WILD GEESE Mairéad Molloy, Client director, Berkeley International, Cannes. A dating agency that attracts the rich and famous has seen business grow through the recession

A DATING agency that charges clients an upfront fee of $40,000 knows its niche, but Mairéad Molloy says even she has been surprised by some of its quirks.

Berkeley International, the company Molloy runs and partly owns, had “a very bad year” in 2007, she recalls, and the global downturn promised a new wave of pressure. Or so she thought.

“When the recession started, the business started to grow again,” Molloy explains over coffee in a Paris hotel. She started to ask people about what seemed a counter-intuitive trend and eventually concluded that people feel “it’s terrible to be alone in times of difficulty”.

In a competitive industry, Berkeley situates itself at the most exclusive end of the spectrum. Molloy likens it to a personal head-hunting service. A prospective client is interviewed at one of the agency’s offices. A wish list is drawn up.

Once the fee has been paid, Molloy starts looking for a match from a client list of 5,000 names. The more specific the requirements, the higher the fee.

“If you come in to me and you’re a total nightmare, and you want a person who looks like that, then it’s going to cost you more money,” she says, laughing. “We get celebs coming in, asking us, ‘I want to meet that girl’. I have to go and find her. That happens in America all the time, and in Dubai.”

The result is that, while Cannes is her base, Molloy spends much of her year travelling.

After nine years at the helm of Berkeley, Molloy takes a hard-headed view. “I don’t see it as hearts and cotton wool,” she says. “I run businesses, make them a success, then do something else.”

Her CV bears her out. Originally from Co Wexford, Molloy spent her early career running the marketing side of a software start-up.

But when the company was sold, the former hotel management student saw the windfall that came her way as an opportunity to fulfil a long-standing dream and buy her own small hotel. She put her house in Co Westmeath on the market and started looking for a property in the south of France. She settled on Cannes.

“I came over with no French and opened the hotel doors. It was a terrible experience [at the beginning]. I had to buy a new telephone system – it was like trying to buy a bloody rocket. But I went wild doing the marketing, and we ended up getting into the Lonely Planet. It was a success from there.”