ wife had found the experience unsettling and the matter had been reported to the police (who subsequently confirmed that no further steps would be taken),” the judgment said. Crickmore denied any wrongdoing through lawyers, according to the judgment. 

Crickmore was named alongside Doe in the 2018 Irish court judgment as the British arm of the Byrne Organized Crime Group, which is part of the transnational Kinahan gang, according to the judgment. The Kinahan Organized Crime Group, as it’s referred to by law enforcement in the US and Ireland, is regarded as one of the most powerful criminal organizations in the world. Last year, the US State Department began offering rewards of up to $5 million for information leading to the arrests or convictions of gang leader Christopher Kinahan, as well as his sons Daniel and Christopher Jr. 

Lawyers, who spoke for Crickmore in the court case, declined to comment beyond what was in the judgment, citing client confidentiality. A request for comment to Crickmore’s LinkedIn account didn’t receive a response, emails to a company Crickmore was formerly a director of bounced back and a phone call to that firm wasn’t answered. 

Lender Action

Whatever the issue that led to Sines Parks applying for some RoyaleLife entities to be put into administration, it sparked a chain reaction.

Administrators from accountancy firm James Cowper Kreston were appointed to various companies in the RoyaleLife group in May at the behest of ICG, a listed UK private equity firm with $77 billion in assets under management. RoyaleLife borrowed around £400 million from ICG, but the fund firm is claiming for £100 million more in penalties and other extra costs, according to a person familiar with the lending, who didn’t want to be named discussing private business dealings.

Turnaround specialists at James Cowper Kreston were appointed to monitor RoyaleLife entities against which ICG held a charge in May 2022, to assess solvent and insolvent outcomes, according to an administrator’s report. Some of the debt, which matures in October, was held by ICG-Longbow Senior Secured UK Property Debt Investments Limited, a closed-end investment vehicle listed on the London Stock Exchange. Filings show that the debt to RoyaleLife has been marked as in default and the firm has missed interest payments. 

RoundShield Partners LLP and Octopus Investments Ltd, lenders that hold charges on other parts of the group, have appointed administrators also, according to statements from both lenders. Avenue Capital, another lender to the group, declined to comment to Bloomberg News. Beyond James Cowper Kreston, staff at Kroll LLC, Grant Thornton LLP, and Alvarez and Marsal Inc have all been appointed as administrators to different group entities. 

Part of the appeal of lending like this is that it’s backed by hard, real assets, that lenders can take as security for money advanced. By appointing administrators to the entities they hold security over, the funds are in effect taking control of the assets to ensure their investors are paid back. 

The creditor action against RoyaleLife doesn’t appear to have stopped. Two winding-up petitions, requests by creditors to have businesses shuttered by a court order, made by law firm DLA Piper against group entities were heard in a London court last week. One was granted and the company shuttered, the other was dismissed because that firm was already in administration. A spokesperson for DLA Piper declined to comment.

“Robert Bull’s private life and business interests, while linked, are independent of each other,” the spokesperson for RoyaleLife said. “As regards the company, the administration process does not change the fact that Robert is majority shareholder of all the RoyaleGroup.”

–With assistance from Jonathan Browning.

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