It may have felt as though Brexit was the only thing in the business bulletins this year - but an awful lot more happened beyond Boris and the backstop.

Airplanes were grounded, banks were fined, shops were shuttered and the 'For Sale' sign went up at Coppers (don't fret - it was taken down a few months later).

So here's a whistle-stop tour of the big business stories of 2019, beyond Brexit.

Banks haunted by the ghosts of recessions past

More than ten years on from its nadir, the Irish banking system continued to shuffle through the fallout of the recession during 2019. 

Lenders continued to shift bad loans from their books in the face of constant political pressure, with private equity firms and vulture funds the main beneficiaries.

At the same time banks were forced to face up to their mis-treatment of tracker mortgage customers.

The Central Bank levied a €21m fine against Permanent TSB for its failures in the area, while others set aside large sums in preparation for their own settlements... though one CEO also made clear his thoughts on the tracker issue, telling regulators here to "turn the page" and "focus on doing business" instead. (He later apologised).

Not a good look for a founding member of the Irish Banking Culture Board, the industry-led body that launched this year with the aim of "rebuilding trust in the sector through demonstrating a change in behaviour and overall culture".

The board doesn't have any statutory powers, though. That remains the job of the Central Bank of Ireland and the European Central Bank - which both saw big changes of their own this year.

With Philip Lane appointed chief economist with the ECB, former New Zealand treasury chief Gabriel Makhlouf was named the new governor of the Central Bank here.

He arrived under a controversy of his own, however, as he was criticised for the "clumsy" handling of a budget leak in his former role.

Far less controversial was the appointment of Christine Lagarde as ECB chief, following Mario Draghi's eventful eight-year stint.

No place like home

The housing industry showed signs of moving in the right direction during 2019 - but at nowhere near the pace demanded by the market.

Housing completions and planning permissions rose - though they still fell short of what is believed to be required in order to keep up with an ever-growing cohort of wannabe home-buyers.

Meanwhile the growth in rent prices eased to its lowest level in almost six years - though that didn't stop average monthly rents from hitting new record levels across the country.

House price growth also eased during the year - and even fell back... in Dublin, at least. 

That appears to be a consequence of the Central Bank's mortgage lending rules, as borrowers hit their limits in some of the most expensive parts of the country. But there was still room for growth in other counties, resulting in the emergence of a two-speed housing market.

It has also seen buyers widen the net in their search for property - reminiscent of the sprawl that accompanied the Celtic Tiger housing boom.

More blood on the High Street

A sector of the economy that continues to contract is retail - with more high-profile casualties coming during the year.

That includes the planned closure of some Topshop branches, as well as the liquidation of Karen Millen and Coast.

Meanwhile there was an epic battle (relatively speaking) for control of Debenhams, as Sports Direct's Mike Ashley tried to wrest control of the long-suffering department store chain.

That bid ultimately failed and what followed was an administration process that all but wiped out shareholders like Mr Ashley. You can add that to his list of 2019 headaches, which includes accountancy issues at Sports Direct and problems with the amalgamation of House of Fraser into his retail empire.

But it wasn't all bad news for the Irish high street during 2019.

Irish brands like Carraig Donn and Golden Discs have actually expanded their bricks and mortar footprint in recent months, while new entrants like Jysk and Screwfix also unveiled ambitious plans for the country.

Maybe the death of the high street was greatly exaggerated after all...


Connect More

The big threat to the traditional retailer is of course online shopping; a practice that may soon get easier for many due to the country's connectivity taking a step forward.

That includes the rollout of 5G services from a number of mobile networks - though the coverage (and handset availability) will remain quite limited for the foreseeable future.

5G promises to be a considerable improvement on the speeds offered by existing mobile services, however it is not without its issues and critics.

That has seen a number of councils voting to oppose its rollout on health grounds, while the technology required has also forced Ireland to face up to US claims that component-maker Huawei is offering a back-door to Chinese surveillance services (a claim denied by Huawei). 

Concerns were also raised about the National Broadband Plan - though it was price, as opposed to privacy, that took the fore there.

