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The couple who went from being millionaires to living on benefits: Their business was worth £35m

By DailyMail | November 28th 2013

Adapted from DailyMail

Denise Tudor Whelan is busy scrolling through her computer in search of a photograph of her daughters Olivia, 17, and Beth, 15, when she inadvertently opens the wrong file.

Up on screen pop a dozen or so images of everyday items - a cream lampshade with an antique-looking base, a wooden stool, a pink dress?.?.?.

'Oh sorry, that's just stuff I'm selling on eBay,' she says, before hurriedly closing the pictures down.

You might think there's nothing unusual in Denise, 50, auctioning off furniture, clothes and trinkets in the run-up to Christmas so that she can buy one or two presents. Thousands of people do the same in order to fund the festive season.

But what is extraordinary is that until very recently Denise and her husband Chris were multi-millionaires. Their monthly income was £20,000 and they owned a £35?million property development business.

Home was an £800,000 six-bedroom house with views across the Lancashire countryside. They drove a top-of-the-range Audi and Range Rover and their daughters went to private schools where fees cost up to £12,000 a year.

The family owned five horses and enjoyed several foreign holidays a year to Florida, the South of France, their villa in Majorca and, every New Year without fail, Barbados for two weeks. They would also eat at restaurants at least twice a week.

'Money was never a problem,' admits Denise. 'We could give the girls new clothes, we were always planning holidays. Life was very, very good. But we worked hard for it.'

Today, the Tudor Whelans have lost every penny as a result of the banking collapse, and survive on a joint Jobseekers' Allowance of £217, paid every fortnight.

Home is a £700-a-month rented three-bedroom cottage in the village of Whittington, Lancashire. The Range Rover and Audi have been seized and they have a rented Toyota Yaris on which they can only afford to put Denise on the insurance.

Their daughters are in state schools. There have been no holidays and no new clothes for six years. Denise does the food shop at Poundland, where she manages to eke out £5 a day for meals.

No longer are their days packed with business meetings or site visits. Now, they spend all day job-hunting or selling off the few possessions they have left.

It's the sort of life that many families lead, and the Tudor Whelans' plight is hardly likely to elicit much sympathy from them. But it would take a heart of stone not to feel even a little compassion for a family who have experienced such a catastrophic plummet from success.

Christopher, who will only give his age as '50s', has applied for hundreds of jobs only to be told he is 'too old' or 'overqualified'. He has been told to 'dumb down his CV'.

Denise tearfully explains that she was not able to buy her daughter an  18th birthday present this week. Having recently come off anti-depressants, she admits that if it wasn't for her beloved girls, she may well have committed suicide.

'We've both been to rock bottom,' says Chris. 'We'd built our business from nothing, often getting up at 4am and working seven days a week. If it had failed through us being reckless, then I could understand why people would think we deserved it. But none of it was our fault.'

He adds: 'The banks ruined us. We were getting letters from them, even in the weeks before we were repossessed, saying they would support us and thanking us for our “loyalty”.

'It sickens me that they've been allowed to get away with it and make so many people's lives a misery while making a fortune for themselves. I wish we'd never trusted them.'

So how did this spectacular riches-to-rags story unfold?

The couple met in 1989 while running stalls in a market in Oldham. Chris, whose father was a painter and decorator and whose mother was a seamstress, was selling footwear. Denise, whose father was an entrepreneur, sold confectionary.  From those humble beginnings, they developed six convenience stores around the North West, which they then sold. The money was a springboard into the property business.

'We kept the freeholds of each property we'd owned and let out the buildings to companies. It snowballed from there,' says Chris. 'I focused on sourcing the buildings while Denise worked in the office doing the administration.

'We developed apartment complexes, restaurants, bars, even a Tesco. It was the mid-Nineties and demand was outstripping supply. We were very, very successful and I was confident that I was putting money for my family's future in the best place - bricks and mortar.'

Has he any regrets about his financial strategy? 'With hindsight, perhaps it was naive to put all our eggs in one basket.'

Life was rosy until, in August 2007 ,they received a letter from their bank, Northern Rock, telling them £17?million of their commercial mortgages had been sold - to the ill-fated American bank Lehman Brothers.

'I thought: “Surely they can't do this without notifying us?”?' says Chris. 'It seemed morally wrong but legally, they were allowed. Straight away, I knew it was serious.

'I tried to remortgage, but all the banks had panicked. The run on Northern Rock happened just weeks later. Our accounts were frozen. I had nowhere to go. Suddenly, it felt as if they'd chopped off our arms and legs.

'Then Lehman Brothers crashed. I was watching on television as the bankers left their offices with their stuff in boxes. I knew it was serious.'

