Business Farming

Saturday 1 October 2016

The agristocracy... Ireland's agricultural elite

Published 02/03/2016 | 02:30

Caroline Keeling
Caroline Keeling
Larry Goodman. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Ronnie Wilson.
Mr Tayto: Ray Coyle

The wealth of Ireland's agricultural elite is growing at a faster rate than ever.

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The fortunes of the 20 richest families with farming connections grew by €2.1bn in 2015, a 32pc increase on 2014.

It leaves this group of millionaires -and a few billionaires- with a combined wealth of over €9.1bn, according to the Sunday Independent's most recent rich list.

Beef barons dominate the list, accounting for eight of the 20-strong group, but their combined fortunes of €2bn pales in comparison to the two men at the top of the country's agristocracy.

Alltech owner, Pearse Lyons has seen his wealth almost double in the last two years to €2.9bn. The 69 year-old Louth native is now resident in the US, where his animal feed supplement company has grown from an initial investment of just over €9,000.

Lyons continues to grow his animal feed empire with a €366m purchase of rival Ridley last year, and choses to fly to the 128 countries that Alltech products are sold in his Challenger 604 private jet.

The other Irishman owing at least part of his fortune to agricultural pursuits is John Magnier, who has amassed €2.2bn in assets, not least of which are the thousands of acres of farmland that has been snapped up by the Magnier family over the years.

In the last year alone Coolmore forked out €20,000/ac for over 300ac in both Leinster and Munster. A brother-in-law, John O'Callaghan of Tally Ho Stud in Co Westmeath, bought Claremont farm on 383ac at Milltownpass, Co Westmeath, paying €3.5m for the deal.

Magnier made most of his early money from bond markets, and is believed to have made a killing on the devaluation of the Mexican peso in 1994. In addition to his farmland, he has stakes in the Curragh racecourse, UK nursing home and pub chains, and a two paintings worth €70m and €25m each.

Next on the list, somewhat unsurprisingly, is the original beef baron himself, Larry Goodman. His wealth continues to grow at a rate of 10pc a year, bringing him up to €780m this year.

The 77-year-old Louth man's ABP has created a warren of offshore companies in an effort to prevent prying eyes from getting a good handle on its finances, but one company based in Luxembourg that is linked to the empire was reported to have made €280m in just over three years. He also owns big chunks of the Blackrock, Galway and Hermitage Clinics, along with many iconic properties, including Bank of Ireland's HQ, and the Revenue's base in Setanta House.

The little known Cleary family are ranked fourth on our 20 richest, having inherited close to €1bn from the late Eamon Cleary, a small farmer and dealer from the Border area, who left for New Zealand in the late 1980's to establish large dairy farms.

He subsequently made a fortune in property and telecoms, before he died aged just 52 in 2012.

While the country's other beef barons - the Allens and Achesons of Slaney, the Keatings of Kepak, the Queallys and Brownes in Dawn, Dobsons who own Dunbia, and Mallons that own Liffey Meats - are all familier faces on the rich list, there are other names and sectors that have proved to be surprisingly lucrative.

Two families amassed over €600m from animal medicines - Northern Ireland's Haughey family from their Norbrook operation, and Dublin's Tierney family who are behind the Bimeda company that makes the Bovimast, Bimectin, Endospec and a host of other well-known products.

In a similar vein, Clonmel's Louis Ronan has accumulated €74m on the back of his Enfer test for BSE, which had generated €10m in profit before the company was made unlimited a decade ago.

Fruit has also proved to be a money-spinner for the McCanns that own Fyffes and Total produce, and the Keelings. Between them they are sitting on over €200m.

Mushroom maestro

Another niche product that has made a fortune for one man is the mushroom. Former teacher, Ronnie Wilson controls both the Irish and British mushroom market from his base in Monaghan, and is reputed to be the largest producer in Europe.

He has bought Dutch and Canadian based companies that has given him a foothold in both European and North American markets, and now employs over 3,500 people worldwide.

It would be a national disgrace if Ireland didn't have at least one spud multi-millionaire, and two men north and south of the Border has done very nicely out of the humble tuber.

Raymond Hutchison owns Manderley Food group, which owns the Tayto and Golden Wonder brands in Northern Ireland.

Further south in Meath, Ray Coyle has been the Tayto maestro, netting €45m when he sold out to a German company last year. The 64-year-old still owns the huge leisure facility, Tayto Park.

Finally, Ireland's farm machinery entrepreneurs have also done nicely for themselves, not least the McHales from Ballinrobe. Their balers have made some serious hay over the years, with the brothers now sitting on €108m of assets.

In recent years, the brothers have teamed up with fellow westerners, the Comer brothers from Galway, to buy prime Dublin 4 sites, including Ireland's most expensive site during the boom - the €171m Ballsbridge site that was subsequently picked up by the western consortium for just €22m.

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