Having been promised for many years the Government finally signed the contract to deliver high speed broadband to every premises in the country, with 2027 set as the ultimate deadline.

Making this happen is expected to cost around €3 billion - a 15-fold increase on what was estimated in 2012.


Some argue that this is exactly the kind of project that could be funded by the €13 billion in tax Apple is alleged, by the European Commission, to owe Ireland. However the Government does not believe it is owed the money and is challenging the decision in the European courts - a process that officially began in September.

Whatever the outcome it is expected that the losing party will appeal, with years of legal wrangling - and a trip to the European Court of Justice - likely to be on the cards.

There's every chance that there'll be fibre from Mizen to Brow Head by the time the final outcome of the case is known.

Turbulence in aviation

Having been sold as a game-changer for airlines, the Boeing 737 MAX became somewhat of a burden for the industry during 2019.

Its involvement in two fatal crashes has seen the model grounded worldwide since March - creating a negative knock-on not only for the US plane-maker (ultimately leading to the resignation of its CEO), but also airlines that had bet on the 737 MAX's success.

For Norwegian Air the unavailability of the plane completely undermined its Irish transatlantic services, prompting the airline to call a halt to them in August.



The grounding was less relevant to Ryanair's current schedule but it has messed up its plans for the immediate future, leading it to cut bases and its profit outlook. That capped off what has been a problematic year for the airline, as it deals with ongoing issues around pay as well as a boardroom dispute that made its way to the High Court.

Elsewhere the picture was significantly worse, however, with British travel giant Thomas Cook going to the wall after failed rescue talks. It joins British carrier FlyBMI and Iceland's Wow Air in the travel obituaries for 2019.

Avoiding a similar fate was Irish travel software firm Datalex, though it's fair to say that it is one of the walking wounded after revealing major "accounting irregularities" in the first half of the year. 

That culminated in it revealing a $33.1m loss in the first half of 2018 - compared to the $2m profit it originally claimed to have secured. It also saw shares in the firm suspended for most of the year, with Datalex shedding its chairman and CEO in the process.

Green shoots from companies

Sustainability is another major issue facing the travel industry, as an increasingly conscious consumer leads to a growing trend of 'flight-shaming' across Europe.

However there were few areas of the economy that weren't touched by the Green Wave during 2019.


The need to reduce excess packaging was a recurring theme, with a succession of companies lining up to announce various initiatives to reduce the burden on the bin.

The country's cafés were also warned that a so-called 'Latte Levy' was on the way - with the Government looking to add somewhere in the region of 15-25c to any coffee consumed in a disposable cup.

But rather than wait for State intervention, others have sought to get ahead of the curve on the green front. 

That included some lenders incentivising green projects, while one of the world's biggest retailers also deepened its involvement in the Irish wind farm industry. Though given the ever-increasing energy demands of data centres run by the likes of Amazon - as well as Google, Facebook and Microsoft - that's probably for the best.

Meanwhile an increasing number of investors began to reposition their portfolios away from polluting industries. 
That will be further bad news for the handful of exploration firms based in Ireland - two of which had enough to worry about in 2019.

For Providence Resources that took the form of a $9m loan from a Chinese backer that never materialised, ultimately resulting in the resignation of CEO Tony O'Reilly.

Heads also rolled at Tullow Oil, where the resignation of CEO Paul McDade and director for exploration Angus McCoss coincided with a cut to its forecast for the coming months.

Unfit to print

Another old-fashioned industry trying to find its place in a changing world was the media - which remained in a state of flux in 2019.

That saw The Times Ireland return to its digital-only format after existing in print for less than two years.

Meanwhile the country's biggest print media operator - Independent News & Media - was sold to Belgian-Dutch group Mediahaus, bringing the involvement of Denis O'Brien and Dermot Desmond to an end.

There were choppy waters for broadcasters too, with RTÉ announcing a plan to cut €60m in costs over the next three years.

That includes a planned reduction in the workforce and the end of some services, however it was the (currently paused) decision to move Lyric FM out of Limerick that attracted the biggest reaction.

Alongside its cost-cutting plan RTÉ also called for the immediate reform of the TV Licence, arguing that the current system did not fit in the age of subscription services like Netflix.