In April 2008 the family were told Northern Rock was now in public ownership and was going to focus on savings. The couple started to worry it was going to hang them out to dry. They were right.

The crunch came on June 6, 2008, with a memorable phone call. 'It was 10.30am,' says Chris. 'I answered the phone and said: “Good morning” and the man on the other end, a receiver from the bank, said: “It's not a good morning for you.”?'

The receivers told them they had to recoup £17 million or face ruin. Overnight their rental income went to the receivers. They were left with nothing. They tried to sell a couple of properties at auction to pay off some of the debt, but they couldn't, thanks to the property slump.

Eventually the bank sold their 25 properties for £10?million - a loss. The couple were in debt to the tune of £7?million. Their properties had been valued at around £30?million.

'The game was up. I couldn't access our money from anywhere. There was a feeling of pure hopelessness,' says Chris.

Unsurprisingly, their 19-year marriage came under immense strain. 'We nearly split up several times,' says Denise. 'You tend to blame each other in that kind of situation. There were times when we were arguing so much that even the girls wanted us to separate.

'Things got so bad,  that I did wonder if it would be better for me to just not be here any more. I used to  drive off thinking about ending it, but the thought of the girls and Chris would stop me. '

Chris looks pensive as he admits that he had similar dark thoughts. 'I felt very isolated,' he says. 'We were paying £2,000 a month on our mortgage but I felt that if I could just cling on to our family home, everything would be all right. But it was as if we were in a pit with no way out.

'What seemed to make it worse was we'd always done everything above board and were being punished for it.'

Do they look back now on their previously lavish life and wish they had lived more modestly? Surely they could have done with fewer holidays, one less horse perhaps?

'Hand on heart, I can't say we were wasteful,' says Chris. 'Some people will say: “Well you had five holidays a year!” but most of those were weekend breaks and we flew on easyJet. Denise never bought designer clothes. The money was poured into our girls and their education.

'We weren't overly bothered about material things. Yes, we had a nice home and the cars but we worked damned hard for it -– often seven days a week. Surely we deserved a few holidays?'

As their world crumbled, the couple started taking anti-depressants to help them cope, but even that had financial consequences.

'We were having pay for our prescriptions because we weren't then on benefits so we came off them after about six months because we couldn't afford it,' says Denise.

The couple fought off repossession twice, selling off their horses and Denise took to eBay to sell jewellery, clothes, furniture - even the Aga. But by August this year, their beautiful home was repossessed.

'It was so sad,' admits Denise. 'But the winter had been horrendous. The electricity had been cut off, so it was miserable.'

Had it not been for the benevolence of friends who own their rented cottage, the family might now be homeless.

'In a situation like this, you realise who your friends are,' says Denise. 'We don't get invited to anything any more. When you're high profile, everyone wants to invite you to things, but when you've lost everything they don't want to know.

'Chris's family have been helpful. We were a bit short on the rent when we first moved in and they've helped, but my family are the sort of people to think: “Well, you're old enough, you stand on your own two feet.”?'

Chris adds: 'It's been a bit upsetting for Denise because she has relatives who have not once made a phone  call to ask if they can do anything.'

The couple moved into their rented cottage soon after their house was repossessed. Unable to find a job, they had no choice but to apply for Jobseeker's Allowance.

'We go every two weeks, and each time I feel embarrassed and degraded,' says Denise. 'I always feel overdressed, too.'

Chris says he has been angered by the attitude of those in the centre who want him to be economical with the truth about his success.

'I've been told to have two CVs, a genuine one with all my experience and one that is “dumbed down”,' he says. 'But why should I lie?

'I've applied for hundreds of jobs and they've not all been £50,000-a-year posts. I've been told to apply for jobs like the assistant manager of Burger King and to Tesco to do shifts - and I've done so. But then I've been told the roles “aren't really right for you”. But I'd be prepared to do anything.'

The family do admit that there have been some shafts of light.

''The pressure on us was intense,' says Chris. 'We were getting phone calls and letters from receivers daily, so it felt like a reprieve when it was finally over.

'And Denise and I are still together, which I am so grateful for as I've seen so many marriages break up as a result of losing everything.

We have our health and our girls haven't suffered too much. Olivia loves her new school. Beth gets upset sometimes that she can't have some of the things that her old friends have - but she's made new friends, too, and seems OK.

'At least this experience will help them. They know now you might not always have everything you want.'

Denise agrees. 'We appreciate things a lot more, the small things. Just being able to buy something for their birthday or even a cheap dress from Primark would be lovely.

'But we've still got the things you can't buy with money - our health and each other.'


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