However it was not all plain-sailing for the maker of Stranger Things either, as 2019 saw the arrival of a number of streaming competitors - most notably Disney and Apple.

Facebook also entered the streaming fray with its Watch service - though its take-up probably won't be helped by yet another security breach at the social networking site.

Working wonders

Unemployment in the country continued to trend downwards this year - though with the country so close to 'full employment' it was perhaps unsurprising to see the pace of improvement ease somewhat.

 By the end of November, unemployment stood at 4.8% - the best it's been in almost 13 years.

That came about as jobs announcements in the hundreds became the norm - with big players like Facebook and Salesforce going one step further with their expansion plans.

However it was not an entirely rosy picture on the jobs front during the year, with some parts of the country hit badly by major closures.

In late October electronic components manufacturer Molex Ireland announced the closure of its Shannon facility, taking around 500 jobs with it. A day later pharmaceutical Novartis signaled an end to its manufacturing in Cork, leading to the loss of 320 jobs.

At the same time Northern Ireland's manufacturing sector suffered a double blow too.

After years of whittling away at its Belfast operations, Bombardier ultimately exited - selling on its business to US firm Spirit AeroSystems. Meanwhile, just a short trip up the road, Wrightbus entered examinership with the loss of 1,200 jobs.

That company also found a buyer shortly afterwards - however it is as yet unclear how many people will be taken on by the new owners.

Float on

It's not often that you see one unicorn floating around New York but 2019 had three. (There was meant to be a fourth, but that turned out to be more of a tinsel-covered donkey).

Over the course of the year lift-sharing rivals Uber and Lyft put some shares on the market - raising $8.1 billion and $2.2 billion respectively in the process.

Both firms continue to shed money, however, while they're also struggling with all manner of other issues including sexual assaults to regulatory battles. That has seen their share prices fall well below their flotation line in the weeks and months since their debut.


For another unicorn, online scrapbook Pinterest, it's more a case of threading water - with its shares rising sharply post-IPO only to fall back close to their Day 1 starting point by year's end.

And it's been a similar story for Saudi Arabia's oil company Aramco - albeit on a far bigger scale - as it undertook the biggest flotation on record towards the latter part of the year.


That saw the firm raise $25.6 billion - surpassing the $25 billion raised by the Chinese online trading group Alibaba when it debuted on Wall Street in 2014.

It did fail to hit the $2 trillion valuation sought by the kingdom's de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, however that was quickly achieved once trading in the shares began in Riyadh. Those gains, though, were short-lived with the stock price falling back towards its starting point as December wore on.

However perhaps the most notable IPO of 2019 was the one that didn't happen - as We Company's fortunes took a turn for the worst in the most public of ways.

At one point the owner of office sharing business WeWork had a valuation of $47 billion - based in large part on the investments made by Japan's SoftBank. However that was quickly undermined by the details revealed by the company itself during its IPO process - as questionable investments and odd business practices came to light.

This ultimately led to the ousting of founder and CEO Adam Neumann and large-scale job cuts across the company.

It also forced SoftBank to write off much of its stake in the business - as that $47 billion valuation made way for one closer to $10 billion.

David beats McGoliath

If We Company was the Icarus of the business world, Supermac's can be considered the David - as it enjoyed two victories against the Goliath that is McDonalds.

During the year the European Union Intellectual Property Office cancelled some of the US chain's trademarks relating to 'Mc' and the name 'Big Mac', ending its monopoly on the Celtic prefix.

McDonalds looks set to appeal at least one of the rulings - but Supermac's says the decision knocks down the US chain's long-standing argument that had stymied its European expansion plans. 

But for another iconic Irish brand, 2019 was less about expansion plans and more about changing hands... almost.

In March, Dublin nightclub Copper Faced Jacks went on the market as owners Cathal and Paula Jackson looked ahead to their retirement.

There was said to have been strong interest in the business, with a price tag in the region of €40m mooted at one stage. A sale was even in the offing, according to one source, but in the end the Jacksons changed their minds and took down the 'For Sale' sign in November. 

So it's 'as you were' for the various All-Ireland winners of 2020.